I don't want to. I won't do it," my 4th grade student Angela announced one afternoon when I told her it was time to leave the computer and take part in our science lesson. Such confrontations involving Angela were a daily event in our classroom.
The class had created and practiced classroom rules, and the school had clear procedures in place to help students get back on track when they broke the rules. I consistently used firm, respectful language to remind Angela of expected behaviors and to redirect her. She and I had met several times for problem-solving conferences in which we'd created plans for me to give her reminders before she got into challenging situations. We'd also created plans for Angela to talk to herself about why it was important to follow directions and for her to look around and see how her classmates were following directions. None of these things worked.
Ricky, a 3rd grader, had learned to avoid tasks he didn't want to do, like reading and math assignments. Ricky was bright, but his lack of reading and math practice was hurting him academically. His weak reading and math skills made him reluctant to engage in assignments, and his reluctance to engage made him fall farther behind. By 3rd grade, his self-confidence was low, and he didn't see himself as a learner.
Helping Angela and Ricky
We often see children like Angela and Ricky in our classrooms. Their misbehaviors are ingrained and significantly interfere with their learning. Their teachers try various classroom climate-building and problem-solving strategies, but nothing seems to work for long.
For such children, a simple behavior agreement between the student and the classroom teacher can sometimes help replace the negative behaviors with more positive ones. In this strategy, the teacher and student name one problem behavior, and agree, in writing, on a more desirable behavior. Together they decide on a visual system to keep track of how the child does—for example, drawing a star on a grid each time the child does the agreed-upon behavior. In some cases, after the student shows the behavior a certain number of times, she receives an agreed-upon reward. Providing a short-term external incentive can be helpful when a child seems to have little or no intrinsic motivation to behave appropriately.
Although behavior agreements are commonplace, teachers don't always get positive, lasting results from them. Some find themselves endlessly creating new agreements with the same student because the student reverts to detrimental behavior as soon as the reward is stopped. Others find it too difficult and time-consuming to manage the logistics. (The latter is often the case when teachers overuse the strategy.)
During my career as an elementary teacher and a mentor to other teachers, I've found that, used well, behavior agreements can help students adopt and eventually maintain positive behavior. The key is to use them sparingly and in a way that builds internal motivation. Ultimately, the goal is to help children develop a new self-perception—as rule respecter instead of rule breaker, as competent worker instead of work avoider, and as group contributor instead of group disrupter. How can teachers encourage this outcome when implementing behavior agreements?
Try Other Strategies First
Classroom behavior agreements are intended for selective use. Before launching one, I ask myself a series of questions: Are there other supports I might use? Are my academic expectations reasonable? Is the student getting needed academic supports? Have I modified assignments so they're appropriately challenging? Have I consulted specialists for ideas? What about social skills supports? Does the child understand behavior expectations and how to meet them? Have I offered guided practice for challenging behaviors? Only when I've exhausted other supports do I turn to behavior agreements.
The reason for such caution is twofold. First, if external rewards are part of the behavior agreement, they may have unwanted effects. Working for a reward may modify the child's behavior in the short run, but because the child will be working for the reward, there is a risk that the child will not develop internal motivation. Angela, for example, may learn to think of herself as a reward earner rather than a rule respecter. And Ricky may continue asking teachers, "What will you give me if I read?" Second, because of time constraints, most classroom teachers can only effectively manage a few behavior agreements at a time.
Get on the Child's Side
For a behavior agreement to be effective, the adult and the child must feel that they're in this together, jointly setting goals, evaluating progress, and determining next steps.
The teacher's mind-set is critical to the success of this strategy, but I'll be the first to acknowledge that it can be very hard to get into this mind-set with children who need behavior agreements. Let's face it—these children have defied us, disrupted learning, or damaged scarce classroom resources. These are the students for whom we've tried multiple strategies unsuccessfully, the children who sometimes make us doubt our competence as teachers.
If you're not feeling so collaborative—and we've all been there—try taking a walk to clear your thinking, write about your feelings in a journal, or talk with a trusted colleague to restore your balance and come to a place of empathy with the student.
This both helps us develop empathy for the child and enables us to tailor our responses. With Ricky, I thought about his basic human need to feel competence. I thought about his lack of engagement with reading. I wondered if Ricky had given up. Had his years of low achievement in school led him to feel helpless and incompetent?
Ricky usually chose thick books to "read" and spent reading time alternately making a show of reading and wandering around bothering other children. I find that the most discouraged readers often cling to those big fat books, saving face by pretending to read them. I resolved to encourage Ricky in any positive steps toward school success, no matter how incremental.
Choose a Specific Behavior
Some students have multiple behavior problems. Ricky, for example, resisted both reading and math work. It's important, however, to choose just one behavior goal to start with—a goal that the student is likely to meet. That experience of success will then begin to shift the student's self-perception and encourage him or her to take on the next, slightly harder challenge.
With Ricky, I decided that he'd most likely be successful with reading. After discussing it with him, we agreed that his specific goal would be to read at least one picture book or one chapter of a "just right" chapter book during each readers' workshop. I made a mental note that if that step went well, as I expected it would, I would discuss with him the idea of raising the goal to two chapters, and then perhaps adding reading a chapter at home each night, and so forth.
Give Reminders and Feedback
A crucial component of behavior agreements is the reminders and encouragement that the teacher gives the student. Students with ingrained behavior problems are often discouraged, as a result of months or years of academic or social difficulties. If such students are to become encouraged and begin to choose positive paths, we must give them lots of reminders about how to behave and offer positive feedback when they do behave that way.
These reminders and feedback don't have to be lengthy. A brief whispered sentence ("Remember, one chapter today" to Ricky) or a discreet positive gesture (a thumbs-up to Angela when she follows a teacher's direction without arguing) is best. To be most effective, however, this encouragement should be frequent, sometimes even hourly, and sustained. It can often take several weeks or even months for a child to make a significant shift in a behavior.
Giving constant feedback over time can be demanding, so it's important to implement only as many agreements at a time as you can effectively tend to. If the prospect of giving sustained, frequent feedback feels overwhelming, consider other solutions.
The earlier and the more completely families know about the strategies we're using to improve their children's behavior, the more able they are to collaborate and offer helpful insights. Even if the parents have shown minimal involvement in the child's school life up to now, I let them know about the behavior agreement. For the most part, when I've reached the point of considering using an agreement, the family also sees the child's challenges and is eagerly looking for solutions. If family members say, "We tried that, and it only made things worse," that's useful information for me. In that case, I listen and continue talking with them and with colleagues at school to search for alternative strategies.
Some teachers arrange for the child's family to give the reward when the child meets the goal at school. Although this can promote a school-home partnership, be cautious. Well-intentioned families sometimes give their child a reward even when the child didn't meet the agreed-upon goal, or they decide to require the child to meet more than the agreed-upon goal before giving the reward. Both approaches can take away from the power of behavior agreements. If you have been communicating all along about your classroom practices and the child's behaviors, you'll be able to judge whether to ask the family to give the reward.
Depending on the behavior the child needs to change, it may also be appropriate to involve other school adults. For example, because the agreement I set up with Ricky was for him to read a certain amount during each readers' workshop, I was able to record whether he did so. But the agreement with Angela was for her to follow teacher directions the first time they were given, so I shared the plan with all the adults she works with (specialist teachers, lunch and recess supervisors, and other staff). That way, everyone could implement the agreement and reinforce Angela's behavior change.
Think Carefully About Rewards
Before assuming that a reward will be needed, consider what else might motivate this child to change his or her unproductive behavior. Will frequent feedback do it? Sometimes just receiving a star on a behavior tracking sheet is enough. Often what keeps a student working hard is hearing encouragement or specific, positive reinforcement from the teacher: "Do you think you'll earn another star today? I bet you can do it" or "Yes! You read an entire chapter during readers' workshop today!"
If you decide that a reward is needed, think about which ones the particular student might need and enjoy. I recommend that classroom teachers avoid giving material objects as rewards, but rather look for intangible rewards that might meet important needs for that child. For instance, a student who needs a lot of physical activity might earn extra time shooting hoops with an adult. One who benefits from private downtime might earn some time alone with the puppets or blocks.
With Ricky, I thought about rewards that would build his badly needed sense of competence and that would be fun. An opportunity to build a positive relationship with an adult would help, I thought. I knew that Ricky already had a good relationship with the physical education teacher. What if one of Ricky's possible rewards was helping Mr. Stakel set up the gym for class? I talked to Mr. Stakel, who readily agreed to have Ricky help him on Monday mornings.
Once you've identified a few possible reward choices, let the child pick one or offer additional ideas. Having a choice in the reward will increase the student's motivation. Angela and I brainstormed and came up with extra computer time, extra time in the art area, and helping the school secretaries as possible rewards. Angela, who loved to organize things, chose to help the school secretaries.
Wean Students from Rewards
To ensure that the student does not continue to work only for a reward, it's important to slowly reduce and then discontinue it. Ultimately, we want students to read joyfully, to be motivated by the sense of belonging that comes from being a positive member of a community, and to follow directions because they know that's how to keep school safe and engaging.
After several weeks of getting to help Mr. Stakel set up the gym if he read the agreed-upon amount, Ricky saw that he could be successful at reading if the books were at an appropriate level. Reading no longer felt so onerous, and he was able to read without the support of an agreement. He still had some days when he struggled to stay focused, but he had progressed to where he was able to refocus quickly with just a brief reminder or redirection from me. And even though Ricky didn't continue to help in the gym on Mondays, Mr. Stakel continued to encourage him.
Remember the Big Picture
The purpose of behavior agreements is to give students highly structured intensive support to change a behavior. It's important to focus on the change in behavior, rather than on the reward system, which is just a short-term tool. Over and over, I have seen that when behavior agreements bring about positive and lasting changes in students, it's because teachers keep this purpose in mind and consistently focus on the supports needed rather than on the reward. Implementing a behavior agreement in a positive, caring, and student-centered way can improve day-to-day life in the classroom and set the student up for further growth in the future.
Caltha Crowe is a former elementary school teacher who now gives workshops and coaches educators on using the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching. She is the author of Solving Thorny Behavior Problems: How Teachers and Students Can Work Together (Northeast Foundation for Children, 2009) and Sammy and His Behavior Problems: Stories and Strategies from a Teacher's Year (Northeast Foundation for Children, 2010); www.responsiveclassroom.org.
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