Classroom management

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As I See It

By Elpidio R Estioko

Are behavior contracts effective intervention tools?

One of the most challenging responsibilities for a classroom teacher, which parents and guardians are really concerned too, is classroom management. Just like the teachers, parents want their children to do excel in class. In managing their classes, controlling the behavior of problem students, not only for new teachers but also for veteran teachers, is always a concern… in fact, one of the toughest problem-areas in the classroom. This is my more than 15 years of classroom teaching (college included), but I’m still challenged by student behaviors, especially in my high school classes. Every class, every semester, is different and unique in itself. That’s where the challenge come from. Students are characterized by a motley of behavior which are usually rooted upon their culture or from the country they came from.

We were taught how to handle misbehaving students and how to employ behavior contracts as a means to address problematic students. But is it effective? Or, better still, are we implementing the correct procedure that will not offend students and instead, yields positive results?

By the way, a behavior contract is a simple positive-reinforcement intervention that is widely used by teachers to change student behavior. It lays down in detail student expectations and what teachers want to achieve in implementing the intervention plan. It is a useful planning resource in the classroom.

Since the students usually have inputs into the situation, the teacher needs to establish the connection where students will be rewarded in meeting their goals within the contract. This way, they will be motivated and encouraged to abide with the provisions of the contract.

The manner it will be presented to the erring student should be such that they won’t see it as a punishment, but as an enhancement for them to achieve their goals in the classroom.

Otherwise, their tendency is to view the contract as something that will tie them up to the misbehavior they did, instead of supporting them in making progress in the classroom.

Of course, the teacher decides which specific behavior to select for the behavior contract. He should, however, be guided to include defined behavior goals which includes positive, pro-academic or pro-social behaviors such as asking permission from the teacher to speak during lectures, among others. A properly-worded positive example, for instance, will be: “For student to participate in class lecture and discussion, he/she needs to raise his/her hand and being recognized by the teacher before speaking”. These are actually classroom norms students need to follow.

It would be better if the teacher can meet with the student in crafting a behavior contract.

This way, the student will feel that his/her inputs are important and that he/she will be obliged to commit. Or, better still, if the parents can be involved, so much the better.

In the behavior contract, it should include the behavior the student needs to reduce or increase, and should be stated in a positive way in a goal-oriented manner. There should be a detailed simple explanation of such behavior, so the student can follow it to the letter.

Actions should be concrete and measurable with a timeframe in completing such behavior.

This way, it will be easier to observe and evaluate.

It should also include corresponding rewards for completed or appropriate behavior. If the student goes beyond the expectation, there should be a bonus clause, but if he/she fall short of the expectation, there should be a penalty clause. This way, the student will better understand the consequences of his/her actions.

Of course, the contract should provide spaces for both teacher and student to sign indicating that they will adhere and abide with the provisions of the contract.

Despite our diligence in preparing a contract, however, the behavior contract may sometimes become ineffective. I think there are several factors here, and in fact, in my experience, a student may even refuse to sign the contract because he/she doesn’t want to be bound by it. In my practice though, even if a student refuses to sign the contract, it will still be binding and the teacher may just have to indicate in the space for student signature, “Student refuses to sign”. This applies to really difficult students who don’t care about reforming or amending their actions.

One reason, maybe is when the student is not involved in the formulation of the contract, as in standard behavior contracts of the school. If this happens, maybe we need to consult the student and get their inputs in a revised contract.

Maybe, the rewards in the contract won’t be sufficient to motivate the student to cause them to change their behavior. Here, the teacher should review the provisions with the student and try to find out which is appealing to the student, so it needs to be revised to include choices selected by the student.

Or, the frequency of the rewards is not enough to motivate the student. Some students want the reward system to be frequent and at regular pace. Maybe, there should be graduated frequency where the student can progress and be more motivated to keep on following the provisions of the contract.

Featured author Laura Owen, currently teaching 3rd grade at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA, said she personally dislike behavior contracts with students but found a way to use behavior contracts and now she appreciates it.

“After a few weak attempts, I proclaimed that they didn’t work. When I finally received a child that I could not control using my own tactics, I had to seek help. With some great advice from my school psychologist and a few thoughtful adjustments that better fit my classroom, I have found a way to successfully use behavior contracts, and now I appreciate them. I still don’t enjoy using them, but they are a necessary evil”, she said.

With Owen’s experience, behaviors are specific and identified, and contain measurable behaviors that student and teacher can monitor. It’s simple and easy to understand but full of positive results that may change behavior.

A more ideal situation is coming out with a contract or agreement that will involve the teacher, the student and the parent. This collaborative approach is extremely effective and initiates a more realistic implementation with third party involvement.

Positive reinforcement is included in the contract because working towards a goal rather than punishment works well with students, psychologists say. Of course, this will be tempered by attainable goals and properly outlined way of completing them. It helps the student to be motivated and work for the attainment of the contract.

Consistency in the implementation and evaluation of the contract is desired. If a teacher fluctuates in the implementation this is one thing teachers need to know because consistency is very important in this case. In fact, it helps when there’s constant dialogue with the student and as much as possible, with the parent. This will keep them aware of what’s going on in the process.

It seems that if the behavior contract is simple, measurable, attainable, collaborative in nature, and concrete, it is an effective intervention tool for teachers in the classroom!

(For feedbacks and other comments, please send them to the author’s email address: estiokoelpidio@gmail.com).

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