From time to time in various situations, I had students who just did not perform at their expected levels. In general it was due to apathy, laziness and sometimes just carelessness. After a nudge or two if nothing changed for the better, I often opted for a contract with the child. Sometimes the contract was just what was needed. It is not a panacea for all situations, but it has worked for me, so I’ll share it with you.
The first thing I learned in drawing up contracts with students was to limit the scope of the contract. In my situations at least, I did not find it productive to go beyond a single subject area with any given contract. That is not to say that there could not be multiple contracts issued, but my approach was to work on one or two areas at a time.
In my own school I taught all the subjects. Home schooling parents are faced with the same situation. Elementary school teachers in any type of standard classroom setting, Christian or private or state school, usually have this same circumstance. In such a case, I would focus on the problem subject, the one in which I felt the student honestly could do better if he tried.
At the junior high and high school levels in the state schools, I taught English and cycled through many students a day. Even in this situation the contract was workable for segments of a class such as the vocabulary or the writing or the literature sections, some of which might be running concurrently.
The second good idea for the contract was to have a specific time limit, no longer than a quarter and preferably shorter. A contract can always be renewed or extended, but it is tough to shorten it. In doing the latter, it seems as if the teacher is giving in or loosening up, both of which tend to invalidate the contract, especially in the student’s mind. Keep the agreement to a workable time frame so that results are soon measurable and adjustments can be made quickly to a contract that is either poorly designed or is not working out. Nobody wants to be tied to a bad contract that might seem to go on forever. Also remember that adult time frames seem quite long to younger children. They tend to think in hours or days, not weeks and months. Witness the fact that the question, “When are we going to get there?” often comes quite early in a journey.
The third element in a good contract is to be specific about what is expected and what the rewards and punishments will be. Make sure this is clearly written out and understood by the student and you. What you are looking for is a spur to the student to perform at a given level, one which exceeds current delivery. Your expectations may be too high; be prepared to negotiate with the student to some degree, but don’t let the contract get watered down to meaninglessness.
OK, let’s say you have a student who is doing poorly in spelling. Normal procedure is to give a list of words out on Monday and test on Friday. In between the student may have a worksheet or something, but there are no real teaching activities regarding the words. Most of the study is self-directed. The student is not doing well; by that I mean he is not scoring at an acceptable level on the tests. Here is a good place to try a contract if other methods have not worked thus far.
Outline a program where the student will somehow work with the words on a daily basis for X minutes per sitting. You will probably have to figure out some things for the student to do: make flash cards or a tape recording, write the words ten times, write sentences using the words, write the words from memory, unscramble the letters to make the words, pick the right spelling from a list of four choices; there are many things the student could do with the words.
It might be wise to provide a check sheet on which the teacher would keep track of what the student has completed. Set up a time frame, say three weeks, that this method will be employed. Set up some rewards if the student does all the daily tasks, and a bonus reward if the student achieves a certain level of scores on the tests. Penalties for not doing the daily tasks should also be laid out. I would not put a penalty on not making a given score. If the student does the daily tasks, the score should improve somewhat anyway.
What sort of rewards might be put into the contract? What does the student like to do? Perhaps it could be some free reading time; maybe you will play a game with them; perhaps it could be just goof-off time or a trip to the park, time with a favorite puzzle, or you might help them build a kite. Be creative here. I don’t think food or money rewards are very good even though cookies are great motivators for some.
What about penalties? Nothing too stiff, but lack of performance needs to be punished. It is a contract after all. Perhaps an earlier bed time or an extra round of doing the dishes or not being able to ride their bike for an hour after school. Again, the penalty should fit the situation. You might get elaborate and set up a debit/credit system whereby the student works for something big as well.
The plus for me was that the student knew I was particularly interested in his or her performance in that specific area. I was willing to do something extra, spend some extra time in setting up the contract and monitoring it. It did not always work, but more often than not some improvement was made. The negative is, of course, that the teacher has to spend the extra time designing the contract and administering it. As teachers, it seems time is at a premium, so going the extra mile seems to be asking a bit much. The positive results which may be obtained, however, more than offset the negatives.
Final advice: don’t try to use a contract for everything. Use it only when other avenues have failed. Recognize also that it may not bring about the hoped for changes, but it is different and shows that you are serious about getting the student to upgrade his or her performance. That alone makes a good impression on the student. Give the contract method some thought; it just might be a winning ticket for you in a heretofore seemingly unworkable situation.
March 3, 2014 / Frode / 0