Educators can use student agreements or commitment contracts to help them gain buy-in on what students pledge to focus on and follow through with during a school year.
But commitment contracts can’t be one-way, said Heather Schwartz, practice specialist for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Instead, educators should think of these contracts as the result of a conversation in which students and educators plot a path forward on challenges and tasks students want to master with their teachers and how they want to be treated.
“Educators can promote student ownership and self-directed learning by listening first and providing scaffolding as students strategize around how to reach their goals, meet expectations, and be good community members,” Schwartz said.
Thinking of commitment contracts as two-way agreements can be an approach that helps students develop skills around agency, including executive functioning and time management.
Schwartz said that when she taught 7th grade, she worked with a student who faced organizational challenges. He wanted to turn in his work but couldn’t find it, she said. Schwartz worked with him to clear out folders, and to learn what things to hold onto during the year and what he could jettison.
Schwartz emphasizes making and signing a commitment contract alone would not have gotten him where he wanted to be. He also needed time to revisit and focus on that goal throughout the year.
“He then made a commitment to clearing out his folders at the end of each week with a buddy during our homeroom time,” Schwartz said. “All this is to say, committing to an action is only one part of a process that requires community support and practice.”
While agreements can help students focus on individual tasks, they can also help build trust and community within a classroom between students and teachers — and within peer groups as well, noted Schwartz.
Educators can return to the contracts throughout the year to have students review and discuss them, treating them as a “living document” and not just a one-time activity. If something happens during the year, educators can use these contracts as a starting point for opening the door to a conversation and discussing how to move forward.
“Educators might say something like, ‘At the beginning of the year, we decided together it was really important not to interrupt each other, but I noticed during our math lesson it was happening a lot. I wonder what is going on. What do you think?’” said Schwartz. “Whatever the underlying cause, the goal is to be solutions-oriented and to renew the class' commitment to their community and themselves as learners.”