I hope that you are all well! One of the greatest experiences of writing a blog is to get feedback from al the wonderful educators that read it. As much as I love to share information, I realised that you guys teach me too. I am really grateful for that!
Last week I wrote a blog called "Your Kids Hate The School Rules: Use This Instead" & I received a lot of feedback privately & publically which I always welcome. One tweet really caught my eye and it was by a gentleman called Paul Reigner.
Reading and reflecting on his tweet I realised that Paul was right. I needed to some clarification on what I meant by the 'Social Contract' & my hope for this blogpost is that you will be clear on when and where to use it & why I developed it in the first place.
In my book, "The Action Hero Teacher: Classroom Management Made Simple" based on Maslow's Hierachy of Needs, I made my own mental model called 'Trust Mountain' which explained the 4 types of learners that would be in a typical classroom.
Going from the bottom (being least engaged) to the top (fully engaged), we have 4 types of behaviour that teachers must learn how to recognise & deal with: Disrupters, Compliant, Positive & Engaged.
As a former NEETs Coordinator, I taught students that had been permanently excluded from school & could no longer participate in Mainstream schooling. Often these kids had very complex Social Emotional & Mental Health needs (SEMH) and were very disillusion with learning.
For our most disruptive students, their behaviour is often a symptom of issues that are happening in other parts of their life. Especially where aggression and violence are concerned, this is an indication that the student needs additional support.
To understand, let's go a little deeper.
Let's Talk About SEMH
In regards to Behaviour Management & enforcing rules on students, if you are dealing with children who can self-regulate & verbalise their feelings, they will be able to understand & navigate the written & unwritten rules of their institutions.
But for children that have SEMH needs, the 'toeing-the-line-no-excuses' approach to Behaviour Management will not only will this not work but this could be potentially catastrophic.
From experience, kids who are severely disruptive often have untold traumas that affect their interpersonal relationships. Psychologists and counsellors would state that these children have Adverse Childhood Experiences or 'ACEs' which are disturbances that disrupt their expected childhood development. ACEs occur before a child turns 18.
ACEs include being emotionally neglected, physical & verbal abuse, having a member of the home abusing substances, living in unsafe housing and so on.
These kids often have maladaptive defends mechanisms that make it very difficult to adapt to highly structured places like schools & tragically are rejected by the very system that should be designed to help them.
Because of their challenges at home & beyond, they maybe threatened by the nature of the rules and actively resist what they perceive to be a threat. We must help to create a safe & open space to coach them out of this response.
As teachers, we must become more aware & flexible to how a child's background affects the way that they perceive rules and authority & how we can adapt to make sure that we are meeting their needs.
I am not saying that every single disruptive student has trauma in their lives, but I am saying that we must see their disruptive behaviour as an invitation to probe deeper & see if there are unmet needs that need addressing.
A Case Study: John*
I worked with a boy, who I will call ‘John’ who was referred to us with Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) John was thrown out of school for serial aggression & for bringing in an axe to attack another boy with. He was 16.
John was bounced around the Alternative Provision system until he landed with us.
Working with our Safeguarding & Wellbeing teams, we discovered that John was
raised in a chaotic home. John was the family scapegoat. Even although the parents had a 3 bedroom house, John was forced to sleep on the floor so that his siblings could have the beds.
His mother had an undisclosed mental illness that meant that she hoarded things
she bought from the market & the house was crammed with rubbish. John’s Dad was an alcoholic who regularly wet himself in the home & had violent fights with his Mum.
John’s Mum repeatedly told him that he was ‘nothing’ & could never live up to the reputation of his oldest brother ‘Sam’ who was a budding footballer scouted for a Premier League Team.
John has severe difficulties forming relationships because he was afraid that they would either leave him or turn on him so he ended up pushing people away.
His disruption became his only outlet for his pain & most of the schools that had dealt with him, didn’t adequately (to no fault of their own) deal with his severe needs. Teachers in his previous schools were not supportive & thought threats & sanctions would ‘get him in line.’
Nothing worked & he was told that he was a ‘lost cause.’
As part of the course orientation, we reminded our students that this could be a fresh start despite all that he had been through.
The Social Contract that we formed with him & his class was probably the first time that anyone asked his opinion on anything.
It told him that he was a valued member of the class & gave him boundaries designed to help him grow rather than punish him & he started to do better after that, eventually earning enough credits to look at getting an apprenticeship in Plumbing.
The Social Contract Is A Tool, Nothing More
Although I am no in Mainstream education, my Alternative Provision training has been a lifesaver on so many occasions. My training from the Child Mental Health Services (CAMHS) & all the other external partners' have taught me that we have to be flexible & adjust my practice.
I totally agree that there needs to be consistency and this has to be across the board.
But that I have dropped is the assumption that Education in ‘one-size-fits-all.’ If we are not even attempting to understand your students most complex needs then we are doing them a disservice.
The Social Contract is a tool and nothing more. You don't have to write a whole new set of rules or do anything at all. All I suggest is that you have an open & frank conversation about the shared values of the school, year or class.
But you MUST have that conversation. Never ever assume that your students see things the way that you do.
If as educators, we lean only on our authority and not attempt to engage emotionally with our students, we will never win over our most disruptive learners, especially those with the most complex needs.
If students that come from dysfunctional backgrounds struggle to conform to the norms of your institution, the social contract is a way to engage them & make them feel that they are a part of your classroom.
I know John is an extreme example but part of the problems we face post-COVID is a lack of understanding of the emotional impacts that trauma does to our students' lives.
I have already discussed how COVID19 & the current social unrest could produce a trauma-response in our learners - we must be ready as educators to help support the mental health of our students as this is seeming to worsen.
Whatever setting that you are in, you must use the best tools available to you. Do what works for you & your style of teaching.
I believe that at the end of it all, students our students don't follow behaviour policies, they follow role models.
Thank you for reading. Please sign up the AHT blog below to get more posts like this one. It will take you 20 seconds to do. I look forward to hearing from you.
Karl from actionheroteacher.com
*John's name & several details have been changed to protect his identity.