by Candace Roberts
When Justin started first grade, he was prone to violent outbursts. On the very first day of school, after I asked him to complete a reading response task and he threw his shoes at me, he was removed from the classroom. Then, on the second day of school, he had a more violent episode. When directed to join the group in listening to a story, Justin started throwing everything within his reach. His behavior was so out of control that I took the rest of the children to work in the library while my assistant and a special educator trained in crisis prevention stayed in the classroom with Justin.
And that was only the beginning. As I got to know Justin better, I began to understand that frustration and stress triggered his outbursts. And for Justin, many aspects of classroom life in first grade were extremely frustrating and stressful.
Students like Justin, whose behavior is unpredictable, disruptive, and even frightening for classmates and teachers, obviously need more support than classroom teachers can provide on their own. However, most of us will have students like Justin at some point. On a day-to-day basis we need to help these children control their behavior so that they and their classmates will be safe and can focus on learning.
In the first weeks of school I tried many different strategies with Justin, but he continued to have outbursts when he was frustrated. It was only when Justin and I tried an individual written agreement that things began to really turn around. Each child is unique, and such agreements must be tailored to fit each child's particular circumstances, but I hope that by sharing the story of Justin's agreement and what made it successful, you will get ideas that help you use this strategy effectively.
Crucial Building Blocks
Although in Justin's case an individual written agreement was ultimately vital, I agree with what Caltha Crowe says in Solving Thorny Behavior Problems: this is a strategy to use when other strategies haven't worked. It can be tempting to "skip ahead" and use an agreement right away when a child's behavior is unusually challenging, but the agreement will be more effective if you've tried other options first. That's because those other strategies form a critical foundation for the agreement to work, and because such agreements, while an important option to consider in the face of challenging behavior, do carry the risk that the child's development of internal motivation will be impeded.
Here, for instance, are some of the things I did before using an individual written agreement with Justin.
As I do every year, I started off by making sure the classroom climate was safe and caring. I worked with the students to establish classroom rules, and I taught them how to put our rules into action in various situations. When students' behavior was unkind or unsafe, I used teacher language, nonverbal cues, and logical consequences to redirect them. I also introduced our take-a-break spot, a place anyone could go to calm down when he or she started feeling angry or frustrated, and I taught all of the children how to use it.
These strategies were enough for most of the children and were a crucial part of establishing our classroom community, but Justin needed more support. He continued to have outbursts that kept him from participating in classroom activities. Redirection, reminders, cues, and consequences did not work reliably with Justin. Sometimes these techniques actually seemed to make things worse, triggering power struggles.
I reached out to our school psychologist and social worker, and we taught Justin specific coping skills for managing anger and anxiety, such as taking deep breaths when he started to feel upset. He and I also had problem-solving conferences in which we talked about possible triggers for his outbursts, and we chose solutions to try. Problem-solving conferences helped me get to know Justin better, helped us understand what triggered his upsets, and increased his repertoire of appropriate responses, but they did not provide enough consistent and concrete feedback to change Justin's behavior in a lasting way.
Introducing the Agreement
Because Justin was still having frequent outbursts at school, I decided to try a more intensive and highly structured intervention: an individual written agreement.
Before mentioning the idea to Justin, I spoke with his parents to see how they'd feel about the use of an agreement with their son. When they responded favorably, I invited them, and the team of school personnel working with Justin, to help me develop the specifics. We agreed on a three-part behavior goal and worded it very specifically, in positive, concrete terms: Justin will keep his hands and feet safe; he will follow the teacher's directions; when Justin starts to feel upset, he will take a break, get control, and rejoin the group.
Then, drawing on their knowledge of their son, Justin's parents and I developed a plan that emphasized giving Justin lots of feedback and positive reinforcement of expected behaviors. We established a simple system for daily communication—I'd send them a brief note at the end of each day—and I encouraged two-way communication. This reinforced our united commitment to helping Justin.
Next I talked to Justin. "Justin, I've noticed how sometimes you get frustrated, and I've also noticed that when you get frustrated, you do things that aren't safe or kind. In this classroom, we need to make sure we are safe so everyone can do their jobs. So, I thought one way I could help you stay safe is by using an agreement."
I shared the behavior goal with Justin and explained that we'd use poker chips to keep track of how he was doing: at the end of each forty-five-minute learning block, he and I would decide whether he should get zero, one, or two chips for that block. Zero meant he had not met his behavior goal, two meant he had, and one meant he had made a good effort but hadn't succeeded completely. He would keep the chips in a clear plastic bin located near my desk. At the end of each day, we would count up the total number of chips, and I would send a note home to let his parents know the number.
I knew Justin felt invested in the idea of getting poker chips and counting them up with me at the end of each day when he asked "So can we count them by twos and threes if we want?"
With parents and student both on board, I put the agreement in writing, neatly typed so it looked official. Justin and I signed and dated the agreement, and we began using it the following day.
What Made This Agreement Work
1. Empathy on my part
Justin was a child who struggled. He wasn't behaving violently to provoke or harm me or his classmates. His outbursts may have frustrated and even scared us, but I'll wager they scared him more. He, more than anyone, wanted them to end, but he needed help to end them. Keeping that in mind as I worked with him helped me stay calm and supportive even though Justin's behavior was upsetting.
2. Reaching out to colleagues
I approached my work with Justin as a collaborative effort with other adults at school. In addition to working with our psychologist and social worker to teach Justin coping skills, I asked our school nurse to be available for times when Justin needed a break outside of the classroom to regain control. This helped reduce the disruption Justin's outbursts caused the rest of the class, and it provided Justin with another adult in the school who knew him well and supported him.
3. A clearly defined goal
I purposefully made the behavior goals for Justin's agreement very specific. As opposed to a more general goal, such as "Justin will control his temper," the wording "Justin will keep his hands and feet safe; he will follow the teacher's directions; when he starts to feel upset, he will take a break, get control, and rejoin the group" let Justin know exactly what he was supposed to do. This specificity also made it easy for us to agree on whether or not he'd met the goal when we checked in at the end of each learning block.
4. A concrete way to track progress
Seeing and hearing the poker chips accumulate motivated Justin. At the end of the day, he would often remind me, "Mrs. Roberts, it's time to plop my tokens!" We would stand at the clear plastic container and count the tokens together. This visible and concrete tracking was both auditory and kinesthetic—just what Justin needed to reinforce his accomplishments.
5. Frequent feedback and coaching
Perhaps the most important element of Justin's agreement was how frequently he got feedback from me. At every transition between learning blocks, he and I would discuss how many chips he should earn. That meant about every forty-five minutes or so I asked him, "What do you think? Were you able to keep your hands and feet to yourself? Was that a zero, one, or two? I think it was a two!" or "You got upset but only for a little while, and then you calmed yourself. You used your breathing technique. How did that feel?"
These were also times when I provided Justin with coaching or problem-solving if needed. "I noticed that when Sara told you to stop poking her, you didn't, so I moved your spot so she could be safe and you could focus on your work. What could you do the next time someone tells you to stop poking them?"
6. Ongoing parent involvement
Having Justin's parents on board was crucial to the agreement working. Every six weeks, the team of adults working with Justin at school met with his parents for approximately thirty minutes. Together, we'd look at the data gathered, Justin's success at meeting behavior goals, his number of outbursts, and other anecdotal information, and make slight adjustments to Justin's plan.
Ending the Year Hopeful
So, did this agreement solve Justin's behavior problems completely? No. We began using the agreement in late fall, and by mid-year, all of the adults involved recognized that Justin's challenges would not be resolved in a single school year. However, the agreement did help him make progress.
Over time, Justin and I were able to lengthen the amount of time between our check-ins, and he had fewer and less violent breakdowns. By the end of the school year, when directed to do something that was hard for him, he might curl into a fetal position, but after a while he would uncurl and make an earnest attempt at it. In addition, when he became anxious about multistep tasks, he verbalized his feelings and asked to break the task into smaller chunks that were manageable for him. This represented enormous progress.
I believe the agreement gave Justin the highly structured, intensive support he needed to change his behavior. Justin, I, and his team of adult supporters ended the year hopeful that eventually he would no longer need such rigorous intervention, and that school would continue to be a place of safe, focused learning for him.
For comprehensive information on creating and using individual written agreements, read:
Solving Thorny Behavior Problems: How Teachers and Students Can Work Together, by Caltha Crowe
Solving difficult behavior problems with children leads to long-lasting change. Learn practical strategies that will deepen your skills in resolving common but challenging misbehaviors.