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The Essential Agreement of the Classroom


Maintaining discipline in a classroom of elementary school kids is seldom easy.  My teacher has a number of tactics that she uses.  When a couple of kids aren't paying attention or picking at each other, she says, "I'll wait."  She then silently pauses her lesson, the room gets quiet, and the kids that aren't focused realize all eyes are on them and they settle down.

The Essential Agreement

If things get worse and more kids "don't have their eyes on the speaker and their mouths shut," she'll ask for everyone to "give her five."  That's "code" for demanding their full attention.

Let's remember, these are elementary school kids, and impulse control issues aren't totally ingrained yet.  (Would that impulse control issues were ingrained throughout the entire American population!)  But my teacher only needs to use these tactics three or four times a day, which I think is pretty remarkable.

Much of this is due to the "essential agreement" that is reviewed as class begins. First thing every day, she reminds the kids that they are at school in order to achieve their "goals and dreams," and that success will only come if they follow these basic rules:

  • We follow directions the first time
  • We are respectful
  • We take turns
  • We keep ourselves and others safe
  • We care for the environment


The kids recite these rules every day, and they are a constant touchstone for their behavior.  When a child doesn't "follow directions the first time," the teacher - or me if I'm working with the child - can say, "Remember our essential agreement, you have promised that you would follow directions and I don't see you doing that."  Or, if they put their milk carton in the trash instead of the recycling bin, we can say that "you aren't helping care for the environment."

It's kind of a contract, and it helps the kids put their behaviors in context.  It ties them to the world, both inside and outside of the classroom.  And isn't that what "growing up and learning" is all about!

Robert Hodder is blogging about his first year as a volunteer with AARP Experience Corps, helping kids in a Washington, D.C., elementary school with their reading skills. AARP Experience Corps will be expanding into its 20th city, Chicago, in the 2013-14 school year and is in the process of recruiting volunteers. You can also follow Robert and his experiences on Twitter. For information on how to volunteer, please contact Patrice Gerideau at

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