Rules versus Agreements

Guiding children learning social skills in out of school care is a common occurrence. The children in afterschool care are still learning and experimenting with their social interactions. Many of the social skills children are working on are still being developed, as elementary children get older, bigger, louder, and wiser. In discussions with other educators, the idea has been shared that children at this age are only motivated by rules---carrots and sticks---and that elementary children like the structure of rules and feel more comfortable with these types of limits and rewards in place.

What really motivates elementary age children to be part of the learning community? Are elementary children’s actions based on rules alone? Is another approach a better motivator? The definition of a rule according to Webster is “a prescribed guide for conduct or action of an accepted procedure, custom, or habit.” Further the definition says, “the exercise of authority or control.” What started my thinking about this subject is the response I hear often from educators who work with elementary children. Many educators working with elementary children in out of school programs define the relationship between the child and the adult in terms of who follows rules and who does not.

The definition of an agreement by Webster is “a harmony of opinion, action, or character.” Or “harmony and accordance in opinion or feeling.” Looking at the difference between rules and agreements, is it possible that if we invite elementary children to be part of the learning community, and collaborate with educators in creating agreements, many behavior issues would go away? With agreements we could create program environments that support and promote children to express themselves and highlight positive actions as the outcome. This creates behaviors that motivate other children to perform more positive actions.

Children are happy and develop better in an environment of harmony while in relationship with others. Rules are not about relationship they are about one entity deciding for another what actions are acceptable and unacceptable. The most powerful member gets to decide the rules and the punishment for breaking them. When rules are broken the discussion usually is focused on the rules not the human behind the actions and their motivation for their actions. Rules dehumanize children and ask them to be perfect. None of us is perfect.

Agreements offer an opportunity for collaboration, connection, and communication. Agreements acknowledge that structure and order are important in a society for people to get along, but recognizes that people are the most important part of the equation and therefore should be part of the process. It is important to have children be part of the process in making guidelines for their afterschool setting.

The process of creating agreements may be challenging because all children have a first teacher, their parents, who have a great influence on a school age child and how they frame social interactions.

All parents teach their children expectations for treating others and those teachings will influence the agreements that children will be comfortable creating in a program setting. The process will be one of trial and error and getting to know each other. Unlike rules, agreements are a living breathing set of guidelines that can and will be revisited as the afterschool group grows, matures, and changes with the coming and goings of different children.

In afterschool we can choose to move away from rules being the final say in all social engagements and move toward a more balanced approach that involves all of the members of the learning community. Educators, children, and parents can be co-constructors of agreements for their learning community based on values that they hold. The agreements for each program will be different as they fill the needs of that community and the people in it. Children frequently come together to co-construct knowledge and the same principals can be employed in building relationships through agreements between all the members of the learning community.

I would encourage those in afterschool care to carefully look at the rules that guide your program and the children’s daily actions and take a hard look if these actions are a benefit to the growth and well being of yourself, the children, and help create better relationships with the parents in your program. When I stood back and took a long look at the effects rules were having on all of the learning community members I knew a change had to occur. How about you?

Do you use rules as the guiding principals in your program?

What are the principals that guide your program?

How are your parents involved in the social aspects of your learning community?