Rules versus Agreements

Guiding children as they work on social skills is one of our main roles in school age care. Social skills are constantly being refined, as the children get older, bigger, louder, and wiser. In discussions with other educators, an idea has been promoted that children at this age are only motivated by rules and rewards, carrots and sticks, and that school age children like this type of structure and feel more comfortable with specific limits and rewards in place.

What really motivates school age children to be part of the learning community?

Are school age children’s actions based on rules alone?

Is another approach a better motivator?

According to Webster’s a rule is “a prescribed guide for conduct or action of an accepted procedure, custom, or habit.” The definition continues, “the exercise of authority or control.” I started thinking more about this subject because I often see educators in school age programs, define their relationship between the child and the adult in terms of who follows the rules and who does not.

In contrast, the definition of an agreement by Webster’s 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 school age children to be part of the learning community, and collaborate with educators in creating agreements, many social challenges 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 engage in 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 the action. 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, therefore all members of the community should be part of the process.

The process of creating agreements may be challenging because all children have a first teacher, their parents, who have a great influence on children 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 will be revisited as the program grows, matures, and changes with the coming and goings of different children.

In school age care, 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 based on values that they hold. The agreements for each program will be different as they fill the needs of the school 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 the members of the learning community.

I encourage educators in school age care to carefully look at the rules that guide your program and the children’s daily actions. Take a hard look and see 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 took a long hard look at the effects rules were having on the learning community 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?