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Agreements or Rules

A Collaborative Learning Approach

Kelly Goodsir


I’ve always felt a little challenged by the language of ‘rules’ particularly as a pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. Some words do not connect as well as others when it comes to describing the art of collaborating, co-constructing and negotiating with children. It’s early in this article but I want to declare that I understand there is a place for guidelines, boundaries and limits within any classroom - but - even with this viewpoint, we can approach these with a learning mindset. Engaging in dialogue and with a commitment to shared understanding alongside children supports us to consider everyone’s perspective.


Everyone’s perspective matters and learning to get along with others is all wrapped up in the many social interactions a child has throughout their day. I appreciate this is the long road to social learning, where we commit our time to valuing winding conversations and support children to untangle the knots of social disagreement and conflict. A commitment to showing up with heart and sharpening our skills in regard to a pedagogy of listening is deeply respectful. When you are heard and have been seen by others it fosters community and belonging and a storng sense of being valued. I desire both attributes to be experienced by children in an early childhood program and using an agreement approach does just that.


Words matter to me as they shape practice. We must choose our words wisely so they reflect our pedagogical approach with children and tell the practice story of our philosophy. I often start by defining words as they offer back to me a multitude of clues about their intentions they convey.

How do these words fit into your pedagogy? Do any of them create tension for you? Try to express why? I always found a tension rise up within me when I saw the common classroom rules poster displayed, usually in the mat area, reminding children to have:

1. Looking eyes

2. Listening ears

3. Quiet mouth

4. Helping hands

5. Walking feet

I am deeply uncomfortable with the messages and implications of these words for our practice and our image of the child – are we teaching compliance with this message? We can instead choose to uphold the principles of democracy and hold space for values such as inclusion, participation, voice and representation? An agreement approach with children over time, discussing and exploring what matters to us a group and as individuals will reveal a solution that represents the local context. We can make meaning together and represent these shared ideas for reflection within our documented agreements.


Michael Fullan (1997, p36) reminds us that “ownership cannot be achieved in advance of learning something new, deep ownership comes through the learning that arises from full engagement in solving problems. As people talk, try things out, inquire, re-try – all of this jointly – people become more skilled, ideas become clearer, shared commitment gets stronger”.


An agreement approach acts within the components of supported social learning which Hall and Rudkin describe this as more of a mindset than a set of techniques. This means we:

1. We appreciate all perspectives (including the educators)

2. Relationships-in-community take precedent

3. We see children as capable of overcoming problems

4. We enter interactions with a questioning posture and a commitment to conversation


This really speaks to me as a teacher and reminds me about the importance of not desensitising ourselves or being quick to create short cuts to what is at the heart of teaching and learning – shared understanding, meaning making and listening to one another. Over time this is what builds children’s capacity as learners in a social world. Disagreement, disputes and conflict are a necessary part of learning especially when contrasted with the experience of harmony, peacefulness and agreement.


Carol Ann Wein (2004) describes rule governed regimes as policing not teaching and, in her research invited several services to list all the rules in place. They ranged from not climbing up the slide to no toys from home. They were varied and numerous and often reasoned with safety or regulation. Rules can often be about trying to keep control and the energy spent on enforcing them can be very stressful for everyone.


To shift from rules to a more collaborative approach, the team involved in this research decided on 3 criteria for a rule:

· Did the behavior targeted by the rule harm the child?

· Did it harm others?

· Did it harm property?

Reflecting on these question created the permission to abandon many of the unnecessary rules related to play. The outcome was calmer classrooms, better emotional competency in children, increased interactions by educators and a stronger sense of wellbeing for all.


In the last 2-3 years specifically I have been working alongside various teaching teams on the practice of agreements as an approach to social learning and emotional regulation. Sometimes this about re-imagining the rules and other times it's more about educators intentionality in actively support the sharing of problems and solutions. Below Ellen reflects as a teacher and Hanney as a parent about their experience in engaging with an agreement approach over the last year.

 

A Teachers Perspective

Ellen Carney / Teacher of 3-5 years

Engaging an agreement approach for 18 months


The use of agreements in the classroom is a commitment to listening to children and working in partnership with them. We move away from a list of classroom rules and towards a number of agreements dotted around the classroom. These can change over time as we reflect on what's important to us as a group. Agreements give children autonomy to make decisions about their classroom, while teaching about the responsibilities that come with being part of a community.


I find agreements the most helpful when there is a recurring issue or source of tension in the classroom...the introduction of new resources, the sharing of a special toy..something unique or specific to our context and environment...something that will probably change as time moves on, but speaks to us here and now.


Having a shared agreement including children's voices empowers them to carry out the agreement and hold each other accountable, taking all of the 'authority' away from the teacher and helping children understand care and respect, rather than just rules for the sake of rules.



Individual agreements for children who are showing patterns in their behaviour can be a really helpful tool for self-regulation. Children's behaviours are a form of communication, and often a way to seek acknowledgement for a strong feeling they are having. A drop off agreement for the child who finds it hard to say goodbye to a parent acknowledges this very sad time, and offers them the opportunity to create a ritual they can emotionally prepare for. By making the agreement when the child is calm and regulated, they have the chance to reflect on their feelings and share what they need at that hard time. Listening to children is extremely powerful, we're not trying to distract from the feeling, just give them the tools to be brave and move through the feelings in a safe way.

 

A Parents Perspective

Hanney Chang /

After experiencing ongoing difficulty leaving Eloise (3) in the classroom, I ran out of parenting tricks and was guilty of resorting to sneaking out of the room when she wasn't looking. Despite having strong bonds with the children and educators in the room, Eloise would often resort to crying, holding on to my leg, before escalating to screaming and kicking the door.


One day, I entered the classroom to be greeted with a proud Eloise holding a clipboard. The document on the clipboard was titled "Eloise's Classroom Agreement" which outlined:


As Eloise read out the agreement (almost) independently, it was evident that the suggestions and strategies were her ideas, making me realise how deep a child’s emotions really run. She then handed me a pen and asked me to sign the bottom of the agreement alongside her own writing and those of her room educators.


The classroom agreement definitely helped, both Eloise and myself. It held me accountable, as a parent, to acknowledge and respond to the needs of my child and it also provided Eloise with a ritual to our goodbyes. She became more confident and prepared for the separation and it became a game of how far she could do her "running hug".

This agreement was followed by an excursion agreement a few months later to support Eloise's emotions during outings. She developed her own strategies to help her regulate her emotions and would often stop and say, "I remember my agreement" to help herself control her actions and emotions.


Creating agreements with Eloise has acknowledged her emotions and provided her with a voice. The steps in the agreement have supported Eloise to critically decipher the responsibilities and coping strategies, which are the same steps we adopt into adulthood. It has empowered her to express her emotions and needs, providing her with self-decided strategies along with the confidence to step into her capabilities, all contributing to her strong sense of self-worth.

 

When we position ourselves as collaborators with children, where power is shared, minds can change and rules are reconsidered, this is a powerful context for learning. Walking beside children as we construct agreements about the things that matter position children as influencers and decision makers.


“encourage children to have a voice in matters of consequence and to engage in a process in which they consider one another’s perspective in order to reach solutions. In this context, democracy is not about individuals stating their views as loudly as they can in order to win an argument; nor is it about self-advocacy, persuasion, or majority rule. Rather, it is about creating a community that works for each individual as well as for the group—individuals coming together to listen, to learn, and to convey and create knowledge and culture …. Every moment of every day is grounded in a democratic vision”. (Krechevsky et al. 2016, p.15)



**This article is not designed to address learning strategies specifically for children with additional rights or for children who are currently undergoing assessment for their learning and development needs. It is advised to reach out to specialist support services to provide that contextual support. An agreement approach is also not designed as a single strategy to resolve complex challenges in a classroom environment, it contributes to the toolkit of educators and asks us to position children as decision makers in matters that effect them.


References

Fullan, M. (1997). The Challenge of School Change: a collection of articles. Hawker Brownlow Education


Hall, E., & Rudkin, J. (?). Supportive Social Learning. Childcare Information Exchange, Vol 1 Issue 03 p12-15.


Krechevsky, M. et al. (2016), Children are Citizens: The Everyday and the Razzle-Dazzle, Innovations In Early Education: The International Reggio Emilia Exchange, North American Reggio Emilia Alliance, Inspired Practices in Early Education, Roswell, GA


Wien, C. (2004). From Policing to Participation: overturning the rules and creating amiable classrooms. Young Children Vol 59, No 1, pp 34 – 40.

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