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Letting Children Take Control of Their Education

By Heather Lee Schroeder

Almost certainly, every child will hit a wall at some point in their educational journey and begin to feel like completing their schoolwork is too difficult. This is when we parents, in cooperation with our child’s teacher(s), need to both warmly encourage and hold boundaries for our children.

As a parent with a child at KiS, I can attest that those moments often arise more quickly than we expect. My son recently hit a roadblock in his math program, a little less than a month into the school year. He couldn’t move forward in his Beast Academy work, so Ms. Rachel consulted with my husband and me and explained why our son was stalled out on his coursework. We jumped into action at home, helping him with some extra practice and coaching him about writing out his math work before submitting answers to the Beast Academy system. 

After about a week of extra practice and home support, he aced the lessons necessary to unlock the next step in Beast Academy. My son told me that he was proud of working through the process because he knows it means he really understands the material and is ready to move on in the program. Not only had he built his confidence, but he added some mortar and bricks to his intrinsic (internal) motivation, and I could not be happier for or prouder of him for persevering through what was a very painful process.

I credit his willingness to engage with difficult material to KiS’s use of Student Learning Contracts (SLC). This year, we’ve implemented SLCs at KiS—a goal we’ve had since our school was founded. We’re excited about the SLC program as we know the benefits of these documents are vast. Each student is evaluated and observed for the first few weeks of the year, and a contract is generated based on each child’s specific educational needs. When we say we meet each child right where they are, we mean it!

Educational fads come and go, but one constant remains: the children who achieve the most are the ones who are internally motivated to learn. Although chore charts, behavior modification programs, punch cards, and other external motivations offer a short-term boost in student performance, the long-term impact of tactics designed to provide external motivation serves to impede and even destroy children’s natural love of learning.

The SLC, even for our youngest learners, provide clear-cut academic structure and support for students. School can sometimes feel like a mystery for young learners—material is presented without any context for why it matters or how it fits into the child’s bigger understanding of their educational journey. A learning contract offers clear guidelines for even our Kindergarten students, and it gives them specific, actionable goals to complete. In my son’s case, one of his actionable goals is to complete each unit of Beast Academy with full credit (three stars). As our recent experiences reveals he didn’t stop until he had reached his personal goal, even when it took extra effort on his part.

The contract also outlines what our teacher, Ms. Rachel, can be expected to do to help each learner meet their contract goals. Of course, chief among these duties is guiding a child through the material and cheering on their successes, but the learning contract also points out that Ms. Rachel can reasonably be expected to critique work and request revisions or amendments and that she can ask parents to step in and assist in the learning and support process. 

Research shows that when teachers and students have a clear and shared understanding of what goals are important and how to achieve them, students are more likely to be successful. Learning contracts are particularly helpful for struggling or demotivated learners because they serve as a clear roadmap while insisting upon a pledge to adhere to certain clearcut and defined parameters for success. In this way, students who have a learning contract in place can move their mindset from fixed (only perfection will suffice) to flexible (learning is a series of challenges underpinned by hard work and at times failure before success). 

But, really, what is a Student Learning Contract?

A student learning contract is a formalized document that outlines actions and goals learners must complete in order to achieve academic success in their schoolwork. In our school, no two Student Learning Contracts are the same as we promise that each student will be challenged to the full promise of their capabilities. Thus, although two Kindergarten students might have similar actions and goals to complete, each will have specific goals that reflect their individual gifts and challenges. This approach is particularly helpful for learners who are asynchronous in their development—say, far ahead in reading but behind in math. 

The contract opens with a statement of purpose that outlines why the contract is being made. This is followed by a list of student actions that are clear enough to convey specific outcomes but open enough to give students some leeway for academic exploration and evolution. The next section outlines exactly what a student can expect from Ms. Rachel, and the final sign-off section allows the student and teacher to indicate that they have talked about the actions and goals and understand what they are.

Our Student Learning Contracts are a semester-long commitment on the part of the student and teacher. At the end of the semester, your student will work with Ms. Rachel to craft a new or amended set of actions and goals for the next semester. Some actions/goals may remain the same from the previous contract, but some will be amended—either because your child has mastered a skillset or because the item needs to be adjusted to better reflect their capabilities or needs.

More importantly, the SLC offers built-in assessment opportunities that remove the need for stressful high-stakes testing. Your child will be formally evaluated several times a year, but their progress will be closely monitored and tracked throughout the year, and micro-adjustments will be made to their learning path. This allows students to gain skills and confidence in those skills in a more natural and affirming way.

Who is involved in the process?

The contract is signed by your child and Ms. Rachel, and once signed, your child becomes the primary beneficiary of the contract’s guidelines. Ms. Rachel serves as a guide and a conductor on your child’s educational journey, helping him or her embark on the strongest educational path possible. 

However, parental help is necessary behind the scenes. Learning can be a difficult and, at times, frightening process because it requires us to face what we don’t know so that we can gain new skills and knowledge. Parents’ role in providing a steady and positive influence on their children’s educational mindset is vitally important. More importantly, when the journey gets tough, as it absolutely will, we need parents to remind their children of their commitment and to support Ms. Rachel’s teaching through positive reinforcement and messages at home. 

Although I have known intellectually that SLCs are a great tool, I learned an important lesson while helping my son unlock his learning roadblock—turning a child’s education over to them results in better outcomes. Ultimately, at the core of this experience are freedom and compassion. Learning is hard work—a full-time job for children. We must compassionately hold space for that process and guide learners to their best successes while giving them the freedom and agency to engage with the material authentically.

If your child has been caught in the web of high-stakes testing and has developed an extrinsically motivated, inflexible mindset, the SLC approach can be the key to changing their educational experience. 

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