Students should be very clear that they are to treat their partner, no matter who it is, with respect. That means no negative comments about who they are partnered with and it means that they need to be polite to their partner. Make the consequences for rudeness to a partner fairly severe so that students don't test it. At the same time, reward partners that work well together, especially if you know it is a challenging match, for one of both of them. It might be a good idea to role play several situations and then discuss. For example, you could have two students who you know are friends role play a situation in which one partner does not want to work with the other one and makes that clear.
Rarely Let Students Choose Their Partners
Letting students choose their own partners means that the same kids will always work together. It also means that there will always be issues with several students all wanting to work with the same child, and that child having to choose between them. In addition, in many classrooms, it results in there being a few kids that no one wants to work with who will be put reluctantly together. Not only is that humiliating for those kids, it also often results in a poor grouping as both children are likely to have poor social skills.
Instead, switch pairings often. Resist the urge to always pair students with the student sitting next to them. Students should be ready to work with any other student in the classroom at any time. Some teachers create partners pairings for a week at a time and then switch them every Monday, which is a nice strategy as then students have time to settle into the partnership and really learn to work together effectively. It is also good for children who thrive on routine and are thrown by randomness. Others, pair randomly. One of the quickest ways to pair randomly is to draw Popsicle sticks (with student names on them) two at a time.
Of course there are times when you will want to assign partners either by ability or because of behavioral issues. When you assign, plan your pairings ahead of time and have a list ready. Be clear that the list is nonnegotiable.
Give Clear Instructions
Make sure that everyone understands the task they are to complete. It can be helpful to divide the task into jobs or roles so that each student in the pairing knows exactly what his or her job is. If that is not appropriate for the task at hand, be sure students know what it means to share the work. This can be another fun situation to role play.
Circulate as your students work. Keep an eye out for pairs that are struggling and try to head of problems before they occur. You may also be able to help to mediate when two partners cannot agree. Be sure to comment on partners that are working well together.
Help Struggling Students
Partner work can be challenging for some students. Perhaps they have other issues such as ADHD or Asperger's that make working with others difficult or perhaps they are struggling academically or have emotional issues. Whatever the case, ask yourself if there is any way you can help. Does your school offer any social skills counseling? Can you set up some kind of a token reward system to train a specific behavior? Would having the pair work in the hall or in another quieter environment help? If the child really seems to be overtaxed, would it be the end of the world if he or she sat this one out and worked on something individually?
Do you have more thoughts on partner work? Please share with a comment!