On my son's second day of
second grade this year, he emerged frowning at pick-up.
"How was your day?" I asked,
already alerted by the fact that my normally smiley guy was anything but.
He shook his little head, top
lip pouting over the huge gap where both his front teeth are missing. "Horrible.
The teacher shouts at us." Then he handed me a crumpled paper. As I unfolded
it, I recognized his earnest, left-handed scrawl, reading: "It is my
responsibility to get my agenda signed, not my parents. I will remember to get
It had taken a significant
chunk of my son's short recess to write this note for a slight that was, to my
way of thinking, a product of simply not being used to the new rules of a new
class and partly my fault for
forgetting to sign his agenda.
"I almost got moved down to
orange," he then said.
I teased out of him that, like
some sort of emergency alert system, the children's behavior is tracked by a
color-coded warning method. Green is only average,
going as low as red for "parent contact" while the highest behavior level—pink—earns
the student a clip around the teacher's necklace (how "Brave New World"). If a
student has ended any day on orange, they may not participate in "Fun Friday"
at the end of the week, which is an hour of student-led games. What's more, the table that is
the best behaved in any given week earns cushions for their hard desk chairs. So
are uncomfortable chairs just what "bad" kids deserve?
I understand the challenges
of keeping 27 7-year-olds at attention, but I have my doubts about the
effectiveness of stratifying "good" behavior from "bad" behavior with public
shame and loss of privilege.
Where is the line between
teaching personal responsibility to 7-year-olds and taking away the activities
and circumstances (recess, Fun Friday, comfy chairs) that are most likely to contribute to
them being better, more patient and attentive students?
Several times he's had to move his clip down to the dreaded orange (one step before parent contact), just for failing to raise his hand before asking a question.
In my son's first-grade class
last year, his teacher, a veteran of 29 years who was still clearly in love
with her job, would correct a child's behavior with a simple phrase. "That's
not showing respect," she might say, and then resume teaching in her usual firm
but caring approach. I can't speak to my
son's new teachers, since I haven't had the opportunity to volunteer in their
classroom, and I'll be the first to admit that my son is very sensitive (He often accuses me of "shouting" when I use my stern voice). But I'm not getting a loving vibe.
My son's school claims to be
adhering to a new strategy of "Positive Discipline," a system designed by Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs and made more
popular by author Jane Nelson. In a nutshell, Positive Discipline asks of each discipline strategy, in their words:
Is it kind and firm at the same time?
(Respectful and encouraging)
Does it help children feel a sense of
belonging and significance? (Connection)
Is it effective long-term? (Punishment works
short-term, but has negative long-term results.)
Does it teach valuable social and life skills
for good character? (Respect, concern for others, problem-solving,
accountability, contribution, cooperation)
Does it invite children to discover how
capable they are and to use their personal power in constructive ways?
Isn't moving one's clip down to a "bad"
level still punishment? Isn't being asked to give up recess to write a note for
an incomplete responsibility, or the threat of losing Fun Friday still
punishment? How do those things support a child's sense of belonging or
Sure, I can see how it keeps them accountable and teaches them skills they'll need in life, but I can't say for sure that I
think it meets the criteria of positive discipline. And I can't say with any
confidence that it's making my son a better behaved student. Several times he's
had to move his clip down to the dreaded orange (one step before parent
contact), just for failing to raise his hand before asking a question.
My son's class is further
confounded by the fact that he has two teachers. These teachers split the week
in half and trade Wednesdays. He begins the week with the teacher he calls "the
mean one" (albeit: I haven't spent time in her class and can't affirm or deny
that this is true) and ends the week with the one he likes. Though they
both ostensibly adhere to the same rules, it's clear that they do not interact
with the students in the same way. Both are "strict" but my son (and other
kids, I've heard) prefer the one who seems to give them the benefit of the
doubt, who lets them write their responsibility letters after lunch, instead of
during recess, who lets them earn back the privilege of Fun Friday even if they
I know it's not fair to criticize a
classroom I don't run or a teacher's job when I have never had it myself. But
if I had it my way, they'd stick to the basic reminders we teach in a
program I volunteer with once a month called Project Cornerstone that aims to
prevent bullying and teach children skills for life: Make good decisions, show
respect, and be an upstander. It seems to me that those three simple rules do
everything that Positive Discipline suggests—teaching the kids to decide for
themselves what is right and what is wrong in a way that encourages belonging and
personal responsibility without need of reward or punishment.