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Is This Positive Discipline or Just Shaming?

Photograph by Getty Images

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 signed."

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.

"To what?"

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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 significance?

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 lost it.

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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.

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