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The One Quality You Need In Your Kid's Teacher Next Year

Photograph by Twenty20

In the beginning of the school year, my son was fixated on his classroom clip chart. From Day 1, I told him to focus on other things. Clip charts aren’t very effective, I whispered, over and over again. Take chances. Be brave. Don’t sit back and remain silent for fear of clipping down.

My prediction (in my own head, not out loud) was that he wouldn’t clip down all year. With 15 school days left, he has yet to clip down. I believe he stopped thinking about it somewhere around November. The thrill of clipping up wears off when you generally follow the rules and meet the classroom expectations.

I’ve seen these charts on and off in various classrooms throughout my career and, to some extent, I get it. They call it positive reinforcement. You sat and listened so you can clip up. Yay! But for the kids who struggle to sit and listen—the ones who sometimes forget to raise their hands or need a little more wiggle time—it quickly becomes a wall of shame.

And for the ones who don’t like to make waves—the ones who don’t ever want to get in trouble—well, those charts silence them.

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My son is fortunate to have a teacher who values empathy above “behavior.” Yes, the chart is on the wall, but it doesn’t seem to get much use. She helps the kids work through disagreements. She looks for the potential problems causing the behaviors. She listens to the kids and guides them. She teaches with empathy.

Understanding the reasons for the behavior, as it turns out, helps improve the relationship between the student and teacher. It helps decrease negative behaviors.

A recent study out of Stanford examined what would happen when middle school teachers were encouraged to take an “empathic mindset” to student discipline. Instead of relying on punitive methods, teachers were given the opportunity to express their empathic values and understand their students’ perspectives. Results showed that student suspensions decreased from 9.6 percent to 4.8 percent. Understanding the reasons for the behavior, as it turns out, helps improve the relationship between the student and teacher. It helps decrease negative behaviors.

As a child and adolescent psychotherapist, I work very closely with teachers. Teachers are with the kids most of the day—they see children at their best and at their worst. I find that, more often than not, teachers do empathize with their students. They want to understand what makes kids tick and how they can alter the learning environment to help kids thrive. They want to build positive and lasting relationships with their students.

The bottom line is that behavior systems are little more than Band-Aids.

One of the biggest roadblocks to relying on empathy, and one of the most often cited reasons for classroom reward systems, is lack of adequate support. Even under the best circumstances, a 1:24 ratio is difficult to manage. Teachers are under increased pressure these days. With the pushing down of academics comes increased stress for the teachers responsible for helping kids meet those lofty goals.

With a behavior system in place, teachers have something to inspire positive behaviors, something to fall back on. That’s enticing, and I can certainly understand it. If teachers had adequate classroom support (or smaller teacher-to-student ratios), however, it might be easier to shift to the empathic mindset.

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The bottom line is that behavior systems are little more than Band-Aids. They also require student buy-in. If a child doesn’t care about clipping down or the dreaded phone call home, the behavior chart quickly loses its value. The benefits of these systems tend to work on a short-term basis. For the first couple of months of the school year, the kids want to see their names reach the top of the chart. As they settle into the daily business of learning and growing as a group, incentive to reach the best color on the chart decreases. They have bigger things to worry about by then (like kickball vs. soccer for recess and what to write about in writer’s workshop).

I’m a dreamer, I know, but I can’t help but think that if we put the necessary supports in place, we can create classrooms rooted in empathy and compassion. And maybe, just maybe, those phone calls home will be a thing of the past.

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