In spite of the tumultuousness of caring for twenty to thirty children each day, teaching can be a rather solitary profession. Teachers are busy in their own rooms and rarely get the chance to visit the rooms of our colleagues, particularly during class time. I spent some time in Adele Schroeter’s 4th grade classroom, because her class and mine were buddy-classes, in Connie Norgren’s first grade room because for five years we did a modified version of team teaching and in Phyllis Allen and Bill Fulbrecht’s kindergarten class because we often planned together and combined our classes for periodic group singing. Those were pretty much the classrooms in my school that I was very familiar with.
After retiring as a classroom teacher I began working as a literacy consultant. In this capacity, I have had the opportunity to visit classrooms in all different communities in New York City. There are so many times when I wish I could go back into my classroom to try out some of the wonderful instructional ideas that teachers shared with me on my visits. However, there’s one thing that I saw in so many classrooms that both surprised and upset me – all different forms of behavior management charts.
The use of behavior management charts in early childhood classrooms seems to be much more common than I ever realized. Some charts involve stars or stickers. Many of them seem to be color-coded. From what I can gather, the goal of most of them is to keep children under control.
I definitely understand how important and challenging it is for teachers to maintain a calm atmosphere in the classroom. It can be disturbing for the teacher and for the students when there are children who constantly exhibit disruptive behaviors.
How well I remember those evenings when I returned home from work, carrying in my head the name and image of some particular child. After a day at work, I could still hear the voice of a child who spent a good part of the day pushing me to the edge of my patience!
As challenged as I was ten years ago, today’s teachers have so much more that they must deal with. In my observations of kindergarten, first and second grade classes over these past few years, it is evident how many more children there are who might be labeled “discipline problems” or, even more extremely, children with ADHD. Today’s educators are faced with a myriad of unfair obstacles. Teachers who once worked with teaching assistants are now, because of budget cutbacks, without any classroom help. In addition to adjusting to new curriculum demands they also have larger classes. Most classrooms include children with diagnosed and undiagnosed special needs.
I think that it’s impossible not to consider the impact that the academic take- over of the early childhood curriculum, concurrent with the implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards and benchmarks is having on the school life of the young child. This phenomenon has created teaching schedules filled with long stretches of sitting, listening, reading and writing. There are few opportunities for children to experience play and exploration, creating a climate in which an increase in behavioral issues is no surprise. The Scottish psychologist, R. D. Laing believed that some mental dysfunctions that patients with psychosis exhibited were often understandable responses to difficult life experiences. Perhaps we can make an analogy and say that the aggressive classroom behaviors of some active young children are reactions to some of the developmentally inappropriate practices that fill their days.
Taking all of this into account, I understand the appeal of using a visual rewards system for keeping behavior in check. This might, on a very short term, have some positive effect on controlling classroom behavior. However, there are some important questions to be asked.
Are children learning to internalize acceptable social behaviors with this chart or are they only exhibiting these behaviors in exchange for a reward? Are we, unintentionally, labeling children the “good” children in the class and the “bad” children in the class? Are the more dutifully behaved children becoming anxious about the possibility of being moved to a negative spot on the chart? Are the charts giving teachers important information about why children are acting out? (Perhaps a child is bored with the work. A child might have had a traumatic incident at home that evening or morning. A child might be hungry. A child might physically need more opportunities to move around freely.) Is this chart helping to develop a caring classroom community?
Because of the challenges of teachers and children face each day, it is even more crucial to spend time establishing a classroom community that is built on trust, respect, cooperation and student empowerment. I believe that an important goal for teachers is to establish a democratic and responsive classroom community. This is, by no means, an easy task but the results prove well worth all of the teacher’s time and effort. Sir Ken Robinson, in his book Finding Your Element, writes, “ When communities create shared ideas, values and patterns of behavior, they create a culture. What you make of what lies within you is affected by the culture you are a part of: by what it encourages and discourages, permits or forbids.”
The use of public behavior tracking charts can, in effect, act counter to the goal of creating the kind of community that I think most teachers desire. Rather than giving children a positive message, tracking children’s behavior on a chart displayed on a bulletin board sends and unspoken negative message that someone in this class is likely going to misbehave. Children begin to focus on where they are on this chart and how they compare to other children in the class. They think about who is always “bad” and who is “good” in the room. An element of stress is passed on to all the children. Children who tend to be more physically active begin to develop negative self-image because their behavior invariably puts them in the “misbehaving” category. This public display that rates a child’s behavior becomes a means of possibly causing shame, stress, and feelings of defeat.
I have noticed that the classrooms I visit with the most stable and calmest communities are classrooms where teachers have not used behavior charts or other methods of doling out rewards and punishments as a means of maintaining classroom order. For example, when I bring visitors to Pam Roque’s kindergarten classroom at P.S. 142 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, everyone is immediately impressed by the noticeable independence and cooperation among her children. When I was last in her room, I looked around for a behavior chart but couldn’t find one. I asked Pam about this and she said that she never used one. It just wasn’t the way that she wanted to conduct her class. I did notice that the room was arranged and conducted so that the children would develop independence. The room is not cluttered with teacher’s paraphernalia and centers were set up so that children could access materials easily. At class meetings, it’s easy to sense how interested Pam is in children’s comments and observations. She is a good listener and gives children time to think about their questions and answers. This respect for everyone’s contributions is a positive role model for the children’s own behaviors.
My first year as a literacy consultant, I worked in a public school in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. Being new to this work, I felt rather anxious and not quite sure yet about the parameters of my role. One of my first assignments was to help a new first grade teachers learn how to conduct guided reading groups. The teacher, Rob Catlin (now the principal of the River East School, a progressive NYC public school), had a very challenging class. Many children were living under difficult conditions and some began the day exhibiting angry and aggressive behaviors. Rob, however, had received training in Responsive Classroom strategies, which he employed at his morning meetings. At first I would impatiently wait for these long meetings to end so that we could get started on our reading work. However after sitting through a few of these morning sessions, I could see the wonderful community building that was taking place and literally see the children begin to relax and smile. They shared important information about themselves and commented on each other’s reflections. They were becoming a caring and respectful community.
In my own classrooms I never had a particular program that I followed but I did have some routines that might have encouraged empathy and cooperation. . In place of a list of rules, we learned and discussed in great detail the poem Hurt No Living Thing by Christina Rossetti. This poem became the basis of our code for classroom behavior. The simple words of the poem really contained everything that we needed to know about what could and couldn’t be done in school. What does it mean to hurt someone? Have you ever been hurt? How did it feel? Have you ever felt hurt inside? What do you think made you feel that way? When we opened up this kind of conversation, we really were talking about sensitivity and respect. The words to the poem were, of course, revisited often during the school year, each time with greater depth of understanding.
Hurt no living thing:
Ladybird, nor butterfly,
Nor moth with dusty wing,
Nor cricket chirping cheerily,
Nor grasshopper so light of leap,
Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat,
Nor harmless worms that creep.
About halfway through the school year we would begin collecting “Acts of Kindness” which were dictated to me or written by children and posted on a classroom bulletin board. At first, noticing kind acts was a big challenge for the children. They wanted me to post their own acts of kindness but on this board we posted acts of kindness that we noticed others doing. After a while everyone was on the lookout for signs of kind acts AND they wanted others to notice their kind acts! The board kept filling up with sticky notes describing different kind acts in our classroom, in the lunchroom, in the playground, in the schoolyard and….every once in a while, acts of kindness that they noticed at home!
Each week children took on different classroom jobs. One of the jobs was to be the class comforter. The child who had that job would comfort a classmate who was in distress. This could be someone having separation issues, a classmate who fell in the schoolyard, or someone who was having difficulty calming down in class. The act of being a comforter didn’t happen automatically for all children. We did much role-playing, discussion, sharing of how they were comforted by parents, and also what made them feel better when they were upset. We even had a “Comfort Song” that my good friend and colleague, Connie Norgren, taught me. (What do I do when my ____________is crying? What do I do? What do I say? I take my ______________in my arms and hold him) We sometimes even sang about comforting our pets or our grandparents. The children took this song very seriously!
My classroom also had our Cozy Reading Room, a painted refrigerator box with an arched door cut out and some nice soft pillows to sit on inside. Two children sometimes snuggled up in here to read books or share stories with each other. This also became a spot where the class comforter would do his or her magic to comfort the child in distress.
I would like to say that I didn’t give children time in a “time out” chair but that would be an untruth. I did follow a rule that I once read somewhere, “as many minutes as the child’s age.” Nevertheless, to my horror, I once overheard a conversation that had a profound effect on my use of time outs. A parent was picking up a particularly active child at the end of the school day and she asked him how his day was. “Really good,” he told her. “I didn’t have any time out.” Oh my! I became very aware of not overusing this strategy again! The clinical psychologist, Dr. Laura Markhan wrote in an article to parents the “Timeouts make kids see themselves as bad people, …don’t help kids learn emotional regulation.” Mea culpa! If I could only go back and do things differently…but how?
Nikki Sabiston , in her blog entry, Why I Will Never Use a Behavior Chart Again, describes the Take-A –Break Space. The idea is that a child has an opportunity to cool down or remove him/herself from a stressful situation by going to some area in the classroom that is set aside just for this purpose. It’s non-punitive. The child decides when he or she is ready to rejoin the group. It sounds like a reasonable, more sympathetic alternative to a time out chair and it carries with it the assumption that the child can reflect on his/her behavior and learn to self-monitor.
Realistically speaking, there could be a time when a child might need an individual behavior plan, but this intervention certainly shouldn’t be punitive or long term. I had one opportunity to do this and it seemed to have successful results.
Larry (not his real name) was a challenging child. He knew how to push everyone’s buttons. When he came to my kindergarten class he was repeating the grade. His former teacher passed on this information to me, “Larry has no interest in learning anything.” Well this, I discovered quite quickly, was not true. Larry was very bright, loved anything to do with mathematics, could stick with a project for long periods of time if he was totally engaged with it, but also had, it seemed, a lot of pent up anger and also difficulty controlling his temper. I stayed with this group of children for two years, kindergarten and first grade. By the middle of first grade Larry had worn me down. I knew that I had to try something new with him.
Here is what I already knew. We were a very tight classroom community. Almost all of the parents found ways to support our classroom activities. A caring but very young mother who had three young, very active children was raising Larry. Larry’s father was incarcerated (although I was not supposed to know this. I discovered it by observing and listening to Larry when he was playing in the block center.) It was my hunch that Larry was pretty desperate for his mother’s attention and that he was anxious about his father’s condition. I couldn’t do very much about the situation with his father but I had an idea of how to somehow reach his mother. I set up a parent-teacher meeting and told her about my concerns for Larry. She was aware of his behavioral difficulties in school. She was living with the same behaviors at home and she, too, was at the end of her tether.
It was my belief that Larry was craving individualized attention from his mother. He wanted her all for himself and that wasn’t happening. I came up with a plan that I shared with Larry’s mom and she agreed to find a way to uphold her part of it. My next job was to share the plan with the class. I managed to arrange for Larry to be out of the room and I called a class meeting. I told the children that I was aware of the problems that they were having when Larry lost control of his behavior and I thought that we could all help him to find better ways of dealing with situations that upset him. The children listened quite attentively as I told them of my plan. I said that I was going to tell Larry that I was setting up a point system for him. Whenever I noticed that he was having a good day, or part of a day, I would give him a point. When he got twenty points, he was going to get a special treat. (What I did not tell the class is that the treat was going to be a trip to the ice cream parlor with his mother…just him, not his sister, not his brother. Only Mom and Larry, having a special time together.) We discussed ways that they could help Larry. If they noticed that he was getting frustrated, they would step in to help him out. They would compliment him whenever they could. They would be sure to ask him to join in their games in the schoolyard and tell him what a good job he was doing at the game before he had an opportunity to lose his temper. They would find times to ask him for help if it was something they knew he could help them with. These were all ideas that the children came up with.
That day I spoke with Larry about the point plan and told him about what his special reward would be. I told him that the class knew that we were doing this but that he was the only one responsible for getting the points. We were off and running.
Everything worked out better than I expected! The children did all that they could do to make school life easier and more successful for Larry. With each new conflict-free day, I could almost see Larry’s tense body relaxing. The children felt so pleased with the way that Larry was interacting with them.
Finally, Larry earned his 20 points. It was an exciting moment for him and for the class but a big disappointment followed. His mother told me that it was just too much for her to spend that time going out with him without taking the other two children. I just couldn’t convince her of how important it was. Somehow I managed to fudge some excuse but I suggested to Larry that we go out for a pizza lunch together and then go for an ice cream dessert. This seemed to make him happy. We told the class about our plan and everyone seemed quite pleased.
At lunch in the pizzeria I noticed that Larry was taking little pieces of the crust and setting them aside on a napkin. One, two, three…until he counted up to 23. “What are you doing?” I asked him. Larry looked up at me from his counting. “I’m bringing something back for my friends in school.”
We didn’t do the points again and Larry seemed to be having an easier time for the rest of the school year. Something between him and the other children changed and they appeared to become aware of how important their help was to him. I even noticed that some of the families were inviting him over for playdates after school.
It took quite a while for me to resort to a point reward system in my work with Larry. We had many talks, time outs and parent-teacher meetings before I resorted to this approach. In retrospect, I think that this plan would not have worked if I hadn’t first spent so much time supporting the development of a strong classroom community. It was this community of caring children that helped Larry deal with some of his challenging classroom behaviors.
A caring community and respect for each individual’s self-esteem – two essential goals as important as any other part of the curriculum in any early childhood classroom.