Why classroom behaviour modification methods are on my sad list

There are a number of aspects of mainstream education in the UK that I’m not comfortable with. The starting age, the lack of play based learning for under 7s, the lack of outdoor learning, homework for primary school children, reward systems, class sizes, age segregation, the one size fits all approach and if you can’t do it now we’ll just push harder instead of backing off and coming back later. OK, that’s quite a few already.

But what has really got under my skin this week are the reports brought to me by my child, who talks very sparingly about what happens in school, of the happy/sad face chart in his new classroom.

The teacher, I’m told, has a chart on the classroom wall with a happy face on one side and a sad face on the other. When a child ‘misbehaves’ she writes their name under the sad face. If they misbehave again they get a tick next to their name. For each tick received they miss five minutes of their playtime. If they are especially ‘good’ they get their name written under the happy face, or moved from the sad face to the happy face.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this type of method of course. There are several variations – traffic lights, sun and cloud, they’re all basically the same thing. So what’s my problem with them?

Well, where do I start?

I get that a classroom teacher needs to keep order in the classroom. I do. But is this really the best they can come up with? How exactly is this going to be helpful to a child who is having difficulty meeting the many expectations school heaps upon them?

How is it helpful to be effectively told you are a bad person, and that, furthermore, the fact that you are a bad person is going to be publicly announced to the entire class – to all other children and staff in the classroom or anyone who might enter the classroom during your time of shame. Why not just give out a dunce’s cap?

What effect is this shaming going to have on your self-esteem? And what effect is low self-esteem going to have on your behaviour? Bingo. It’s going to make it worse. It’s quite possibly one of the causes of the ‘bad’ behaviour in the first place.

How is missing some or all of your playtime – a precious opportunity to do what you desperately need to be doing; getting outside and playing and letting off some steam – going to help your future behaviour? And how might you feel during that missed playtime? Positive, ready to make a real effort, feeling able to fit in, school’s a good place? Or resentful, bad, ashamed, school sucks?

My child highlighted another problem with all this when he told me, “Jimmy’s always on the sad face, he’s really naughty.”

Great. Jimmy is labelled, categorised. How is this going to help Jimmy? Will it make him more or less likely to make some solid peer connections that will have a positive effect on his behaviour? Or will he become ostracised? Will it improve his behaviour? Or will he just give up. After all, he’s always on the sad face, clearly he just can’t do anything right, he’s naughty.

When a child is given a label, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish talk about this in their book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”;

“If you labelled a child as a slow learner, he could begin to see himself as a slow learner. If you saw a child as mischievous, chances are he’d start showing you just how mischievous he could be…..the child who has been given the name begins to play the game. After all, if everyone calls Mary bossy, then that’s what she must be.”

Children behave well when they feel good about themselves and their environment, not when they have a dark cloud hanging over their heads all day long. And the very children that most need help, are the ones likely to end up under that dark cloud every day, giving them just what they don’t need.

Just because so far my child is not the one under the sad face every day, doesn’t mean I’m going to be OK with what’s going on in his classroom, the place he spends a significant part of his time. I chose to put him in a mainstream school so I shouldn’t complain? Actually, other than home education, there was no choice, no alternative school. Yet my child has a right to go to school, and he also, I believe, has a right to be treated better than this. Our children deserve more respect and understanding. And by understanding, as with the title of my blog, I don’t just mean understanding of their behaviour and the underlying needs behind it, but understanding of the negative effects of these superficial behaviour modification techniques. They may ‘work’ for some children (but at what cost?), but they are failing many. Teachers should know better, be better informed.

Oh, and perhaps if we didn’t stuff 30 five-year-olds into a classroom for six hours a day five days a week we wouldn’t need to resort to these methods in the first place.

8 Responses to Why classroom behaviour modification methods are on my sad list

  1. charlotte says:

    Well put, I agree with everything on your list. My dd is also in a mainstream school and you are right, they do deserve better but have a right to be able to attend school without it being disrespectful and traumatic. Is home ed something you have ever considered? For me, it feels the only way forward x

    • Jo says:

      Thanks Charlotte. Yes, I have considered home education but sadly, for various reasons, don’t feel it’s something I’m able to do at this time. I do feel it would be a much better option though, and I have a lot of respect (and a little envy!) for those who home educate.

  2. paul says:

    I totaly agree my 4year old is obsessed with the sad face chart at his school if i ask him about his day the first and sometimes only thing he says is about the workings of the sadface chart he seems to rarely get put on the happy face chart and has become dispondent to the point of spending the whole of this evening crying and holding back tears.im going to talk to his teacher about it tommorow. personally i think its a lazy system,class size is no excuse his class has 1 teacher and 2 assistants, if three trained people cant control 27 children without this primitive method then i dont hold out much hope for the future of education….state run obsessed with money and headed by someone without any teaching qualifications thats my sons school and its supposed to be one of the best in hammersmith..ill comment again tommorow on what happens.

    • Jo says:

      I agree Paul, and I hope you get some results talking to your son’s teacher. I’ve spoken to parents who’ve said their children deliberately get themselves on the sad face chart first thing in the morning as they don’t feel they’ll be able to stay off it, and so want to ‘get it over with’ or take back some control. It’s so bad for self esteem and so self defeating.
      I tried talking to my son’s teacher as diplomatically as I could and didn’t get anywhere. She is an experienced teacher with a good reputation, so I find it pretty depressing if this is the best she can come up with. One thing that bugs me is that my son’s reception teacher (he’s now in year 1) didn’t use this method or anything like it, and strangely this did not lead to anarchy in the classroom. You are right – there’s just no excuse for it.

  3. Kate says:

    What would you suggest schools do about poor behaviour? I don’t disagree with your points but as an learning support worker in school who witnesses first hand the rise in poor behaviour and does nothing but heap on the positivity and praise to these children to no avail I would be open to your suggestions. Parents these days seem to have all the answers but actually faced with a class full of pupils you have to teach and a curriculum to deliver I wonder whether you would then stick to your principles.

    • Jo says:

      I don’t have all the answers. I’m not a teacher and I don’t think I’d fare too well with a group of 30 children! However, many teachers seem to manage well enough without resorting to these methods. Perhaps there is something to be learned from their methods, or from methods used in schools that don’t have these systems.

  4. Vanessa says:

    After trashing all the hard work UK teachers do in the classroom to manage behaviour day in day out, teach a curriculum and keep everyone safe and happy WHAT exactly do you propose in terms of rewards and sanctions for a class of 30 four year olds? I could ot find a single suggestion in your article. Systems are put in place as whole school behaviour management policies after a lot of discussion by staff who must remain realistic about how many plates we can spin at once whilst supporting children to make good choices about their behaviour. We do not label children as naughty or any other such terms, we treat them with more respect. We took up the vocation because we care about the children and want to help them to learn in a safe and stimulating environment where good choices and focus on learning and learning through play are paramount, especially in EYFS. If you want to make a difference in the classroom then please volunteer in your child’s classroom, see how things run, get involved, join the PTA and help instead of criticising from your kitchen table. If you have a legitimate suggestion for behaviour management then see your head teacher by all means. Saving up all these gripes for parents’ evening is not what such meetings are for. Instead see your child’s teacher after school for 5 minutes with the odd query and resolve little things as they occur for your child.

    • Jo says:

      Rather than criticising from my kitchen table, as you term it, I have raised this issue repeatedly with various teachers as my child has moved from nursery and through the school. Incidentally, his reception teacher didn’t use this method, and her classroom seemed to run very well. It is a relatively new method that was never used when I was at school, and yet, again, most teachers seemed to manage perfectly well without such methods. As I am not a teacher, I do not feel it is my place to make suggestions however – I can only point out and object to the negative effect of current methods and try to raise awareness of the actual psychology and research behind them, in the hope that teachers will rethink.
      If you would like more suggestions and support on how to use other methods in the classroom there is an excellent website and Facebook page here.

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