Why classroom behaviour modification methods are on my sad list

September 27, 2012

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.