All Behavior is Not Equal

By Suzy Barile

As if having her parents divorce when she was in second grade and her Granny die when she was in third weren’t enough to ruin elementary school for my daughter, as a fourth grader, she had the teacher students referred to as “Ms. Satan.” It rhymed with her last name.

Each afternoon when I picked up Jen from the Hillsborough Street YMCA in Raleigh and asked how her day had gone, she gave one of two answers: “I got my name on the board” or “I didn’t get my name on the board.” That was the punishment for most wrongdoings in “Ms. Satan’s” class, from talking and hitting others to not having one’s homework folder. While I am certain this long-time educator saw it as a deterrent to future poor behavior – though those who really misbehaved started collecting checkmarks beside their names -- in our family it became a matter of self-esteem.

Now, I wasn’t one of those moms who ran to the principal each time something didn’t sit right with my child. As the daughter of a U.S. Navy officer, I learned to follow rules, and that is what I expected of my own. But when an elementary school student gauges her day on whether her name has been put on the board, the time has come to take action.

First I talked to a friend who taught kindergarten and was using positive reinforcement in her classroom. She found it worked beautifully, so I made an appointment with the teacher and told her of our problem, of how my child was embarrassed by having her name posted on the board where everyone else could see. What if, I suggested, every child started out each week with a certain amount of play money, and for each wrongdoing, a portion of it had to be paid to the teacher. At the end of the week, the children with money left could “shop” for stickers, a piece of candy, or some other trinket. As long as the teacher used discretion in allowing her students to “shop,” there would be no need for embarrassment.

“Ms. Satan” looked at me like I was from another planet and thanked me for stopping by. End of conversation. What could a mother possibly know about disciplining fourth graders?

My next stop was the school office, where I was handed over to the assistant principal who listened, acknowledged my position, asked me to serve on a committee to discuss various punishment options for the following year, and sent me on my way. You guessed it. No call inviting me to committee meetings ever came. We were thrilled when fourth grade ended!

Thankfully the year with “Ms. Satan” was just that – a school year. And somehow we survived. Today my daughter is a well-adjusted 24-year-old professional who seems NOT to have been harmed by the way in which retribution was meted out. But how I wish Dixie Frazier of Reedy Creek Elementary or Laurel Crissman of Apex Elementary had been her principal.

In these progressive settings, Frazier and Crissman and their staffs are joining educators in 12 other Wake County schools and across the nation trying to improve classroom conduct by teaching students how to behave, then rewarding them for their appropriate actions. The official mission, the school system says, is "to empower teachers and other adults with the skills needed to improve overall classroom and school climate to achieve higher academic performance for all students." In essence, they are teaching children to “do to the right thing,” as one parent has so aptly put it.

This idea was introduced 20 years ago by professors at the University of Oregon working with students in special-education classes and focusing on what they should be doing. Now this approach is reportedly being used in 5,000 schools in 38 states. By 2011, all Wake County schools will employ it.

At Apex Elementary, students have been earning stickers and filling up Compliment Cards under the program they call P.A.W.S. – Practice responsibility, Act kind and respectful, Work hard, Stay safe. Reedy Creek students have spent the last two years learning about positive choices and being accountable for their actions. Good choices include following directions, exhibiting good sportsmanship, and showing respect to adults and peers.

In applauding these undertakings, I think of the what-ifs of a long-ago school year: What if “Ms. Satan” had accepted my ideas in 1991 – five years after Positive Behavior Support was pioneered? What if she had used modeling of good behavior and rewarded it? What if Jen had learned it was far more enjoyable to have play money left at the end of the week to buy a sticker than to be embarrassed by her name on the board?

What if? What a wonderful fourth grade experience we could have had!

(Copyright 2007)

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