My son spent much of his first three years at school under a black cloud. I’m talking of course about a ‘school behaviour system’, in other words, teachers trying to get children to do what they want them to do.
Jamie would often not do what his teachers wanted him to do. He started school at four, a few months after he was placed with us for adoption.
His name, along with the names of the other children in his class, was printed on to card and laminated and a piece of velcro was attached to the back. Three pictures were similarly printed; a sunshine, a sunshine poking out from behind a cloud and a black cloud. On the first day of the year, all the names were stuck on a felt covered board under the sunshine, because all children are good and the sunshine is a good place to be. If a child stepped out of line then their name would be moved underneath the sun and cloud. If they offended again, their name would then be moved under the black cloud. The black cloud is a bad place to be, it is cold and dark there. The child would then have to display some consistently good behaviour in order to be moved back towards the sunshine.
The board displaying this weather system of compliance was on a wall of the reception classroom for all to see. I first noticed it during a parent’s evening. There were two names under the black cloud, my son’s and another little boys. Everyone else’s names were basking in the sunshine. After that I checked the board most days. The state of affairs mainly remained the same. Jamie came to school in the morning, four years old, full of joy and his name would be under the cloud, from the day before. At the end of the day it would normally not have made any progress towards better weather.
Before long Jamie was known as ‘one of the naughty ones’. You may know children like this. You may parent one yourself. It is not long after this that teachers and other parents start to use the word ‘plumber’.
The crux of such behaviour systems and there are many variations on the theme is public shame and humiliation. Most children have some ability to recover from public shame and humiliation because they know deep inside that they are good people and they want to please and be adored by adults.
May I be so direct as to say that these systems DO NOT WORK for my son and many like him who have spent their early years becoming acquainted with neglect and abuse. These children know deep inside themselves that they are bad and that they deserved everything they got. And we know, don’t we, that victims, even adult victims, blame themselves for that which happened to them? So when a child, who knows they are bad and feels deep shame, is shamed in a classroom, in front of their peers, it only goes to prove to them, that the adults around them see their badness as well. It confirms that what they know about themselves is right. And knowing they are bad, they do not have the capacity to prove to others that they are good.
After failing to convince this particular school about the weak points of a shame-based system of behaviour for my son and seeing a similar system in practise in the next school he would attend, we moved Jamie to a different school in a different area. He was taught by a very empathetic teacher who understood shame, blame and their relationship to abuse and neglect. She accepted him and nurtured him and understood that in order to make progress he had to be approached differently to many of the other children. He made great progress and the word ‘plumber’ has not been heard around these parts for a while.
It is time for educators to think more smartly about helping children grow up to make the right choices, or in other words ‘to behave properly’. These ‘systems’ are crass and can be cruel and they don’t work, particularly for those children most in need.
As always, comments are welcome.