Under a Black Cloud – shame-based behaviour systems in schools

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.

19 thoughts on “Under a Black Cloud – shame-based behaviour systems in schools

  1. David

    Thanks for sharing your insights with this piece. I wholeheartedly agree with you. In fact, my daughter, who is 10 and is challenged with Asperger’s Syndrome, has been singled out to sit alone in the lunch room at the misbehavior table before. And since kids like her are bewildered and challenged with social norms anyway it is a loss for everyone. Again, thanks for your writing.

    1. admin Post author

      I’ve been thinking about what you’ve written. These experiences can leave a deep inprint, even in children who don’t have additional challenges. I wonder if something like a naughty table is so much of a progression from a dunces hat. I know that teachers have a difficult job but there has to be a better way.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Deb at aspie in the family

    Thanks for writing this. I agree, the public nature of such behaviour systems is awful. I find it very disappointing that trained teachers are exercising such systems to be honest without any thought to the consequences. We have also had similar issues with behaviourial systems for my autistic children on top of which we’ve had to put up with some teachers favouritising some children. As a result my children have been sidelined many a time and not given a chance to properly participate in school life with the result that my son’s self esteem was destroyed. Even more worrying was that my son was calling himself dreadful names that other children were calling him. I can’t help but think that if the school were properly inclusive that this wouldn’t have happened. Deb

    1. admin Post author

      Self-esteem is such a fragile gift and once it has been damaged it is very hard to repair. In 2007 a UNICEF report found that in the UK our children are the unhappiest in the industrialised world. Maybe we need to have a closer look at the reasons why.
      Thanks for commenting.

  3. phyllis

    This is one of my big concerns for our adopted child, two of my 5 birth children have been educationally challenged and the shame I have felt waiting in the playground knowing the teacher is heading for me yet AGAIN, it is only now older and wiser that I have been able to question the schools over behavior policies and even moved one of my children in year 9 it really did feel like ‘square peg round hole’.
    I want all my children to have the same opportunities but feel the local infant school is very sheltered and does not have understanding for a child with common learning difficulties let alone something more complex as an adopted child.This school is not alone in their lack of understanding I hear it from frustrated carers all the time, at least once a fortnight a six year old ‘looked after child’ is being excluded from school ! how does this help this frightened child.

    1. admin Post author

      I think all teaching staff should receive training in how to manage traumatised children. And these children, whether in the care system or adopted, should arrive in school with a package of support that is allocated to them and which does not disappear into a general budget. There is no doubt that they can be challenging to manage in a classroom environment but they have a right to an education. Any child who is or has been in the care system will have suffered beyond what most of us can imagine. It is obvious that they will find school very difficult. And then they are punished for finding it difficult, which increases their anxiety and fear and shame and makes their behaviour worse. Not only is this approach illogical, it is cruel.

      Choice of school for a traumatised child is key to their outcome. I have learnt a lot in the past eight years about what makes a suitable school for our children. Maybe I feel another blog post coming on …….

      Thanks for your comment. I take my hat of to you.

  4. Mat

    I have begun working in my sons school with a 5 yr old who is having problems ‘conforming’ to the education system. It’s been 3 weeks now since being offered the job due to particular skills that the head felt i have owing to having a 10 yr old with ongoing issues surrounding the school system. Working with this particular child seems a walk in the park compaired to the severity of the behaviour displayed in the past by my own child but the issues i’ve had working in the classroom lie with the teacher and assistant. Shaming and blaming are their chosen method of working with the class of 4 and 5 yr olds, and I aint getting it! Therefore the first day back i made an appointment with the head, after keeping my observations to myself and getting really frustrated and cross with the environment these children are spending their time in. I have also reflected how my own younger son felt being in this class a few years previous and understand now some of the issues we had with him at the time. The head was in total support of what i told her and is backing me with whatever i feel i can do to make the classroom a less shamefull place.
    A big sad face is drawn on the white board at the front of the class with names underneath of the offending child, public discussion about how terrible this child is in front of the child, ‘time-out’ for said child in a postion where all and sundry have to walk past them. The only thing missing seems to be a dunce hat or maybe a big bright badge saying ‘I’M A BAD PERSON!(or similar!)
    What’s it all about? Shouldn’t we be nurturing rather than standing in judgement of childrens behaviour. In my opinion, the majority of children have enough on their plates to contend with, whether it be early childhood trauma, being in the care system, broken families, struggling single-parent families, families who don’t give a damn blar blar blar, surely school should be a happy safe place away from stuff which makes them feel rubbish!
    Well, in my role at school i am gonna do all i possibly can to readjust this negative approach and i don’t give a monkey how many adult ‘friends’ i lose along the way, the kids are far more important and if it weren’t for them i wouldn’t have my job anyway!

    1. admin Post author

      Thank you so much for your comment. I agree with everything you have written. Interesting that you make the connection with a dunces hat as I have been thinking along the same lines. Or how about the stocks? That’s how it used to be dealt with. These are all visual symbols of stupidity or badness which are so powerfully toxic, especially to damaged brains.

      This sort of thing would never be allowed in an adult place of work – sad faces on wipe boards, a table of shame which everyone has to walk by on their way to the water cooler.

      Keep up the good work!

  5. Tempy

    As someone who tries to implement positive parenting, I hate to think that some of our children go to school under such a literal cloud of negativity. I am heartened that at our daughter’s school they earn “golden time” for being good, and are given awards for desirable pro-social behaviour, rather than being given sanctions and being judged or humiliated like this. A very interesting article, thank you.

    1. admin Post author

      Thanks for your comment.

      Not all schools are the same and some measures which seem positive don’t always work out that way for traumatised children. For instance, if they are excluded from golden time for fidgeting, not focussing or other such things that these children struggle with, then they will be watching everyone else having fun whilst feeling shame, exclusion etc. What they need is a structure around them to enable them to be successful and no unrealistic expectations.

  6. Sarah

    Thank you for this lovely piece too! My nephew has Aspergers, and he too suffered like this in Primary and Junior school where he was always “the naughty child”! He hated going to school, but I am pleased to report that he is absolutely loving his new secondary school where is he respected for who is, not who the teachers want him to be. He even went in today with a really bad cold, saying to his mum that he didn’t want to be off school in case he missed something interesting! Think your writing style is lovely and I just love reading your articles.

    1. admin Post author

      Thank you for taking the time to write such lovely things. I’m glad that your nephew is happy at school now. (It’s a long time to feel miserable.)

  7. Devon Mum

    I have only just read this piece through the link on your latest blog. This is so so true. And it doesn’t necessarily get any better at secondary school either. Having your child told by their year head that ‘if you can’t abide by the rules, maybe you ought to go to a new school’ only reinforces how my daughter feels about the staff, namely that they don’t want her there, that she isn’t worthy. Hence our up coming BIG meeting. I have my Adoption Support Social Worker coming as well as an EP (who has never met us, only go the job of coming to the meeting last week and who I had to chase after just to get a word with her in advance) and numerous school staff. We shall see……………………………

  8. Terri Harding

    Hi, I spent 14 years dealing with different school systems who looked at my son as varying degrees of lazy and stupid. Not a boy trying his hardest to get by with dyslexia and memory disorders.
    People outside of school commented on how polite and helpful he was, where people (including teachers, aids and principals) inside of school commented on how angry he was and how lazy he was and how even though he had been ordered accomodations to help with the memory issues … they did not need to follow through. So I inturn working on his behalf was labled as uncooperative even though I had to force him to go outside and play after he refused to quit with 5 hours of homework, so that the two of us could have somewhat a normal life and still love each other.

    I began to look for places outside of school where he could feel sucessful, and good about himself. Things only got worse at school for him when I expressed that to the teachers, finally he was able to say it for himself and it got better.
    So what about the children who never have anyone standing up for them, and what about the kids who never have anyone telling them they are worth it and life doesnt end because you coloured outside the lines … and onto the desk. I suspect they are hurt little people who grow into hurt grownup people who hurt little people.

    I am a teacher. In school we were shown all sorts of types of systems of behaviour modification. We were pretty much left to sort it out on our own. When I expressed in school that some of these systems might cause damage to childrens identities… I was hushed and talked over.

    In my classroom I fight to keep the wall of shame out. I am nearly constantly submitted to “sugestions” from teaching coaches that my system of points, where everyone is given a goal number of points based on their own ability- so that they all work together to help each other get to the point goals, just doesn’t work.
    I often feel it is very clearly expected I will comform. I will never. Staffmeetings regarding this type of topics often result in clear sniggers and remarks.

    To me, naming and shaming is a type of bullying.

  9. Morwenna

    My daughter has recently started school, aged four. She tells me they are using this weather system to publicly shame and reward behaviours. She comes home each day telling me she did not reach the shooting star. At her school they all start on the sunshine and get promoted to the star or demoted to the rain cloud. The trouble is my daughter believes it bad to remain on the sunshine. She is starting to believe she is a ‘bad person’ and doesn’t understand why she hasn’t been rewarded for her good behaviour. I am really concerned like most of the commentators posting here, that in time she will begin to form this as a core belief. I feel this may lead to negative thought patterns at a time when educators should be giving children the confidence to learn in a safe and nurturing environment. I have a parents evening and would love to articulate my thoughts with some evidence and alternative positive reinforcement ideas.

    Concern parent

  10. Caroline

    My daughter Ava 4 is in a reception class and they use a system of stay on green . So far Ava has stayed on green since she started in September which is great . There are a few boys who are constantly on yellow . Ava is now on yellow too . I’ve tried to find out why from her as she was upset when she told me but it seems she was in the toilet talking to herself when she should have been learning ? Not sure if this true and will have to speak to the teacher tomorrow . If this is the case then I feel it too strict ! And it’s only now thinking about the others on yellow that you are right naming and shaming isn’t the way to go at all . And they are only 4 for gods sake . I do visits schools with my own work and schools with lots of behavioural problems . Positive words and encouragement will help struggling children rather than a shaming system with pictures on a board !

  11. A teacher

    Can I just point out that these charts are not there to “name and shame”. They are there as a visual reminder (as many children need visual aids) to remind children to ‘do the right thing’. If a child has behaved inappropriately, in my class it is almost always as a result of them doing something to harm/cause upset to another child, which cannot be accepted. I’m sure any parent would want something done if their child had been harmed by another. I have taught many children with additional support needs but they all must understand that certain things, such as hitting, breaking something on purpose, putting another child down is unacceptable. The child can have their name moved back to the sun at any point. Yes I do think it is important for children to know that someone has done something wrong and that behaviour has a consequence. That is how society works! Teachers are aware of children’s individual needs and their ability to control inappropriate behaviour. I would be shocked to see any teacher punish a child for something which he/she was unable to control. I also would like to add that I find your ‘plumber’ comment highly offensive. Why would it be so bad for your child to become a plumber? It seems you are the one labelling children – you obviously think your own child is “better than that”. remember every child has their own strengths and abilities and the world will always need plumbers.

  12. Rm

    Well said Teacher. I am a teacher and also a parent with 2 children in primary school. I have operated similar systems to the smily face/ sad face system. The children love the system and endeavour to have their name under the smile as they get to take a certificate home at the ed of the day. There is a fresh start each day. I try to ensure that all children are recognised for some brilliant achievement at some point during the week. Unfortunately there are some very infrequent times when some children hurt each other. This behaviour cannot be ignored. The sad face is a warning. In my class it is used infrequently and parents are informed. There is always a fresh start at the start of a new day. I would then be seeking the positives for the child and try to ensure he or she was noticed for something good. As a parent I would be very upset if my four year old boy was forever under the sad face as I feel that a daily occurance of this is not acceptable. If my boy was hurting others I would expect to have been informed and would expect the school to be working with me and my son to promote and encourage better behaviour. Again as a teacher I would never want to ruin a child’s self esteem and would hope that all the lovely parents that I have known over the years have not thought so badly of me. By the way, my dad was a plumber.!

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