a tiny conscience

Today I worked from home with a sick Ben, so Luis picked Maya up at school.

She came running in the living room happy to see me. Then suddenly her eyes darkened and it looked like tears were about to form. “Mommy, I was on Green today at school,” she said quietly, burrowing her face into my shoulder. “I wasn’t listening.”

“Oh honey, it’s OK,” I murmured. “Why didn’t you listen to your teachers today?” When she pulled away, I could see the disappointment brimming in her eyes, and didn’t want to make her feel worse. After all, this was the first time since starting the 4-year old preschool room several months ago that she hadn’t been “on yellow” — the highest color on the classroom’s behavior color chart, marked by clothespins with each kid’s name on it. Green is the next step “down.” And she had never, ever been on Green … until today.

While she can be zany as the next preschooler — and while she doesn’t often listen to me — she usually does listen to her teachers. So she was pretty upset about it; upset about it enough that it was the first thing she wanted to tell me about her day.

She has a little conscience, even at this age. Sigh.

Recognizing that if I dwelled on it she’d be even more upset, so instead I told her tomorrow is a new day; tomorrow she can try for Yellow again.

I know how hard on myself I was at her age (punishing myself) and I don’t want her to put so much pressure on herself at such a young age. That said, my own parents didn’t put pressure on me, either — I did it to myself! And we can’t always help who we are.

I adore our preschool and will sing their praises til the cows come home, but I have to say, I am a little mixed over the behavior chart in her classroom. On the one hand, I can see why it can be a motivating tool. Each child knows how to find his/her own name, so they can see where the clothespin with their name is clipped: Yellow, Green, etc. They each have a job in the classroom (custodian, line leader, engineer, caboose, table-setter, table-clearer, etc.) and want to do their job well and see their name on Yellow (“Superhero”), which means they cooperated, did their job, listened to their teachers, etc. It’s an exciting thing to be “on Yellow.” At pick-up, I don’t even bother looking at the chart for a couple reasons. First, Maya tells me her job and what color she was “on.” Second, her daily report details her day for  anything she leaves out. And third, I’m rushing to get Ben and get home. So I rarely look — but it’s there.

Which brings me to the flip-side of the behavior chart: what if my kid had been on the worst color each day? Where all the other parents and kids could see? Maybe I’m way too self-conscious but I don’t think I — as a parent — would find it encouraging, at all … And if I was the kid, I’m pretty sure that I would feel sad seeing my name and clothespin at the bottom of the color chart, day after day. Maya has no problem telling us who went to the office, who went on a break, etc. … which means the same could be said about her from other kids, if she was regularly getting into trouble. (I am not ignorant here; I’m sure her day will come!)

I’m assuming the charts must help change behavior or they wouldn’t exist … but I do think they might be more effective if they weren’t out in the open for everyone to see. We did a sticker chart with Maya when she was potty-training … but it wasn’t on display. It was something private for our family and the positive reinforcement did work, for sure. But we never made a big deal out of accidents … just moved on. To me, a day on Green (or any color other than Yellow) would be just an accident — something to move on from and try harder the next day … and nothing more.

How about you? Does your kids’ school have a behavior chart? Do you think behavior charts help or harm kids?

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2 thoughts on “a tiny conscience

  1. Wow, before I got to your part about having mixed feelings about the chart I was already thinking the same thing. I’m pretty sure Nate would often be near the bottom of the chart (we’re having some listening/focusing/inattention issues with him, especially at school) and my first thought was how he would definitely think he was “a bad kid” if he was always or often at the bottom. I hadn’t thought about the other parents seeing it, but you’re right – that would be hard, too.

    I think kids need motivation but it’s hard when they’re so little and it boils down to comparison and competition. They know it’s not good if they have the least stickers or are at the bottom of the chart. And I hate that it feels like we’re trying to churn out a group of identical good listeners, like they’re a product – but at the same time, they do need to learn expectations and social norms. It’s a tough call.

    1. I think it’s totally normal for kids to have “listening issues” at 3-4-5. They’re kids who test limits constantly; it’s part of their DNA.

      And it’s exactly what you said … “I hate that it feels like we’re trying to churn out a group of identical good listeners, like they’re a product – but at the same time, they do need to learn expectations and social norms. It’s a tough call.”

      I couldn’t have said that better! I mean, I know the parents aren’t looking at the chart judging one another, but it’s almost like, why bother leaving it up at the end of the day?

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