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A Mom’s Take On Behavior Systems

When I write these blog posts, I usually try to be most parts teacher, with just a little mom sprinkled in there for good measure.  Today’s post comes straight from this mom’s heart because my kid had a hard day.

My son, Owen, is in ninth grade, and he has autism.  He just started high school five weeks ago, and the first few weeks were pretty smooth.  Teachers out there, you may know this as a honeymoon period.  So now the newness has worn off, and the drudgery of the school routine is settling in for my sweet boy, so we’ve had some bumps.  Here’s the thing…I’ve been super impressed by the way his teachers have handled his behaviors, but I still find myself apologizing (something my teacher-self always hates to see parents do.) He’s in mostly regular ed classes, so these kind souls didn’t know exactly what they were in for when they saw his name on the roster, and now they’re trying to figure him out.  That’s what we do as teachers, we have to figure our kids out–whether they’re high school or preschool.  And I try to be helpful to his teachers, but he’s my kid, so I lose all perspective, and I feel a little helpless.  That little helpless feeling is what leads to this blog post, because what I do have perspective on is how to manage behaviors in my own classroom. 

For many kids, and particularly those with language delays, attention deficits, and sensory processing difficulties, school can be excruciating. They often struggle to comply with teacher directions, they get bored easily, and they’re often lost in their own world.  For these kids and so many others, the traditional school behavior systems, like getting a frowny face, a red dot, or the apple slipping off the behavior tree, mean nothing, and in many cases, they serve to publicly shame kids who may be struggling.

I will never forget when my older son, who is typically developing, started kindergarten and would come home and tell me about his friend whose apple was always on the ground.  I remember asking him, “Can the apple go back on the tree if he makes a good choice?”  “No!  When the apple is on the ground, it stays there until tomorrow.  Then you get to try again.”  So what does that tell a kid whose apple is rotting at the bottom of the bulletin board after morning circle?  What incentive does that child have to make better choices for the rest of the day?  And what does that kid’s apple say about that kid to every single person who walks into that classroom, particularly the principal or teacher from the next grade up.  Are we literally labeling kids as “bad apple” from the very beginning?

Owen was in preschool when my older son was in kindergarten, but I figured out quickly that with that kind of system, he would be an apple on the ground kind of kid.  And for me, the parent, seeing the apple at the end of the day doesn’t tell me much about how to support him to make better choices tomorrow. I don’t believe that consequences at home at 6:00 pm for something that may have happened at school at 9:00 am have much meaning for young children. 

Just think about this for a minute…what if you spent your whole day knowing that you totally blew it that morning.  You were terrible at your job for a period of time.  It was so terrible that there is a note going home to your husband or wife telling them something like this…”Andrea had a really rough day today.  Her story time delivery was lackluster, her music circle was low energy, and she did not have materials prepared for today’s craft.”

When kids walk in the door after school, they should be in a safe space.  That child is home. Home is safe. Home is where he can finally let go of everything he’s been holding together.  The thing is, school should be safe, too.  The apple, the dot, or the frowny face, are only punitive.  They only serve to punish kids.  Isn’t it better to build kids up?  Isn’t it better to teach them to want to make good choices because it feels good?

We often get caught up in what is “fair” for students.  We have this idea that we have to treat all kids the same.  But kids aren’t the same.

As a teacher, I’ve had so many parents come to the door to pick up their child, and the first words out of their mouth are “did he have a good day?”  And so many times I’ve tried to explain that preschoolers come to school to learn to be at school.  They don’t know how to do it yet.  That’s why they’re here.  It’s my job to teach them how to have a good day.  And a good day for one child is not necessarily going to look the same as a good day for his BFF.  And that is why the apple, the dot, and the frowny face don’t work.  I’m telling you, there is a better way.  Because for so may kids with delays, and for so many with no diagnosis at all, what may start as an apple sliding off the behavior tree turns into a suspension, or worse later on.

Right about now you’re wondering what I think you should use as your behavior system, and it’s super easy.  Are you ready?  Don’t use a behavior system.  Build relationships with your kids.  Show them better choices when they make a bad one.  Give them attention, and hugs, and special memories of the time they made a good choice.  All of those things will mean way more in the long run than a sad little apple.

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