Saturday, January 8, 2011

Managing Behavior in Kindergarten (Part 1)

Ms Dorothy,
My son started Kindergarten in September.  His teacher gives "smiley" faces when the student had a good day and "frowney" faces when the student has misbehaved.  ______comes home almost every day with a "frowney" face.  I spoke to his teacher and she says he is not cooperating.  He speaks out of turn and is having trouble staying in his seat.  I've talked to him till I'm blue in the face and punished him for his outbursts.  I have a two and a half year old daughter and a newborn son - I'm at my wits end!  Help!
- Mom of 3

Managing a class of 20 to 30 energetic 5 year olds is a unique challenge.  It is as unlike handling preschoolers, as it is first graders.  Kindergarten, in many places, is a half day of trying to help get children ready for the next 12 or 16 years of school.  

Many teachers struggle with negotiating the challenges of a classroom full of people who may never have had to share an adult with more than one or two siblings before.  Suddenly to find that you have 25 children, all of whom are 
accustomed to getting almost immediate attention when they want it, can be a nightmare.

There are a lot of "systems" out there to help teachers share responsibility with parents for "training" children to wait their turn, cooperate, or "behave."  Smiley faces, cards colored for warnings, three strike rules, names on boards, numbered charts, stamps on hands - all of these are ways to coerce cooperation from children, and all of them hold the threat of reporting home as a consequence.  Ironically, this happens in classrooms where "tattling" is taboo.

The truth is, that kindergarten children have already lived long enough to figure out that getting one of their most basic needs met, that of belonging, can happen one of two ways.  What they desire most is the approval of adults around them, but barring that, getting attention for doing things wrong, will do. 

They have managed for 5 years to learn most of what they know, not from being told, but from being praised for approximations.  We encourage our children in crawling, walking, babbling, talking, riding a trike, etc., all through positive responses to their attempts.  

Suddenly, at age 5, we ask them to share the praise with twenty or more others.  We expect them to learn by listening and watching, and much less doing than they are accustomed to, and to get it right immediately upon being taught.  

Kindergarten children are clever enough to settle, some of them quite quickly, for the attention that negative behavior brings.  Getting singled out is, getting singled out, after all.  The worst part of this is that your child will develop a pattern of behavior, and a reputation, that will travel with him throughout his school career if it isn't changed now.

Much more effective management happens when teachers expend the bulk of their energy finding the things their students are doing right, and praising them for it.  Remarking about how one student is sitting patiently, while ignoring the one who is calling out, will instantly get several other children to sit patiently.  It may not convince the "blurter" right away, but ignore that behavior a few times, and it will begin to change. 

If your child's teacher is sending home reports, stamping his hand, giving out frowney faces, or the like, ignore it.  Completely.  

When he comes home, ask him what he was most proud of.  Talk about that.  And praise him for it.  Turn his attention to what he is doing well.

And if you doubt that ignoring the teacher's frowny faces is the right thing to do, ask yourself what she would do if you sent a note in with him explaining that he hadn't eaten all his broccoli at dinner time.  


  1. I'm a teacher and stumbled upon this post from a forum, and I have to disagree with your comment that the parent should ignore the teachers' comments sent home. To me, that doesn't show support of the teacher, and can negatively affect the way the student submits to the teachers' authority. I do agree that the teacher should send home positive comments home, (not just negative) but asking the parent to ignore it is not the best approach.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my post. I can see your point about "the way the student submits to the teachers'authority", though that would be more of a concern if the mom were to tell her child that she didn't care what the teacher said or did. Silently ignoring the frowny face while directing the child's attention to what went well is less about undermining the teacher than it is about supporting the child.