Here is where I will begin: a No Place for Hate march at my son’s school. The children stand on patchy grass and hold Styrofoam plates sewn together with yarn as improvised tambourines. They wait for the teacher’s cue to begin, and the dried beans inside the two plates slightly rattle. The head teacher yells, “Okay, let’s go! No place for hate.” The children chant after her and bang the tambourines at random. The parade snakes back to the school building, and it is over in less time than it took the children to get organized. Along with a few posters on the wall, this is the school’s response to bullying. It is also indicative of how the school addressed most issues, making some noise and appearing to tackle a problem while actually doing very little.
Our family began my son’s kindergarten year the previous August at a dual language public school in central Austin. My children, half South American/half North American, spoke Spanish and English fluently due to the fact that they had grown up in a dual language household. We applied to get my son into the school after attending a school tour, where the principal promised a positive behavioral approach to discipline, a focus on project-based learning, an integration of drama into classrooms through puppet shows, and social/emotional learning incorporated into the curriculum. The school also had an organic garden, a turtle pond and chickens. We were all excited. Neither my son nor I cried that first day of school. As someone who loved books, my son was most excited that the school had a library.
In a very short time, we realized that the reality was a far cry from the tour. Within a week, I learned that the positive behavior reinforcement was actually a way for the teachers to publicly shame the students into behaving. Like many public schools, my son’s school employed a behavior clip chart with the numbers one through four. When the student behaved well, he remained on a four. If the student misbehaved, the student had to move his/her clip down a number. While I didn’t mind the number system, I didn’t like the fact that it was displayed prominently in the room for all to see. My son began to refer to the other students by their behavior number. Within a short time, my son became known as a one or a two.
Even worse were the green folders. In these folders, the teacher wrote down every single infraction that the child committed during the day without mentioning anything positive. In my son’s case, these included minor incidents like saying he wanted to kiss one of his friends (“a boy,” the teacher wrote), to getting out of line, to things I would want to know about like hitting another student. From a management standpoint, I thought this was a horrible idea. Can you imagine going to work and having your boss write down every mistake you made during the day without commenting on anything you had done right? The technique would make you discouraged at best, angry and disengaged at worst. Even though I disagreed with the school’s discipline system, my husband and I, wanting to support the teacher, talked to our son about his behavior, took away privileges like television for days that he misbehaved and instituted rewards for the days he behaved well. In our house, giving positive feedback for good behavior, taking away toys or giving timeouts for bad behavior had worked fairly well.
Kindergarten nearly broke my son.
After a month of being in kindergarten, my son made several heartbreaking statements. While reading Beauty and the Beast, my son stated that he didn’t think he was beautiful inside because he couldn’t behave well in school. He planned a soccer game for his friends and asked me to invite his teacher so that she could see that he was a good person. A friend of mine also reported that she overheard my son’s classmates taunting him and calling him bad. I talked to the teacher about the incidents. She offered to work with my son, applying different teaching approaches, which involved putting him in the corner all day to complete his work and sending him to the preschool class when he didn’t behave. I brought a behavior chart, so that she could place a star on desired behaviors, but the teacher abandoned it after one day. We also asked her to report on the positive things he did during the day, so that we could praise good behavior. She refused, telling us to ask our son to report the good things he did.
At home, my son began to throw fits after school. He said that he would rather be homeless than go to school. Talking to a parent of an older student, I discovered that multiple students had had problems with this teacher. I also found out that the teacher did not use many of the kindergarten staples like centers or manipulative materials for teaching. Instead, she relied heavily on the overhead projector and worksheets. We immediately began the process of moving my son to another class. We also began therapy to address some of my son’s behavioral issues in school.
His new teacher was a godsend. Trained in special education, she had a number of tricks up her sleeve to work with all kinds of students. However, the publicly displayed discipline system and the green folders remained. My son, because he had problems following directions and listening to the teacher, began to get teased. “Look, he has bugs in his ears. He can’t hear what the teachers are saying,” the children said. To make matters worse, he had another teacher, who taught Language Arts and simply could not deal with him. My son told me that she instructed the students to write a sentence. My son, who was only in his second month of kindergarten, said, “I cannot write a sentence. I can only write my name.” Even though the teachers hadn’t even taught the entire alphabet at that point, the teacher replied, “That’s not good enough. You need to write, “My name is ________.” Unable to do the work, my son began to put himself in the class’ “peace center,” a glorified time out area in the classroom, where he remained all day, every day until I picked him up.
Navigating the 504 process.
Upon the advice of our therapist, I met with the assistant principal and asked the school to conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment, so that their school counselor could observe my son in class, discover the causes for his behaviors, how the teachers were responding, and recommend some accommodations for the classroom. The school refused, saying that I would need an outside diagnosis. His pediatrician and therapist could not diagnose him with anything, but gave me the numbers for several neuropsychologists and pediatric psychiatrists. I took the soonest appointment possible for a neuropsychology assessment, but we still had to wait another month.
Because I thought the school might have refused to do the Functional Behavior Assessment due to costs, I arranged for someone from my son’s therapist’s office to do her own evaluation of my son’s behavior in class. I notified the teachers of the upcoming observation. My son’s therapist spoke with the school principal, informing him that someone would be coming to observe my son in class the following day. When the evaluator came, the principal sent her away, citing a concern for the other students’ privacy and a need to get the evaluator approved by the district. While this may have been true, the principal should have informed my son’s therapist when he originally spoke with her. Still wanting to work with the school, I attributed the event to miscommunication and talked with the school officials. They promised to get the evaluator approved and to email or call us when they had approval from the district.
We had multiple teacher conferences. The teachers brought out the Texas Essential Knowledge (TEKS) standards and my son’s test results. Even though my son could easily count to 20 or more, was starting to read, and came home from school and dictated stories to us so that he could create his own comic books, the school rated him as only being able to talk in complete sentences. We brought this up to the teachers, and they replied that even though they knew he could count to 20 (one of the requirements), he didn’t count well enough to meet test standards. When discussing his ability to dictate stories (another requirement), the teachers replied that he could only dictate a story that he found interesting or one that he created. The teachers said that they weren’t interested in his ability to create stories or talk only about stories that interested him. He would have to repeat the story that the test chose. In other words, the school wasn’t interested in his ability. They were interested in how well he could perform on a test. The teachers further discussed the need for students to separate fiction from non-fiction and to start to create a rough draft. Listening to the teachers rattle off the TEKS mandates, I felt the list sounded developmentally inappropriate and somewhat arbitrary. I wanted my son to develop a love of reading and to expand his notions of reality, rather than limit concepts through categorizations of literature at such a young age. The teachers said that unless my son could master all of the Texas Essential Knowledge and do well on the tests, they would have to recommend holding him back. In another meeting with the assistant principal, where she refused again to do any kind of behavior assessment or to offer my child any accommodations until he got a diagnosis, the assistant principal echoed the teacher’s belief that we should simply have my son repeat kindergarten.
My child was almost left behind.
In the meantime, my son began to call himself dumb on a daily basis. He said that he wanted to die, because he couldn’t behave in class. He hated being publicly demoted to a lower number in class, but the demotion did nothing to change his behavior. It only made the other kids call him bad. The new teachers sat him close to them. They tried some accommodations, such as behavior charts and fidget toys to keep my son in circle time. While some of the accommodations worked, the teacher abandoned them because the fidget toy broke or they simply forgot to use the behavior charts. My child also began to run away from his language arts class. While the teachers cited this as simple misbehavior, a friend informed me that she saw his Language Arts teacher yelling at him in the hallway, asking him if he wanted to get a “0.” I asked my son if he understood what getting a “0” meant. “It means my teacher doesn’t like me,” he said.
At that point, it dawned on me that my child was essentially the child being left behind by No Child Left Behind. We did not face any serious economic problems. We had read to my son every day since he was only a few months old. My son hadn’t watched television or played apps until he was almost four years old. Although he now watched television, we limited his television time to below the American Pediatrician’s Association’s recommendations. Furthermore, I spent ample time with my children and cooked them a well-balanced meal every day. We never ate fast food or processed food, and my children went to bed at 7:30 every night. Yet despite all of these facts, my child could not succeed in school. His homeroom teacher was wonderful, but she could not compensate for a developmentally inappropriate curriculum, ineffective classroom management, and an administration that preferred to fail students rather than figure out the causes behind a student’s classroom struggles.
My family is lucky. We have the resources to look for other options. However, not all families can afford private neuropsychological testing or therapy. Many families also might not have the time or resources to navigate the bureaucracy of the public school system. We withdrew my son after his first semester and put him in a small preschool that includes a kindergarten. Within a month of attending the other school, my son began reading, could count to 100, and started doing simple addition and subtraction problems. More importantly, he stopped calling himself bad and dumb.
We also received the results back from his neuropsychology test. My son has ADHD, which explains his behavioral difficulties. Academically, however, he was exactly where he should be. Therefore, holding him back in kindergarten would have been a mistake. It also would not have solved his behavioral problems.
No child should fall through the cracks in Kindergarten.
I return to the No Place for Hate march on that beautiful fall day. A single march and a few anti-bullying posters will not do anything to solve the complex problem of bullying, especially in a school with a discipline system that highlights the negative and publicly shames students. Standardized testing and No Child Left Behind will not cure social inequalities. In my opinion, educational funds would be better spent on teacher training and lowering class ratios. There are many public schools that are doing a phenomenal job, but no child should be failing kindergarten. Kindergarten should be a year when a child falls in love with learning. Despite my son’s negative experience, we’re lucky he did not lose his interest in learning. Many families are not so lucky. Too many children simply fall through the cracks in a system that places more importance on state mandates than on the well being of a child.
In case you were wondering, when we withdrew my son from the school two months later, the principal still hadn’t followed through with our request for professional observation of the class. Additionally, the day after we decided to remove my son from his public school, the school’s name appeared on a list of the worst public schools in Texas.