Kindergarten. Bullying in the Age of Clip Charts and No Child Left Behind

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Kindergarten Bullying

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.Kindergarten No Place for Hate


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.

Kindergarten Behavior Management FolderEven 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.

Kindergarten Teacher NotesAfter 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.

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  1. Maggie says:

    Agnes – Thanks for sharing your family’s story! Our family has struggled to find a good school fit for our kids also and we’ve spent years struggling with our local school to meet our boys’ needs. In our case, I think everyone was well intentioned, but nothing ever quite clicked – we had problems getting a 504 followed and finding an appropriately challenging curriculum. No one ever tried to shame my kids, but I know they did feel singled out and sometimes shamed.

    We finally switched schools and have had a much better experience! I hope the new school works well for your family.

  2. TB says:

    I completely understand your pain.

    My daughter, who is 9, has Aspergers Syndrome (an Autism Spectrum Disorder). She has one 4th grade teacher that works with her & she clicks with and another who dislikes her, has no idea how to deal with a child with a disability & frequently ignores her in class. I’m glad you were able to get him out. I’m working on getting mine out.

    • Agnes says:

      I really hope that you find a good fit for your daughter! My son is doing much better after changing schools. That said, he still has ADHD, so he continues to struggle in the classroom. However, even before we received the diagnosis, the teachers from his new school realized that he might have a learning difference and immediately began making accommodations for him in the classroom. They never made him feel bad or dumb. They addressed his learning differences with us in a caring and compassionate way. I wish you the best of luck in finding a school for your daughter.

  3. TB says:

    PS. It’s Functional Behavior Assessment. And if you requested SPED testing & they denied you, they broke all kinds of law. Check out Wrights Law. Learn his & your rights. There are schools who take advantage of parents who are uninformed.

    • Maggie says:

      Wrights Law has all sorts of great information and resources! We’ve found that there are a few key phrases we have used to get our child’s school’s attention – just things that make it clear we know our son’s rights and we should move past the “if” conversation to the “how” conversation.

    • Agnes says:

      Thank you! I changed it to Functional Behavior Assessment. I appreciate you pointing that out to me. I made the mistake of asking for the FBA in a meeting with the assistant principal rather than putting it in writing. If I ever deal with a public school again, I will put everything in writing.

  4. katie says:

    You are amazing parents. How total depressing and disheartening that the school was so resistant to helping, or being open to really understanding what was happening with your son. I hope the school search for first grade will result in a more nurturing and professional place.

  5. Morena's Corner says:

    My daughter is in kindergarten this year. She, too, came home early in the year and said she wasn’t smart. It broke my heart. This wasn’t because of her teacher, who is an exceptional teacher and who we adore, nor was it because of her classmates, who are very kind. It’s the expectations. The “standards” that teachers, who know this curriculum is NOT developmentally appropriate, are forced to follow. I know their hands are tied. It’s beyond time for we Texas parents to speak up. Our TEKS across the board are arbitrary and are hurting our students, not helping them. I also have a 4th grader and 6th grader in this system. The 4th grader, a GT student, now HATES school and worries about the STAAR test every day. My 6th grader, who has a learning disability, is struggling to keep up with the new math curriculum the state implemented this year, which shoved 7th grade standards down to 6th grade, forcing the students to learn 2 years of math in one year. Oh, and both my older two are spending THE ENTIRE MONTH reviewing for the STAAR test. One month on test review??? I’m torn between running screaming from the system or standing and fighting. As a former public school teacher and administrator, my gut tells me to fight, especially for all the kids who have no voice.

    • Maggie says:

      Morena – the high stakes testing is really hard on some kids. I have one that frets and worries about the STAAR test and one that couldn’t care less. We’ve opted to let them continue taking the test, but worked hard to downplay the outcome and instead focus on what they are learning and how they are progressing in school. Both our boys are in 5th.

    • Agnes says:

      Morena, I’m not a big fan of the testing either. I think that there is presently a lot of momentum from parents, teachers, and administrators trying to get rid of a lot of the standardized testing. I write letters to our representatives in congress, but I’m not sure they are listening. I am hopeful with all the pushback from people opposing so much standardized testing, we will see change. It really upsets me that kindergarteners are calling themselves dumb. Like I said, kindergarten students should not be made to feel dumb! Thanks for your comment!

  6. Agnes,

    My child’s school has the same chart system for behavior. They also have a citizenship program that gives them the positive reinforcement that your school seems to be missing.

    The system works in such a way that the kids get points… basically a virtual “gold star chart.” The points add up and once a month they get to go to the “store.” They use their points to buy little things for themselves or gifts for family at Christmas or birthdays. They can also use their points to buy special privileges like lunch one-on-one with the teacher or a homework pass. The most expensive thing is getting to be principal for the day.

    Their points are also used to move up and get the next badge in the citizenship program. They start off as Self Managers (White) and progress to Juniors (Blue), the Senior(Orange) and the last is an Ambassador (Yellow.) The students earn each new level by displaying the behaviors and traits of good citizenship, such as following the rules, being polite, caring for their belongings, etc.

    When my daughter was in kindergarten, the kids got paper money that looked like monopoly money. They called it “Loot.” If they did something extra special – like standing up to a bully – then they would get an “ExcelLoot” worth 5 Loot. Now the kindergarteners are given “Dojos” with a virtual system. The older kids still use the paper Loot, but the teachers found counting the young children’s Loot to be too time consuming. Now the kindergarteners earn Dojo Points. Look up the Dojo point app. It is new this year for kindergarteners.

    When my daughter was in kinder, she was sent home with a weekly folder that showed her daily clip color… she has been yellow twice since she started school. She excelled with the system and loved getting Loot! She saved up her Loot, because getting the next badge was a big deal and she didn’t want to have to wait to move up, because she did not have enough Loot. She has to buy the actual badge once she has earned the right to get it. Something like being old enough to drive, passing your drivers test, but having to pay to get your license.

    The whole Dojo system is new this year for the kids in kinder. There is a complimentary app that is something like a virtual “weekly folder.” It is meant to be a direct line of communication between the parent and teachers. The school is not using it yet, and we are not getting weekly folder like I did with my daughter. I get my sons school work papers, but not the behavioral information.

    Now, my daughter immediately excelled at the whole thing. It does not surprise me that she did… that is right in line with her personality. She was able to grasp the entire thing right off… the saving of her Loot, the spending it when she wanted a special pencil or whatever, and she even decided by the second month not to spend her Loot in the store, because she wanted to use her Loot to be allowed to do part of the morning announcement. She set out to buy that privilege and she got it. She also was one of the first to get her new badge.

    My son didn’t right away get the whole thing, but he has watched his classmates move up and it made him hungry for the next badge. He is competitive and if for no other reason, he began doing what he needed to do to get points and meet the behavioral goals to move up. He is now a junior and will soon be a senior. Becoming Ambassador is purposely hard and requires a ton of points… not all the kids will get Ambassador, and of those that do, some will lose that badge by backsliding. (Yes, you can go backwards) So, the teachers have made it so that an Ambassador badge is not usually held only about six weeks before school is out, so that the kids have less of a chance of going backwards.

    All-in-all my kids seem to do well with the system as a whole. The colors at our school are Blue (must do something almost amazing – something outstanding) Green (Just basically being good and following the rules) Yellow (You can be moved back up to green) or Red (You have had three warnings and you have continued to misbehave.)

    My nephew, is the same age as my daughter and goes to the same school He is smart, but he is also the class clown. That poor kid had a very hard time getting off yellow and red in kinder and 1st. Not because he did anything awful, but because he is a chatterbox and he didn’t enjoy doing his homework… at all. I am not sure he moved up past Self Manager all of kinder. He didn’t get enough points to buy the next badge. :(

    He was punished at home, but still he stayed on yellow and red. His teacher clearly adored him, though. To my knowledge he was not made fun of. He is a charmer, though. So, instead of being ashamed… he sort of wore his rebellion like his own badge of honor. He still does, but now that he is in fourth, he is moving up right along with his classmates. He still is a class clown and a charmer and he still wears his rebellion proudly, but he has curtailed his behavior so that he gets the privileges that come with each new citizenship level.

    I know that have sort of written my own blog in reply and I have only really addressed the color system… sorry, it is not my intent to hijack your blog. Just wanted t give some input as to how the public peer pressure helped my kids learn from other kids how to behave and what was expected of them. For instance my son is a bit OCD about things going back in “their place.” I know the teacher asks the other kids in the class to watch what he is doing when it comes time to clean. She asks him to watch other kids to learn other behavior that he doesn’t come by naturally. I think if the system is used in this way… instead of in a way that leads to feeling shame – then that is how it is *suppose* to work. If the children are feeling shamed instead of motivated, then either the teacher is doing something wrong or the school is doing something wrong.

    Sorry your son did not get the proper introduction to the color system. This is his most important grade – his introduction to learning. He should have felt nothing less than proud of himself, even if he didn’t always get green.

    • Maggie says:

      Joyi – I like the idea of the rewards based behavior management system. That kind of approach tends to work for my kids. That said – something as public as earning levels would throw Davis into a panic attack on a regular basis. He needs a system that is motivating and rewarding, but doesn’t set him up to pit himself against other kids’ achievements.

      The big deal for me in both your story and Agnes’ (and those I hear from other parents) is the notion of inflexibility or rigidity. There are benefits to all systems (otherwise they’d fall out of favor quickly), but there is no system that works right for every kid. Having professional teachers with the ability (training, temperment, leeway and administrative support) to meet the needs of individual children in their classrooms is key.

      In our home, the strength’s based approach works really well for our kids. This is what it looks like for us:

      • I can understand how it could cause panic for some kids. My kids just enjoy it… like a contest or a race. There is along with the reward system – a strong anti-bully theme in the school… The PTA and the school bring in performers and singers that raise awareness. In my child’s school, the kids are very encouraging with each other. There is such a strong expectation to be kind to themselves and each other, that the kids rise to the occasion. I know that I am lucky, though.

        A. My kids have competitive personalities and they enjoy (rather than shy away from) that aspect of getting the next badge. B. My children have learned a great deal of empathy, because it is woven into all parts of the curriculum, and my children are part of the 5% of white children in the school. If someone is going to be picked on – it would be them. They have not ever mentioned being bullied or put down. (Except once when my daughter was in kinder – and it was on the bus. An older girl decided to make my daughter her target – the girl lost her bus privileges over it.) That is behavior that is not tolerated in the school – if witnessed by any staff of the school or on the bus, that would be an automatic red (visit to principal) and probably loss of a badge level.

        My sister recently moved here to the Plano ISD, from Dallas ISD. We were discussing this blog entry yesterday, and she told me at that time that the school her son was in while in Dallas, (also in kinder) gave no positive reward for good behavior. I know for a fact that my sister had been to the principal’s office three times by Feb. 1st. She was at her wits end. Her son had been in preschool for a year before and had no behavior problems. She said that the school did not give any type of reward, that she and her husband had to provide the reward motivation (i.e. – if you stay on green all week, we can go do X this weekend.)

        Now he is in Plano ISD (and the whole school district follows the same model described in the links above) and his behavior has done a 180 in just over a month. He is not having issues at school or at home anymore. I think that atmosphere of fun / contest vs. “good” & “bad” is what makes the difference. If you move down, it is not so much an angry or mad vibe… it is more like, an “aw shucks” kind of vibe. I don’t know. I am going to look at your link, because my kids do great at school, but motivating them at home… a whole other story. They are not bad, just not self motivated at all to do – well anything. That is where I need some advice in a big way.

        • Maggie says:

          We made a school switch this year and have seen a huge difference in motivation and self-sufficiency for both boys. The environment, support and expectations at a school can make huge difference in how a child learns and perceives his/her strengths and weaknesses.

  7. The two links below show what the kids are expected to work on in order to move up to their next badge:

    There is a strong emphasis put on “Life Long Learning,” cyber safety and character traits. At least as much or more as is put on actual grades.

    The general curriculum is shown at this link:

  8. Texas Parents Opt Out says:

    Most parents don’t understand how all of this came about. How did first and second grade standards get pushed down to kindergarten? It is all about the test. We have gotten to the point where schools seem to only care about student scores on standardized tests. If parents don’t step up, voice their concerns and boycott standardized tests, the problems will only get worse. Learn more about the Opt Out Movement

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