They’ve Got Your Number

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When my son was in his first year of kindergarten, his teacher had an eight-level behaviour management system based on insects. If you had a really good day you were a “coccinelle exceptionelle” (exceptional ladybug). If your day was more average, you might be an “abeille qui émerveille” (amazing bee). If you had a really bad day you were a “moustique qui pique” (biting mosquito). When I first heard about it, I immediately felt tired, exhausted in fact. As a parent, these systems are frustrating because they label kids as good or bad in a very public, often shaming way that rarely helps kids make better choices and often inadvertently reinforces undesirable behaviour by putting it in the spotlight. As a teacher, they wear me out.

When I think about the energy required to sustain one of these systems, I feel fatigue approaching like an incoming wave. Focusing on and monitoring the minutiae of student behaviour, labeling it, and communicating those labels to parents on a daily basis is a tonne of work, work that, in my experience, rarely leads to any meaningful change. The children who already behave according to school-based expectations get rewarded, the kids who don’t have that fact pointed out to them even more often, and the many kids in between learn, pretty quickly, how to game the system.

My kids are currently placed into squads at school – colour teams that compete against each other to collect the most tickets each month based on whether they speak French in their classes, in the hallways, and outside. When a teacher catches a student speaking French, they’re rewarded with a ticket that goes towards their team’s total. Each month the winning team receives a special treat like a pizza party or an extra recess.

In March, my son’s team was leading for much of the month. So, when he came home on Friday, I inquired about how the day’s colour assembly had gone. “We lost mom” he answered dejectedly. “Oh” I replied, “what happened?” “Some people cheat, Mommy. Some kids talk English all the time except when there’s a teacher and then they talk French, then they get tickets. I talk French all the time, even when there’s no teacher. It’s not fair.”

He’s right, it’s not fair. Sometimes life is like that. But, in his case, it’s a behaviour management system that’s having exactly the opposite of the desired effect. It’s actually disincentivizing the same behaviour they’re trying to promote at his school. This is a kid who loves speaking French and who delights in learning vocabulary; his motiviation is almost entirely intrinsic. By putting so much emphasis on these extrinsic motivators, his intrinsic motivation is actually diminished. The kids that don’t speak much French probably still aren’t, my little francophile is discouraged, and there’s a whole group of kids in the middle that have figured out, in his words, how to cheat. They’ve turned on their teacher-radar and they’re using it to their full advantage.

So while these behaviour management systems are great teachers, they’re often not teaching what we think they are. The kids are merely learning how to game the system that the adults have created. They’ve got our number. I wonder when we’ll learn.

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