Care and Feeding

Can I Tell My Son’s Teacher That Her Behavior Point System Is Garbage?

A teacher tallies her students' points.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by BartekSzewczyk/iStock/Getty Images Plus and monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My son is in first grade. His teacher uses an app with a point system to track and reward classroom behavior—being on task, listening quietly, etc. She asked the parents to download the app, and I get 5-10 notifications per school day regarding my son. She told us that the app makes an audible bell sound each time a child is awarded points, keeping all of the kids aware of this system throughout the day. When they collect a certain amount of points, they get a prize.

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I really don’t like it. I know there’s research that says point systems aren’t effective. It makes me cringe to think of my son and his classmates hearing this bell all day when they’re trying to learn, work, and play. I also think that the teacher’s focus on recording behaviors on an ipad (5-10 entries x 14 kids is a lot of time on the app throughout the day) must take away from time she could be spending on other things. My son is one of the older kids in the class, and he tells me he doesn’t feel like he’s learning very much. He already knows how to sit still when he needs to, so the big focus on classroom behavior isn’t really serving him right now. I’m worried that he’s not being challenged academically or creatively.

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At the same time…our school is a local public school that is underfunded and in desperate need for teachers. My son’s teacher is relatively new and young, and I am so grateful to her for wanting to teach in spite of all the hurdles that I know she experiences in this profession. My question for you: Am I off base that this is an issue? Maybe it’s a common practice in elementary school. If I do bring it up with her, how should I approach it without making her feel criticized? Ultimately I’m not sure how much this matters in first grade, and your guidance would be appreciated.

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—Put Off by Points

Dear PObP,

I have never heard of this app, and it sounds quite dreadful. I suspect that for a very specific type of student, this might be effective in the short term, but it certainly isn’t doing anything to help students in terms of the development of intrinsic motivation, personal pride in one’s work, self-monitoring skills, and self-regulation.

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If I were a teacher required to use such a system, I would foment rebellion. As a parent, I think you have every right, and perhaps even a duty, to express your concerns to the teacher. I would suggest doing so in the spirit of inquiry, asking the teacher if this is a schoolwide or district-imposed behavioral management system or something she has chosen herself. I’d also ask for the name of the program, research, data, and other materials related to the program, and her rationale for using it despite research indicating these reward systems are not effective nor helpful to kids in the long run.

If it’s her personal preference and she seems entrenched, I would meet with an administrator to present your concerns. If this is a school-based or districtwide system, you may need to bring your concerns to the superintendent.

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Either way, I think it matters. I think it matters a lot. The system that you describe sounds egregious, ridiculous, and probably harmful to kids in the long run. I think your concern for the teacher and your appreciation for her choice to teach is appreciated and admirable, and I would speak to her with that spirit in mind. Still, I think you have every right to raise concerns.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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Do I force my 10-year-old daughter to go on a fifth-grade camping trip? Our small private school has an overnight camping trip every year. The kids load up on the bus on a Friday, drive to a campground, and spend two days doing fun camp things. They sleep in air-conditioned cabins with parents and teachers as chaperones and have a private bathroom in each cabin. It barely qualifies as camping.

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My child had a great time last year doing everything except the hike. She said the hike was hot, uphill, she was thirsty, and she found it scary because of “the cliff of death” (just a cliff on the hike). This year she says she doesn’t want to go because she hated last year too much and it was “too scary.”

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I’m worried she might be the only kid who doesn’t go. I don’t even know if that’s an option. On one hand, I don’t want her to be that kid who doesn’t go. I also don’t want her to be that kid who freaked out on the camping trip. Chaperone sign-up is full, so I can’t chaperone. Any advice?

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—The Not-So-Great Outdoors

Dear TNSGO,

I’ve been taking my students on school camping trips for more than two decades, and I have faced my fair share of kids who do not want to go. Their reasons are varied, but I have worked relentlessly to dismiss them all, because like you, I think it’s important for all students to go. Trips like this are memory makers, bonding experiences, and boundary extenders.

I think it’s critical for teachers and parents to encourage kids to push themselves beyond their comfort zone and do things that seem difficult, challenging, uncomfortable, and even scary. We grow best in both confidence and strength by pushing ourselves to do hard things.

“The hard thing and the right thing are also the same thing,” so says a character in one of my novels, and I agree. You can mitigate some of your child’s concerns by communicating some of her concerns with the teacher. “Thirsty” is easily solved by bringing water. This might also solve the problem of being hot, though perhaps a wardrobe adjustment might help, too. Or maybe last year’s hike took place on an especially hot day?

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As for the “Cliff of Doom,” I would talk to the teacher and ask if there is some way to mitigate your daughter’s fear. Maybe she can steer clear of the cliff. Or perhaps the teacher can make it clear to your daughter that this “Cliff of Doom” is more like a “Ledge of Discomfort” or “Precipice of Safety.”

As a teacher, it’s hard for me to imagine that this cliff is much of a cliff, given the erratic and unpredictable nature of children in unstructured situations.

Try to mitigate some of your daughter’s fear. In the end, though, I would send her on the trip. It is rare that a child who is forced to do something by a parent or teacher still regrets doing it after it’s finished.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

How do you find out what a school is really like when you don’t know anyone who works there or has kids there? My wife and I need to decide soon on where to send our preschooler for K-5. We both have experience teaching in Title 1 schools—she taught for 5 years in a school that was 100 percent students from low-income families but has since switched careers, and I still teach in a school that’s 60-70 percent low income most years.

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We’ve found from personal experience that on average, public school staff are no worse than staff at private schools—in fact, they’re often better. The biggest differences are in class size and private schools’ ability to select their own student population. We’ve both had classes that were so huge that we couldn’t give any student the attention they deserved, and we’ve had classes that were derailed by disruptive and sometimes violent student behavior. It was so unfair to everyone—neither the disruptive students nor the rest of the class were getting the education they deserved.

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My wife is strongly in favor of sending our kid to a private school. I want us to seriously consider choicing into a dual-language public school. I prefer that our kid not grow up in a bubble where almost all his friends are from families that can afford private school tuition. We can afford some private schools now that my wife isn’t teaching anymore, but it will be tight.

Half the students at this public school are ELL, and 60 percent are low income. The majority of students are not passing state standardized tests. We know standardized tests aren’t everything, but they do give a rough idea of where a group is academically. Those scores indicate that if our kid is at or above grade level, he will be in the minority in his class. The listed student to teacher ratio is 14:1, but that’s also what it says for my school and my average class size is 30 with no co-teacher. (Maybe the tiny life skills special ed classes are pulling the school average down?)

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We know that publicly available disciplinary data can be manipulated by administrators, and that there are plenty of discipline issues that wouldn’t result in ISS/OSS/expulsions but are still concerning. We never taught in the district where we live, so we don’t have any inside info. And sometimes when parents talk about a school’s reputation, they’re basing it more on the school’s racial demographics than how it actually is.

So how do we determine if this public school is a place we want to send our kid? How do we find out what an actual typical class size is? How do we get honest answers to questions like “will our child’s class frequently be evacuated from the classroom due to a student having a violent meltdown?” and “will our child lose a significant amount of instructional time every day due to disruptive behavior?”

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—Public School Teacher and Private School Parent?

Dear PSTaPSP,

I have to admit that I’ve had some similar thoughts lately. I teach at a great public school with some fantastic staff, but I have no doubts that the quality of education my students receive is declining (overall) and that the state and district’s policies seem bent on driving away good teachers and replacing them with inexperienced script-followers… if they replace them at all. I too have witnessed rising class sizes, less support in dealing with discipline issues, and less support for students with special needs. All of that equals disruptions in learning and fewer opportunities for me to provide impactful learning to the diverse individuals in my room. I too have been wondering if my own children might not get a better education elsewhere.

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But I know two things to be true: 1) An education is what you make of it. I still see self-motivated students getting inspired, making leaps forward in their learning, having fun and creating cool projects that go above and beyond. 2) Students benefit from not being in a bubble. You said it yourself. I would be very hesitant to let my own children go to a magnet or STEM school; I want them to be well-rounded people with a diverse group of friends.

Part of being well-rounded means letting them see the world and face difficulties. There can be a lot of learning value there. One of my classes this year has A LOT of students with different needs, special circumstances and unique personalities. I worried that my daily struggles were only being seen as weakness by the other students in the class, but imagine my delight as a teacher, when the parent of a mainstream student in that class came to me during conference night and said how much her son admires me because of how I deal with that class. Apparently, this young man goes home and tells his mother, on a regular basis, how much he is learning about patience and flexibility from watching me. Isn’t that cool? Isn’t that valuable?

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I know none of this is answering your direct question about how to know if a school is the right place for your kid, but you touched on so many important points about the nature of a classroom. There’s more to learn than what’s written on the board under the word “Objectives.” Wherever you send your kid, talk to them. What do they learn? What is their day like? Volunteer as a homeroom parent if you can. Take advantage of every opportunity to get into the room and see what’s going on. Open a dialogue with the teacher to get a sense for not only how your kid is doing, but what their learning environment is like. If you don’t like how things are going, if there are red flags, you can always try out a different school the following year.

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—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

My 4-year-old son started Pre-K this year. Historically, he has loved daycare (or “school” as we called it) as well as his daycare’s aftercare program. He’s an only child, and I’m an older, single mother, so I get why this time with other kids has been fun for him.

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My problem is that this year his behavior has drastically changed…for the worse. I know he’s gone through a big transition from daycare to way more structured days and learning in pre-K. His day now starts much earlier—around 6:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. when I pick him up. Once a week we also have soccer practice at 5:30 p.m. which pushes dinner and bedtime later. They still have naps in pre-K, but it’s only an hour long, and I can’t see him getting any real rest from that. He’s completely beat by the end of the day, putting himself to sleep easily around 7:30 p.m. Before I was lucky to get him down by 9:30 or 10 p.m. I know when my child gets tired his behavior worsens.

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I’ve never had a serious complaint about his behavior until now. He’s doing OK in class, but his behavior is a constant topic when I pick him up from aftercare. He’s done everything from not listening/following directions to running and hiding when it’s time for a change in activity to being disrespectful to his caregivers. Recently, he was suspended for a couple of days due to several misgrievances, including instigating a situation that put himself and his classmates in danger, as well as exposing himself in the bathroom, which he denies.

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I have tried everything from timeouts to eliminating any and all screen time to removing all play items from his room as punishment. We have endless discussions on appropriate school and public behavior, which I know is pretty useless at his age. I just don’t get this seemingly sudden shift to being a very decent child who anyone would love to watch to being this 3.5-foot tall terrorist.

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When I ask him why he’s done these things, he simply states it’s because he just wants to, and he doesn’t want to listen to his teachers. I can appreciate the honesty in that answer, but it’s infuriating. I’m also concerned with him being labeled as a “problem child” and the potential that absolutely anything he does will be nitpicked with endless write-ups—or getting completely expelled from the program.

I need this aftercare. He says he loves it, but I feel like there is something off with this program that he is either incapable or unwilling to communicate to me or anyone else. Meanwhile, I’m losing my mind, mortified by his behavior, and extra stressed about whatever news I’ll receive at pick up time. My son is far from perfect, but I don’t even recognize this tiny human anymore.  Any advice?

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—Total Turnaround

Dear Total Turnaround,

I’m sorry to hear your son is having a difficult time transitioning to his new learning environment. The toll of consistent negative behavior reports on parents and children cannot be understated. Luckily, I think there are some small changes you can make to help ease that burden and support your son in regulating his emotions more effectively. I can almost guarantee the issues stem from the long days. Transitioning from daycare to what is essentially an 11-to-12-hour workday is a huge jump, especially for a child that young. The fact that he previously had no behavior issues and is putting himself to bed 2-3 hours earlier is a clear indicator of his exhaustion.

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Having taught second grade for several years, I know firsthand the impact that an intense weekly schedule can have on a child’s sleep, social development, and behavior patterns. Just like adults, kids need unstructured time to decompress, relax, and recharge. Even if the after-school care program is mostly play-time, it’s still occurring in the school environment which may be preventing your son from transitioning effectively.

I’d be slow to judge the aftercare program before making a few changes. First, I’d ask if it’s possible for your son to take a nap or have some alone time between pre-k and after care. Taking 15-30 minutes of quiet time between settings could make all the difference. I’d also try finding a soccer league that holds practices and games on the weekend. This would make sure that he’s getting a consistent amount of sleep every school night. Lastly, I’d dedicate 45-60 minutes to unstructured play time when you arrive home to allow him to decompress.

Additionally, I’m not sure the punishments you are administering will have the desired effect. If you are taking away the things your child uses to decompress, you may be working against the true goal of helping him to better manage his emotions and actions when tired. A more effective approach may be using resources from curriculum like Kelso’s Choice or Second Step to equip him with tools and language to better communicate his emotions and regulate his behaviors.

—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

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