Tristan was taken off his Adderall in first grade. After that, school at his Christian academy became a parade of trips of to the principal and vice-principal’s offices. A sweet kid, he simply couldn’t sit still and lacked impulse control — common effects of ADHD.
“I remember being paddled once, may have happened more than once,” he says. It’s not shocking — his older brother who went to the same school was paddled for minor childhood infractions at Tristan’s age as well. “My trips were the results of putting glue in a girl’s chair and shoving the prosthetic arm of a classmate through a chain link fence, among others,” Tristan admits. “Needless to say, I had one friend in first grade.”
Unfortunately, Tristan’s status is typical for “that kid” or “the problem child,” especially in the early elementary years. Kids come to school unprepared to learn in many ways: Some don’t know their ABCs. Some can’t count to 10. And some have poor impulse control, a hard time sitting still, a lack of social skills, undiagnosed neurological differences, or a backpack full of trauma. And they are punished for it.
The Hechinger Report details a difficult, aggressive preschooler who was on the verge of expulsion (yes, from preschool). They suspected ADHD. But when an outside expert was brought in, they discovered the child had seen his father beat his mother, and subsequently be taken away in handcuffs. Suddenly, his behavior made sense.
I remember these kids from my own time in school. One of them, Matt, we all disliked because he constantly ran around in circles, disrupted class, took up the teacher’s attention, and threw enormous tantrums. Another boy, Phillip, though very smart, probably had ADHD and a crippling lack of social skills which led to his ostracization. And James — well, when James welded himself to his chair and refused to move, screaming, for 15 minutes, until the teacher picked him up, chair and all, and removed him from the class — James lost any social cache he might have built up. He always got the red card.
Looking back, I know that all of these boys probably had significant life issues or trauma going on; they may have had undiagnosed neurological issues or aggression that stemmed from early neglect. But we didn’t know it then, and no one cared to find out.
Back then, and still in many schools today, it’s highly common to implement a color-coded behavior system, in which children get a card every day: green for good, yellow for caution/okay, and red for, well, trouble. Bad. Naughty. Fill in the blank, because the children do. In Tristan’s school, once you pulled the yellow card to reveal the red one, disciplinary action followed. Tristan says, “Most days I was yellow or red, that I remember.” I remember well the trauma of a yellow card in kindergarten. Or the red card in fifth grade: the hitching sobs, the gut-wrenching anxiety.
On the surface, this common rewards-based system (be good, get a green card) would seem a decent motivator. But as a column on PBS News Hour reports, rewards are for dogs, not children — with whom they have constantly been proven ineffective when doled out too much. These charts are also shaming; David Martin’s kindergarten daughter “saw how reputations of children were being shaped as a result of what colors they typically landed on,” Martin recalled. “She felt empathy for them but helpless to do anything for them.”
Not to mention, Martin added, treating behavior as “good” or “bad” is part of “an antiquated paradigm that doesn’t take into consideration a child’s temperament, developmental stage or emotional needs. When a child disrupts class in some way, there is a reason for that.”
Enter Collaborative Problem Solving, or CPS, which bypasses all the punishments — the spankings and the isolation rooms and the missed recesses — in favor of an approach that gives that child power to determine the outcome of the situation. “Many children are lagging in skills like impulse control, managing frustration and understanding social cues that are the foundation of self-control,” the New York Times says.
Because traditional punishments, like suspension, don’t help them, CPS strives to place the philosophy of “children do well when they want to” with one that says “children do well when they can.”
The program looks like this: It starts with Plan B, where a child states a concern. The adult does the same thing. Then they brainstorm solutions to meet everyone’s problems with the issue at hand. There are no adult-imposed consequences (Plan A), and adults don’t let go of the traditional expectation of a behavior (Plan C). This approach gives power to the child, allows schools come up with innovative solutions for behavioral problems, and reduces suspensions.
Imagine if Tristan had been able to use CPS. “I’m scared you’ll paddle me because I put glue on so-and-so’s chair,” he might say. “We’re not going to paddle you,” his adult might assure him, “but I am concerned that you put glue on the chair. Why did you do that?” He could answer as best he could — boredom, desire to impress friends he didn’t have, and any number of deep issues would have the chance to surface. While he would still have to make reparations for the glue, they could work at deeper issues to make sure the issue wouldn’t happen again. Something constructive could come out of his behavior instead of shame, anger, or social ostracism.
Because even though he was the “problem child, he was still a kid. That child who hits, who swears, who kicks and chases and teases — he or she is still just a kid, and their behavior has a reason. As adults, it’s not our job to punish it. It’s our job to help them understand it, to locate the source of the behavior, so they can move beyond it and grow from it. We face a decision as parents/teachers. Do we want to be jail-keepers? Or do we want to be educators who teach?
Punishment won’t help kids learn. But giving them some power over their own destiny, helping them to learn how to problem-solve, that will. And more than anything else, that’s what these difficult kids need.