Compliance, Learning, and Special Needs

Well, world, Mouse had her first week of school.  I’m…. troubled.

She seems perfectly happy there and is going through only minor adjustment issues, it seems.  We need to get her to bed earlier, that is very obvious.  The poor girl is worse than molasses in the morning.  She’s more like frozen, crystallized, petrified molasses.

It isn’t the adjustment I’m worried about.  It is the System.

As was expected, her four-and-a-half year old recall of events isn’t the most accurate.  Add that to the sudden change and adjustment, I wasn’t surprised that the first couple of days, she could tell us nothing about her days at school.

Yesterday, however, I got a lot.  I’ll just list all the things here that Mouse told me, you’ll probably see where this is going:

  • “Mommy, we can ONLY sit in criss-cross-applesauce, ever, even if we are quiet and hands to ourselves.  That makes me mad.”
  • “We read a book about a boy who couldn’t do anything right.  He drawed on the tables, couldn’t sit right, and always was in trouble.  Then he cleaned the tables and got a star, then the teacher liked him again.”
  • “Being on the color blue is BAD.  That means you get a sad face and you are in trouble.”
  • “I don’t want to play with the kids who don’t act right.  You know, like who can’t be good.”
  • “Evan got a sad face in school.  [Evan—not his real name—is Mouse’s friend; we are friends with his whole family.  Then I asked Mouse why Evan got a sad face.]  I don’t know why, but the teacher said he had a sad face.”

Yup.  I’m pretty sure I’m leaving a bunch out that I can’t even remember, but you get the idea.  While I absolutely understand the need for limits and behavioral expectations, I am very concerned with the intensity with which it is being handled in Mouse’s class.  She’s in a transitional kindergarten class.  That is before kindergarten.  The kids all have fall birthdays, so they are all about to turn five.  They are young!

From what I can gather after talking to a couple other parents, there is a color coded behavior system.  It sounds like (and here I’m not completely sure) there are emotions that are attached to the colors.  This would explain why blue, the “worst” color, is equivalent to a sad face in Mouse’s mind.  Interestingly, there are two “good colors” and three “bad colors”.  Truthfully, I’m not ok with any colors having values attached to them like this.  Just look at the havoc that black/white imagery wreaks on us.  Is my kid going to start not wanting to wear blue to school?

What bothers me the most is that all of these evaluations are public.  The kids apparently need to go up, change their color status, and stand on a designated color.  This sounds like the equivalent of a dunce hat in the corner.

The thing is, the public shaming seems to be working, but not in its intended way.  Mouse could tell me each kid in her class who had ever got a sad face, but when I asked her why those children got sad faces, she didn’t know.  All she knew was that those kids had gotten in trouble.  Where is the learning there?

This is just the behavioral management concerns, there are others as well.  When I dropped Mouse off this morning I saw that there were cups with the kids’ names written on them.  I asked her what they were, and she told me that each kid has a cup for water in case they are thirsty.  Ok, I’m down with hydration.  On closer examination, however, I see that the cups are divvied up into two groups—boys and girls.  Argh.  Really?  Already, we need to teach kids that there is some kind of definite gender line that divides society?

There’s more.  The teacher completely forgot that I’d told her that Mouse can’t have dairy and wheat, and gave her goldfish crackers for morning snack.  The school newsletter had a very frustrating line in it about how every child’s goal should be to go to college (I do not think that college is the only way a child can succeed after high school).  Mouse already knows how to write letters and is being asked to trace her name (apparently she asked to write her name by herself and was told no).

What bothers me most is that with each story I hear, each small observation I make, I keep wondering, What happens when you can’t comply to the behavior standards???  The standards seem so narrow, it is no wonder that kids are pulled out and labelled as “misbehaving”, but it just seems so wrong.  Take the “criss-cross-applesauce” business.  If a kid is sitting in circle time, not bothering anyone, not disrupting the activity, what does it matter how the kid sits?  Suddenly, by creating this arbitrary behavior standard, if a kid is unable/unwilling to comply, then they’re probably labeled as having difficulty behaving.

This just seems so wrong.  Most every young child I’ve ever known has some kinetic movement needs.  I can see how a kid could easily fall out of this narrow range of “good behavior” without ever actually negatively impacting the learning environment of the class.  Then they’ve got these sad faces and “bad” colors on their names, and how is that supposed to create a safe learning environment?  While I can easily grasp the intent of creating a behavior management system such as this, it seems completely misguided.  It makes rather arbitrary behavior that is very counter to a child’s natural tendencies a gateway to learning.  According to that logic, if a child can’t comply and model the behavior, then the child can’t learn.  They’re not “ready”.

As a mother of a child who will undoubtedly come under the “special needs” designation, this horrifies me.  What if LP needs extra time to get from one place to the next?  What if he engages in “stimming” and it is seen as disruptive?  What if, what if, what if.  If this is in any way indicative of how other schools operate, it is no wonder that schools are so often hesitant to put kids with special needs into general education settings.  It isn’t the kid, however, it seems like the classroom itself is an impossible set up.

I’m trying very, very hard to keep an open mind.  It is the first week of school, the stuff that Mouse may be telling me might be incorrect, what I’ve seen might have been observed out of context.  I also completely admit that I’m coming into things with a skeptical mind, and try as I might to stop it, I’m sure it has a filtering effect on my perceptions.  I’m going to talk to the teacher next week, and we are trying to keep open minds.  I know it isn’t easy to be a teacher.  It just seems like the system is rigged, that’s all.  Mouse did teach Chipmunk how to count to three in Spanish the other night, so there’s that.  I’m just not sure about the cost-benefit analysis.

27 Comments on “Compliance, Learning, and Special Needs”

  1. momshieb says:

    Oh, my dear!
    I don’t know where your little one is enrolled, but I would set up a teacher meeting ASAP. ASk about the behavior expectations; ask about the behavior plan.
    As you know, I am a public school teacher, and this makes me shudder.
    Schools CAN be centers of creativity and movement, and excitement, but not when kids have to sit a certain way, try to earn colors (or stickers, or checks or facial expressions).
    My school uses The Responsive Classroom (, my daughter’s school uses the Open Circle ( Both use positive behavior shaping, and neither would agree with the system that is being used in Mouse’s class.
    Good luck, and keep me posted!
    And I’m sorry that it isn’t going the way you both had hoped…..

    • jisun says:

      OK I’m so glad you commented because I needed to hear from another educator that I wasn’t being a big naysayer. I’m going to talk to the teacher on Monday. The color system is being used school wide apparently. :( We didn’t see it during the classroom observation last year and it is a very well regarded school so I’ve been taken aback by the whole thing. I will check the links, thank you!!!

      • momshieb says:

        Hopefully if you present yourself as open, interested and working together with the school, they will be able to hear you. I know that sometimes even my best colleagues feel defensive when parents come across as critical. Forgive me for overstepping, but you may want to simply present your concerns through your daughter’s eyes instead of being critical of the entire program. The teacher needs to know that Mouse is worried about being “bad” but that she isn’t sure what “bad” is.
        I know that in my classroom, I refuse to use words like “good”, “bad”, “naughty”. If I say that we have to be “respectful”, we spend ten minutes talking about what “respectful” sounds like, looks like. Then we practice it! Kids have to know what we want, and they almost always strive to do it. Good luck!

        • jisun says:

          This is why I didn’t go talk to her this week, I figured I should wait to even see if the inkings turned into anything. I do want to present myself as someone who wants to make it successful rather than just criticise. (Although I worry that she’s going to fall back on the “the whole school does it”.)

          Like for example, it would have been so helpful for her to have talked about the behavioral expectations at orientation. The parents could have prepared the kids, reinforced things at home, you know?

          I know one other parent who already brought up concerns and the response was “well it has to be this way”. Hopefully if more than one parent approaches her, the teacher will consider modifying the system, right?

          • momshieb says:

            If it is a school initiative, she may not have any choice. I think that if the teacher doesn’t feel comfortable making a change, then you need to go the next step up and approach the principal.
            one more suggestion: have you joined the PTSO? They have tons of power in a school, you’d be amazed….

            • jisun says:

              On my list.

              So if it is a school wide behavior program do you think the teachers would be penalized if they didn’t strictly follow it? Mouse told me more about it tonight, if you get onto red or blue, you can’t do the activity and have to sit quietly. Not my idea of getting good behavior out of a four year old! Argh!

  2. Lisa says:

    Oy. This makes me sad. But, yeah, I see it all the time. School is very much about compliance nowadays. Even homework. At my kids’ school, there is a grade on the report card for “Completes Homework.” Now, tell me: is that about learning, or is it about compliance? You’re right, the system is rigged. Or just really, really messed up.

  3. AK says:

    Seems the problem isn’t with the system, but with the teacher and maybe that particular school. Having just departed seven wonderful years at a creative, child-focused elementary school, we couldn’t be happier with the process and with the results, including an IEP for years when reading was a challenge. “Criss-cross applesauce?” That’s a new one to me.

    • jisun says:

      I think it is an attempt to avoid “Indian style”. Pretty common around us.

      I do think that there’s some less than ideal stuff going on in our particular classroom, but I also am concerned with the system at large. This entire need for such uniform behavior is a result of putting such large numbers of children together without enough support, imo. I don’t necessarily fault the teacher entirely. It seems like teachers are underpaid, undervalued and under-resourced, it is no wonder that issues like this come up.

      Also, while I’m so glad that you had a positive IEP experience, is suggest that there is a very big difference between someone with a lifelong, visible, intellectual disability and someone who is in temporary need of an IEP for help in one academic area.

      Having said that, I’m not trying to be a school hater. But am I frustrated and understand why some parents homeschool? Yes.

  4. Oh boy. Point systems are pretty common, but the public shaming? What the Hell?!? Totally wrong. Geez, my legs cramped up and I had to straighten my legs, guess I need to get a sad face. Sigh. It’s hard to balance the “we are all on the same side” with the “OMG! I hate this” that you need to get through meetings with the teacher. But my advice would be to speak up, now. Don’t be afraid of being “that” parent, because, seriously, who cares? These are your kids and the teacher works for you. What is it about some public schools that turn intelligent, naturally curious kids into stress cases? Good luck.

  5. Holly says:

    One word: Waldorf. Seriously, if I was there we’d be having a (kids’ education/protect their wonder) power lunch tomorrow. I drove 80 miles/day for Waldorf for three years after our own frustrating forays into education, before moving closer to the school. Check Waldorf out. I’ll bet money you’ll not regret it.

    • jisun says:

      I love Waldorf principles, but we can’t swallow the money aspect of it all. 80 miles, serious dedication! I understand though, because I get how hugely important this ends up being. Next week. I am just going to be optimistic. Yup.

      • Danville is quite a haul for you, but the Waldorf school in Danville is based on a “pay what you can afford” system. It’s pretty reasonable for a private school, too….

        • jisun says:

          Hm. This would be further reason that we should move to the other side of the hills if my mom knew about this. ;) Thanks for the tip I will check it out. I really am drawn to the Waldorf approach.

  6. Miriam says:

    Well, if you’ve read my blog at all, you know what I think :-) But I also think that there is no perfect solution, no matter which path you choose for schooling there will be pros and cons. I started kindergarten at 4 going on 5 (late October birthday) and I did everything I was supposed to do. I was a “good girl”, did what the teachers expected of me, but it all came at a price… all you can do is follow your heart, make the best decision you can. I believe pretty firmly that school is what it is- it won’t be changed. You have to either accept it for what it is, or choose home education.

    • jisun says:

      I was the same way. I was young, and was a “good girl”, I also feel like it came at a price. Sigh. We just enrolled her so feel like we need to give it a fair shake, but I feel conflicted! Bah.

  7. Cole says:

    I have to say- for me the point of public school growing up is absolutely about compliance- that isn’t the word I would have used- because it didn’t bother me- but growing up I never believed the point was to learn the answer to a particular equation or remember the date of a history event, the point of going to public school was to learn how our traditional society operates and how to move through that. How to get along with others and how to be kind to our fellow citizens. I’m the odd girl out here but I’ve always been ok with that. I like rules and I think before we can make educated decisions to buck them it is important to understand where they stem from and what the purpose behind them is and when a rule or routine doesn’t make sense then I’ve always worked within the system to effect change (ie our school doesn’t do inclusion thus the loooonnnnnggg process to help the system understand the points they obviously don’t about Down syndrome. In doing that I accept that when these teachers and administrators were educated in their field the understanding of what it means to have Ds was vastly different- and so I’ll clarify that for them now.) For my kids I like these behavior systems. My oldest- she’s draining- she is full of boundless energy and enthusiasm- and frankly that isn’t appropriate to express everywhere we go to the degree she is inclined. So I taylor where we go (ie- we don’t do a lot of quiet storytimes at libraries for fun- it’s just too hard- and that is a choice- we do playgrounds where she can run and hoot and hollar and climb) but I also expect her to learn what is appropriate in other settings- which could very well be defined as compliance. For me I’m ok with that- it’s how the society that I choose to live in operates. I’ve always been a rule follower though and when rules are inappropriate I expect the mutual respect of those in charge to listen to me because I’ve afforded them the same respect. I like teachers, I like the school setting and it works for us. I get that it doesn’t for a lot of people though- I just don’t fall in to that category. I firmly believe I and the kids get better at things when they practice- so be it homework or behavior- we’re ok with that. For Maddie (our first grader) she’s had versions of the behavior system you describe and it helps her to be in control of how she acts in a setting. She doesn’t always get it right- none of them do- but the color makes it clear for her rather than abstract concepts for her fairly concrete way of thinking. I do feel bad when I hear the perspective you understood it in though- I didn’t think of it as “shaming”- I can see that the method it is delivered with could lean to that. A teacher would have to be careful. I’ve seen those systems though as a way for children to learn self-control- and that is better than me always telling her what to do- again it is what works with Maddie. It may not with Abby or Emma- time will tell. And for Maddie her motivation is often in external rewards- she wants to earn the certificate that if she moves up two colors she gets. They were simple things like wear jammies to school, eat with a friend at lunch. We’ve often done sticker charts to get her to learn things like potty training and staying in her bed in the morning past 5am. Just telling her what we want hasn’t worked. She is to say the least, strong willed- which is great in a grown up- and challenging to the grown-ups in a child. At least her version is. Anyhoo- just our experience. If I read what you said without the experience we have- I would totally see it as negative- but the reality of how it has played out for us has been positive. Maddie loves school- she loves knowing what is expected of her- she is seen as a leader and a helper in her class. She’s working on kindness to other kids- she often runs over others (not literally) to get what she wants. She loves learning and the homework is fun for her- in our grade- doing these projects and other things are fun (therapy is the same for Abby) it’s how we present it to her and how she understands it- it isn’t seen as burdensome to her or us. Which frankly I’m happy for her and us that we see it this way.

    • Cole says:

      Oh- and yeah- we talk about her behavior and what color she was in and I try to see if she understands why she moved up or down and if she doesn’t we try to figure that out- same with the other kids if someone stood out to her than we talk about why that kid might be in that color- she notices the kids who did well and the kids who had trouble and we talk about it so that she doesn’t label them as good or bad but learns about what behaviors were ok and what weren’t and where what they did might be ok (ie we don’t run during storytime but we do run on the playground at recess- we don’t run during swim lessons (and why- that it is slippery and we could fall and get hurt) but we do run at the park).

      • jisun says:

        Ok, I’m looking through my comments and I wrote you this long reply and it is not here! Hope you don’t think that was on purpose. So the examples you used, I don’t feel are happening in quite the same way as in Mouse’s school. What I see is compliance for compliance’s sake. And it all feels very arbitrary. It isn’t about sitting quietly so you can hear the assembly, it is simply about proving that you can sit quietly. And it is entire too punishment based, and not reward based. For four year olds, I think it is wrong. Also, the way you describe taking into account her temperament and needs during outings, I don’t see that happening in our school.

        I have to say that I do think that most schooling is about what you say, but I disagree that it is about moving through society. Because for me, most kids will learn this kind of thing through a loving environment, period. And this doesn’t mean rewards and behavior systems can’t be a part of a loving environment, but I see nothing about the school environment that is absolutely necessary to get it done. So that is where I struggle in our situation, because the message is strongly “they need this”, and I really question that. Does my daughter need to sit quietly for the sake of sitting quietly? Or does she need to learn to respect other people’s space and empathize with people so she can understand the impact of her choices? Harder concept than “just sit still”, but longer lasting and the correct message, in my opinion.

        I’m not a categorical school hater though. We enrolled her in school because we believe it can be positive for some and saw value in our school’s curriculum and teaching methods (they use expeditionary learning). Our experience isn’t turning out quite right though, and we are really struggling to support a teacher who doesn’t seem to want to support us back. But that is another post brewing. I swear there was more but of course I can’t remember it…!

        • Cole says:

          Any method is really only as good as the person who implements it. If they are using those color codes to focus on discipline then yeah- that would suck big time. When Maddie talks about it for her it is a way to self-regulate her behavior and she shows pride in having met classroom expectations. That sucks that they use it in a punishment based focus- I’m surprised a public school in this day and age would do that!
          I agree that you can get the moving through society type learning in other places and that you should- absolutely- I’m just saying that that’s what the take away from my school years was as opposed to the 1+1=2 type learning. I think we are describing the same thing in different terms- or maybe interpreting the intent behind what they do differently. Although I wasn’t saying that was the intent behind public education- just what I took from my personal experience as the intent- and I also get that I’m probably just validating/justifying not earning an A in history and science  Because I completely agree on learning to respect other people’s space and empathize with people so you can understand the impact of your choices- that’s what I mean by moving through society- that’s what I saw as the point of school as opposed to the actual material- understanding how our actions impact others and taking that into account with what and how we choose to act in environments. But like I said above- a lot of that depends on the particular person in charge of the environment. Here the Montessori schools are nothing I would want to expose my children too- not because I’m opposed to the methods that Maria Montessori felt were important- but how it is implemented. The folks that use the Montessori schools here come across as privileged and unkind and cliquish. Which sits poorly with social worker me (I can’t stand the people who picket wal-mart and then go running to whole foods- it feels hypocritical to me since you have to have a certain amount of privilege and income to shop in the latter store which also doesn’t allow it’s employees to unionize) And the teaching methods get interpreted in ways that seem distorted from the original intention- there have been numerous examples of where in the emphasis on independence the children are essentially neglected- like the child that couldn’t open the baggie their lunch came in by himself went without lunch. The 3 year old that wasn’t able to change his pants independently sat in pee-soaked clothes all day. The child whose lunch that was felt to not meet the nutrition standards of the director was given a letter to take home to their parents.
          I agree that you can get the moving through society type learning in other places- absolutely- but for me that’s what I took out of my school years as opposed to the 1+1=2 type learning.

          • Cole says:

            “Any method is really only as good as the person who implements it. If they are using those color codes to focus on discipline then yeah-” I meant focus on punishment as you had said in your reply- not discipline.

  8. Mardra says:

    Wow. Do you know the song “Flowers are red” by Harry Chapin? Check it out. I think you’ll see which teacher this is pretty quickly.
    Good luck, friend.

    • jisun says:

      Wow, this is exactly what makes me nervous about all of this. Now I feel like anonymously delivering a copy of this song to every teacher around the world!

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