Miss Night's Marbles

Musings, mumbles, marvels, and sometimes mockery, live from kindergarten.

Too high a price: why I don’t do behaviour charts

UPDATE, July 16, 2014: This post has morphed into a whole series of posts about how and why to manage your classroom using relationships instead of charts and systems. To read the whole series, please visit my Chuck the Chart page.

*Update Sept 9, 2012: In response to many requests in the comments of this post, I have written a companion piece, describing how I DO manage behaviour in my classroom: “Behaviour Management” not systems, but relationships. Please head on over and have a look!*

In my recent post on “In this classroom…” I mentioned that I don’t do behaviour charts. It’s true, I don’t. I have had some push-back on that, and it has made me think really deeply about how and why my stance on class-wide (or worse yet, school-wide) behaviour systems has developed.  In the name of transparency, I will confess that in my early days of teaching, I had a colour-coded behaviour chart. It was effective, in a superficial way, and also a nightmare. I’ll share that story in another post. But today, inspired by my friend Matt Gomez’s Reward Free Year, here it is:


Before I say anything else, I want you to do a little imagining with me. As you read each paragraph, I want you to REALLY work to imagine yourself in this situation, really FEEL what it would be like. I’m sure you will catch on to my metaphor pretty quickly, but stay with me. I really couldn’t think of a better way to illustrate my point:

Imagine that you have a new job. You’re VERY excited about this new job, and a little bit nervous. You know there are parts of it that you will be very good at, but there are some things that you are still working on, or that you might need support from your boss to master. It’s okay, though, because you’re pretty sure that your boss is really nice, and will help you work on those things.

You arrive at work and start meeting your new co-workers, who are just as excited and nervous as you. You notice that some of them seem to be VERY good at nearly everything, and others seem to struggle with even more things than you, but altogether they are a nice enough group and you feel like you will be a good team. You start to make some work friends. It feels good.

Then, at some point – maybe right away, maybe after a few days or weeks or months, your boss sits you ALL down together and explains a new performance management system. On the wall of your communal work area, Boss has posted a list of all the employees, by name. Next to each name is a rainbow of colour-coded cards. Boss explains that every employee will start each day on the same colour, but depending on your performance, your name can be moved up the rainbow, or down the rainbow. People who move up the rainbow will get special extras: a small bonus, or an extra long lunch, or a half-day off. People who move down the rainbow will face consequences: a shorter break, a docked paycheck, a note in their file.

The next day starts out badly before you even get to work. Your alarm doesn’t go off, there’s no hot water left for your shower, you’re out of coffee, your cat has peed on your favourite shoes AND it’s raining. You get to work, and within an hour, your name has been moved down to yellow. You get a warning from your boss. Then, your favourite work friend doesn’t want to work next to you because you just got in trouble and she doesn’t want to get in trouble by association. Your hurt feelings make you distracted, and you make a few careless errors in your tasks. Your name gets moved to orange and now you only get 20 minutes for lunch, which is really upsetting because the sun is finally shining and you had been confident that a nice walk in the fresh air with your buddies would help turn your day around.

On your abbreviated lunch break, you try to get online to order some new shoes. Impatient and frustrated, you curse out loud when the site won’t load properly. In front of everyone, your boss moves your name to red. There goes 50 bucks off your pay. Apparently you won’t be buying new shoes, after all. You approach your boss privately, trying to explain and apologise. Boss tells you, kindly-but-firmly, that “No cussing” is an ironclad rule, and that because everyone heard you cuss, she has to give you the same consequence she would give anyone else. Later, you are short-tempered with a customer, and your name gets moved off the rainbow altogether. A note is placed in your file, documenting a reprimand for inappropriate language in the workplace.

The end of the day approaches. A few of your colleagues get to leave 30 minutes early because their names got moved “up” to blue. This leaves you with extra work that has to be done before you can leave. Among these colleagues, one of them had his name moved up to purple, so he is buying a round of drinks for everyone… Everyone who can leave early, that is. It’s always the same people who can leave early, and really, they’ve become quite clique-y. You convince yourself you wouldn’t really WANT to have drinks with them, anyway. You really fit in better with the red and orange card crowd.

Photo by South Carolina’s Northern Kingdom licensed (cc) by Flickr
How do you feel right now, as an employee? How do you feel about your boss, your colleagues, yourself? How do you feel about having to come back to the same place, the same people, the same chart, tomorrow? What are the chances you will turn things around tomorrow, or ever? What are the chances you will just figure out how to hang at “orange” and deal with the consequences and find ways to enjoy your 20 minute lunch with your orange friends? (I know you are smart enough to stay away from red, but orange is really not so bad, right…?)

If my boss were to hang a chart in the staff lounge, showing which teachers were doing an exceptional job each day, as well as those who were having exceptional-in-a-bad-way days, I would be furious. I would be raging about my privacy, my dignity, my right to be respected by my colleagues for the person I am, and to not be publicly labelled based on any given day. My personal growth is between me and my boss. It has no business being a public display. I don’t know any teacher who would disagree with this. My boss and I have private conversations, plans, and systems to foster my progress.

Parallel to this, I am not opposed to individualized behaviour plans and systems to support individual children. I have used them, and will continue to do so. (I am increasingly opposed to material rewards being part of such systems, but that is another post.) These systems are private. They are discreet. They are between me and that child and his or her parents. These systems are tailored specifically for that child’s needs and quirks and preferences. They allow me a lot of flexibility to accommodate the day that the child only got 5 hours of sleep, or scraped her knee on her way to school. They maintain that child’s dignity and support his or her relationships with peers.

There are many, many reasons not to use publicly-displayed, one-size-fits-all behaviour “systems” in a classroom: they encourage extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation; they undermine a sense of community; they prevent kids from generalizing good behaviours;  but this is the biggest one, to me:

A child’s dignity, privacy, self-respect are no less real or important or valid, than mine. When I undermine a children’s privacy and dignity, I do damage to their relationships: with their peers, with me, and with themselves.

Yes, behaviour charts can create a classroom full of raised hands, quiet voices, walking feet, please-and-thank-yous.

But a child’s dignity is too high a price to pay for criss-cross-applesauce.



wounded, jaded, loved, and hated*

Today’s post is the continuation of Brayden’s story, started here. The year that Brayden started in my room he came to me for half-days, beginning in March. By April, we knew that he was not emotionally equipped to handle a transition to first grade, and the unanimous decision was that he would re-enroll in kindergarten, and would be in my class full-time the following year. My feelings about children repeating kindergarten are very complicated, but then… Brayden was (and probably still is) a complicated kid.

I wrote this post in mid-October of the year I had Brayden full time. His first 6 weeks of school had been rocky, but promising. And then… and then.

Oh, Internet, I swear I never wanted this to be a place where I just pour out all my woes, but…

Brayden? My laundry-list child, who started transitioning into my classroom in March of last year? Who hugs me with a ferocity that makes me cry, and who melts down in loud, noisy tears, on a regular basis, over the smallest of slights? Who spends an inordinate portion of his life on timeout, who has to push every single adult in his world to the very brink before he trusts that they (we) will set the limits he so desperately needs? Who, when he is done melting down, curls up in my lap and buries his face in my neck, and whispers: “I love you, Miss. Night”?

Yes, Brayden. Brayden, who I love with a protectiveness that frightens me.


Brayden, whose mom, just 3 weeks ago, accepted a corporate transfer to another city. A city 3 hours away from here. A transfer that is effective January 1st.

The last 3 weeks, since Brayden learned of this upcoming move, have been horrific  The words have been said, and can’t be unsaid. He knows. He has gone from being a child in need, a child at risk, to being a child in crisis. Make that A Child In Crisis. Every day, every single day, there has been a meltdown to the point of him being carried, wailing and thrashing, from the classroom. Every interaction, every single interaction, with him, begins with “no! I will not do what you say!” He is oppositional and defiant and aggressive and angry and out of control and scared.

So very, very, terribly, scared.

I have bruises on my shins from his heels furiously flying as I carry him to the office. Tracy (my boss) has not completed a single meeting without a Brayden-related interruption, in 2 weeks. (And the one morning she was gone for an off-campus workshop was too difficult and exhausting and painful — for me, Brayden, my aide — to even begin to describe.) Every time I hear a loudspeaker announcement calling Tracy to the office at a time when my class is not with me, my heart sinks. It is Brayden. It is always Brayden. On Friday, in what would prove to be the final straw, our yoga teacher (who is also an early intervention specialist, thank the sweet baby Jesus) got punched in the mouth while trying to restrain a struggling Brayden. His mom was called, he went home, and he will not return to our classroom until we have found a full-time aide, just for him.

 Every single scrap of time and energy I have had for the last 3 weeks have been consumed by him, and when I am not with him, I am recovering from being with him. It is not okay, or healthy, not for me and not for the other 19 children in my class. For them, I feel I have been a mediocre teacher. I have also, I suspect, been a mediocre and inaccessible leader to my team of colleagues. I have definitely been a completely absent blogger, and have become, quite possibly, the world’s most boring conversationalist, to everyone except my own mother (who might, quite possibly, love Brayden as much as it is possible to love someone you have never actually met.) When I am at my most exhausted, I resent the intrusion of this one small boy into my head and heart and world, and I wish for my life and time and energy and classroom back. At my darkest moments, January starts to seem like a beacon of hope and harmony…

 But the rest of the time… My heart breaks, both for Brayden and for myself. I am scared of what will happen to him at his new school. Will his new teacher love him? Will she know that he CAN’T stop wiggling during circle, and that the safest thing for all concerned to to strategically seat him where he has enough room to roll around without kicking anyone? Will she allow him to push his own physical limits, even when it seems too dangerous, because PUSHING is what he most needs to do? Will she let him crawl into her lap and bury his face in her neck? Will she hold his hand even when inside she is shaking in frustration? Will she help him name his feelings, learn to control her own breathing, tell him she loves him even in his most unlovable moments? Will she praise his successes, however tiny they may seem? Will she set limits and stick to them, even when he has been laying on the floor, howling, for 30 minutes? Will his new school have an administrator like Tracy, who has turned her office into a safe haven for kids who need a place to get it together? Who will walk out of any meeting to carry a sobbing Brayden down the hallway so his classmates can eat lunch in peace? Will the other kids see the humour and enthusiasm and affection that hide beneath his nervous tics and pushy body language? Will he find a friend? Please, God, let him find a friend…

Brayden is taking next week off — it is only a 3-day week anyway — and staying home from school to allow all of us a break and some time to strategize, not to mention to find the angel-in-disguise that we will need to be his aide for the next 2 months. Just contemplating 3 days without him makes my whole body relax. I know I need it, and I know the other children deserve to get to know their teacher again.

But the thing is… I will miss him.

And if I know right now that I will miss him like crazycakes for just 3 days… what am I going to do in January?

*God’s Will, Martina McBride. Of course.

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But things come slow or not at all

So, yeah, I am running the #kinderchat summer blogging challenge again this year, and, as usual, I am among the last to post my own response. In the name of full disclosure, I started this draft weeks ago, and have been tug-of-warring with it ever since. But first, the question:

What did you learn this past (or, for our southern hemisphere friends, what ARE you learning this current) school year that you couldn’t have learned any other year, from any other students or colleagues or administrators or parents? What lessons did this particular year, this particular setting, these particular children bring into your life?

Oh, Lord. THESE children…??? It has been a while since I had a group like this: a group who exhausted me, pushed me, needed me, questioned me, stretched me so much and so frequently. A group with whom I fell so utterly, completely, and hopelessly in love… In fact, I’m pretty sure the last group like this was not a class at all, but a group of teenagers on the side of a mountain high up in northeastern California. But that is another story, and will be told another time.

This group of kids questioned everything. EVERY. DAMN. THING. Why do we have to do this? Why do it this way? Why do we print letters starting at the top? Do I have to draw a bowl for my goldfish? Can I have a book at rest time? Can sit under the table to do my reading? Can I cut it out and THEN colour, or do I have to colour first? Why do I need to colour first? Why do we stand in a line? Why can’t I sit on my knees if I can’t see? Can I sit on a chair at circle? Why can’t *I* choose my spot for lunch? And they didn’t accept a simple “yes” or “no” or “because I said so.” Why, Mme? Why not, Mme? I can do it that way at home, Mme, why not here? I was tired. Lord, was I tired. I am still tired. I may always be tired. But from that dark, bone-deep-tiredness has come some lightbulbs: moments of clarity that have changed me, my classroom, my teaching. 
So here: this is my list, far from exhaustive, of the things I learned this year, that only these children, these smart, funny, LOUD, quirky, demanding, stubborn, inquisitive, impatient, messy, sticky, and determined (did I mention LOUD?) children could have taught me.
    • Criss-cross-applesauce is overrated.
    • Walking in a perfectly straight line is rarely necessary.
    • Sitting in a chair to work is not a requirement. Kids can work standing up, or laying down, or crouched over, or squatting.
    • The traditional “Today is; Yesterday was; Tomorrow will be…” calendar routine is a waste of 30 minutes. Kindergartners don’t conceptualize time that way.
    • I am not willing to expend energy to convince a child to complete anything in a workbook.
    • In most cases, following the steps of an activity in the exact order I demonstrate is unnecessary.
    • In many cases, my demonstration is unnecessary and may be detrimental.
    • Most activities that involve use of a photocopier have no place in my classroom.
    • If a lesson or activity is going to result in 18 perfectly identical completed projects, I probably have no interest in doing it. 
    • Many crafts, no matter how cute, are glorified worksheets.
    • Sitting perfectly still is not a reasonable expectation for anyone, never mind an active five-year-old.
    • Being perfectly silent is not a reasonable expectation for anyone, never mind an active five-year-old.
    • If the children are bored, I am boring.
    • If I am boring, I need to change something.
    • Bored, disengaged children are MY problem to fix.
    • The cure for boredom is engagement, not entertainment.
    • If I am going to ask children to do something, I better be able to explain why it matters.
    • If I am going to ask children to do something, I better BELIEVE why it matters.
    • There is no glory in winning a battle of wills with a five year old.
    • There may, however, be danger in LOSING a battle of wills with a five year old.
    • If I’m going to have a battle of wills with a five year old,  I better choose it carefully, and be prepared to win.
    • Even if it means spending my own lunch break supervising a child who is refusing to put away the train he hurled across the room.
    • No matter how many great transition songs I know, sometimes the best way to handle a difficult transition time is to eliminate it. (Ask me about the beauty of the snack centre.)
    • Respond as if you are assuming the best, even if you have solid grounds to assume the worst. Assuming, and responding as if,  a child has picked up a stray toy with the intention of putting it away creates an entirely different interaction than assuming she has picked it up to sneak it into her backpack.
    • There is always a back-story. The story rarely begins at “He hit me.” The question “what happened before that?” is important. The story deserves to be heard.
    • If I want them to be calm, I need to be calm.
    • There is no shame in announcing to a room of kindergartners that “Mme needs a time-out.”
    • I teach CHILDREN first. Before the program or the curriculum or the philosophy, my job is to TEACH. CHILDREN.
Important work happens, without a workbook, a photocopier, a chair or even a teacher demonstration.

It surprises me now, reading this list. These are all things that I thought I knew, or that it seems I should have known, long before these kids came along.  Many are things I thought I understood.

So maybe, what these kids taught this teacher is that we all, always, need teachers. It was an honour, a blessing, and a privilege, to be their student.


A long time coming.

This post has been in progress for a long time. I  have chipped away at it, a sentence here, a word there, for months. Re-reading it now, I am worried it sounds like a rant, like I am angry. And yet, not a single word of this came from a place of anger. It has all come from a place of pride, a reminder to myself to respect the work I do every single day. As early childhood professionals, we must take ourselves more seriously, before we ask parents, administrators, ed reformers, and the general public to do so. We must honour ourselves and the work that we do. We must respect our own miracles.

I teach kindergarten.  I am not cute, although my students sometimes are. I do not wear denim jumpers or Winnie the Pooh Christmas sweaters (although I mean no disrespect to my colleagues who do). I am NICE, but not in the way that means “superficially pleasant” I am NICE in the way that means GOOD, positive, kind, and genuine. I say please and thank you to adults and children alike. I keep to the right in the hallway, hold the door for the person behind me, and use an inside voice, because those are the habits I want my students to have.

I am highly educated. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Education, and a Master’s Degree in Child Development. My master’s is a “REAL” Ivory-Tower-Academia, 2.5 yrs of full-time studies, Master’s, complete with quantitative research, statistical analysis, a 100-page thesis, and publications. I got straight As in phD-level statistics classes. I collaborated on a chapter published in a highly-regarded academic book on school-readiness. I know HOW to assess children’s skills, and I know that my own observations tell me more than formal assessments (note that i will not dignify the word “testing” by including it here). I read original, peer-reviewed, published research.I push my school to participate in research, and I sit with my colleagues and administrators as we pore over the results. Because I put my whole life on hold for 2.5 years of full-time studies, I have nothing but admiration for colleagues who do graduate degrees while continuing to work. I am pretty sure their path is rockier than mine was.

I know things. I know that playdough is the best way to cleanup spilled glitter. I know that a pint of water added to a sandbox changes everything. I know that some kids print better with golf pencils than with those giant kindergarten pencils. I know how to get tempera paint off a white uniform shirt while a sobbing child frets about “what mommy will say.” I know that some kids need tough love and some kids need sweet love and some kids need both at the same time. I know how to give both at the same time.

I love my students. I am in the business of childcare, and I have no illusions about that. I. Care. For. Children. all day, every day. I hold hands and wipe noses and dry tears. I hand out bandaids. I kiss boo boos. I open snacks and tie shoes and zip coats. I desperately wish someone would design mittens that children can put on ALL BY THEMSELVES. I touch children constantly, because I believe too many people are afraid to touch other people’s kids in a loving way. I ruffle hair and stroke cheeks and rub backs. I gather children up in my lap and let them cry all over my clean sweater.

I do not work alone. I honour their families even when I don’t really understand them. I know that parents are my most powerful allies, and I believe that most parents are doing their absolute very best with the knowledge they have. I collaborate with colleagues I adore and respect and sometimes we argue and agree to disagree, but we go on respecting each other.

I am a smartass. I do sharp and true impersonations of my students and my colleagues. I laugh when kids say inappropriate things. I occasionally lapse into sarcasm that flies far over most 5-year-olds heads. I drop the occasional F-bomb with colleagues. I make a lot of jokes about drinking at work. I do NOT drink at work. Ever. Not even on field trips.

I do hard things. Before winter break in any given year, I have explained cancer, fire drills, famine, homelessness, war, and lockdown procedures to 4 and 5 year olds. After winter break, I tackle racism, environmentalism, international relations, democracy, and natural disasters.  Over apple slices and cheese strings, I moderate respectful debates over the existence of God, ghosts, monsters, heaven, elves, Santa, and the Tooth Fairy.



I make miracles every day.
What do you do?


the other hand that always holds the line

Hello, internet!

So, the last 2 weeks have not been the easiest of times in my classroom. The flu is making its vicious rounds, taking down everyone in its path. Mme Wendy, my aide, was away for 4 days last week, and I was away for 2 days of the week before. We have had between 12 and 15 (out of 20) munchkins at school every day. Most days, we have sent at least one of them home with a fever by lunchtime. The ones who have returned from being ill are often still coughing, irritable, and tired. Having only 60 – 75% of the kids at school on any given day makes it hard to contemplate introducing anything new. And, on top of all that, it has been so bitterly cold that we have had only indoor recess for 5 consecutive days. By Thursday, the bickering had reached record-breaking levels, the whining was shredding my ear drums, the sniffling and coughing and requests to get chapstick/water/coughdrops came in an endless parade. Having no aide meant I got very few breaks. The children were crabby and bored. I was crabby and bored. And there was still Friday to get through. Friday, which happened to be a Day 5, the day during which I have the fewest preps, and the children spend the most time in the classroom, with me. Friday, when the temperature was forecast to drop even further….

To digress for a few paragraphs: if you read my personal blog, you know that I worked at summer camp for a long time. Twelve summers, to be exact, in a situation where the children NEVER GO HOME. Quite some time ago, on that blog, I wrote a post called “Because of Camp”. Number 45 on that list was “I know that the best cure for burnout is sometimes to work harder.” The story behind that is as follows:

During one of my many summers at camp, I was the Assistant Director, and my dear friend Devil was the Head Counsellor. We had reached the point in the summer where everyone was tired and a little cranky: the adventures of communal living, no privacy, constant grubbiness, were wearing thin. Tempers were short, tears came easily… It was the time of the summer where camp management has to start looking after staff morale, because the staff’s mindset, of course, influences the experience they provide to the campers. 

One morning, in the lull between breakfast and morning activities, Devil came and asked me if I would please go do a lap of the girls cabins, to make sure the counsellors were getting their campers through cabin cleanup and toothbrushing and finding lost hairbrushes and generally getting themselves and their charges ready for the day in a pleasant and positive manner.
I didn’t want to do it. That time of day was one of the ONLY lulls in my own long day. Once activities started, the inevitably gruelling string of questions and phone calls and crises that formed my job description would begin. Those 25 minutes, sitting in my office, still sipping my second cup of tea, might be the only quiet moments of my day. The last thing I wanted to do was start hoofing it up the hill to the girls’ cabins, to referee bickering and enforce floor-sweeping. But… Devil was my friend. He and I had worked together, closely, for a long time, and I trusted him. I trusted that, if he was asking me to do something, it really needed to be done. I also knew that, if I had been asking him to do something similar, it would because: a) it really needed to be done, and b) I knew he would do it.
So, reluctantly, grouchily, and SLOWLY, I did it. In my pyjamas and flip-flops, I hoofed it up the hill. I checked on the staff and traded jokes about the quirks of camp life. I found a camper’s missing sock. I braided a pigtail or two. I congratulated the teen leadership girls on the particularly glorious mess they had made of their cabin. I got hugs from 8-year-olds and danced the YMCA with 13-year olds. I tied off a frayed friendship bracelet. I got grateful smiles from counselors who were happy to interact with another adult. And, when the loudspeaker announced the beginning of the day’s activities, I found myself… refreshed. My 20 minute loop through the girls’ cabins had re-connected me to the daily magic of camp. I was smiling, and had more energy than I had had in several days. Working HARDER had helped me overcome burnout that I wasn’t even really aware I had.

Clearly, the leap from that dusty California morning, to my frigid classroom last Friday, is not a big one. I knew, as I drove to school, that it HAD to be a good day, for myself as much as for the children. I could not close the week on a sour note. As my monkeys trickled into the coatroom, a parent happened to hand me a big bag of beautiful magazines, to add to our collage bucket. After an amazingly frank circle time discussion about the week we had had, and how we were ALL feeling (guess whose students now understand the expressions “cabin fever” and “stir crazy?”), we started talking about things that make us smile. Out came the magazines, poster boards, glue, scissors. For over and hour, we cut and pasted and giggled and laughed together, finding images that were undeniably smile-worthy: sunshine, ice cream, butterflies, snowmen, puppies, babies, bathtubs, rainbows, flowers, princesses, sports cars, birthday cakes, candles, campfires, beaches, hockey skates, swimming pools, ballerinas, jelly beans, swingsets, flip flops. We filled in any remaining spaces with coloured macaroni, sequins, rhinestones, and blizzards of glitter. The collages took up most of the morning and part of the afternoon. The mess we made was unbelievable and never-ending. It seemed I did nothing but refill glue containers, find scissors that were “lost” in the pages of a magazine, collect gluestick caps from the floor, and control traffic flow to and from the glitter station, all while replying to a steady stream of “What is butterfly/beach/ballerina in French?”. My clothes looked like Tinkerbell had thrown up on them. And yet, it was, honestly, the most engaged I had been with my students all week. When morning snacktime came, my boss offered me a break, and I chose to stay in the room and eat picnic-style on the carpet with the munchkins (the tables being completely covered by the still-in-progress collages) because I LIKED BEING WITH THEM. In the afternoon, we read extra stories, sang extra songs, and had a silly dress-up contest. (Sidebar: we also opened our class twitter account, so let me know if you would like to follow us!). They went home with stained uniforms, sticky fingers, and smiles on their faces. So did I.

It seems so counter-intuitive that, when I am tired or bored or overwhelmed by my job, withdrawing and taking it easy often do not help. Slowing down, moving more deeply into the moment with the kiddos, re-connecting with them and their world, THOSE are what helps. When tired of teaching, I need to teach MORE, teach HARDER, teach slower and more deliberately. I don’t know if this is true in other fields. Do tired accountants need to ACCOUNT more? Regardless, while I have never doubted that summer camp made me a better teacher, it is always nice to have that link illustrated so very clearly. Because of camp, I am actually looking forward to Monday.

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