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How the Newest Discipline System Works in Today's Kindergarten

05/12/2015 01:01 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

When I attended kindergarten in 1950, all I remember is fear. I had just turned five and had never been to preschool. I don't remember the teacher's name, but I do remember discipline. We were expected to sit quietly for 2 ½ hours, raise our hands to speak, and color inside the lines. Any infraction resulted in being shut into the cloak room, so I was highly motivated to keep my mouth shut, do what was asked, and watch the minutes click by on the clock until it was time to go home.

My experience wasn't quite as bad as the one described in the 1908 song School Days:

School days, school days
Dear old Golden Rule days
'Reading and 'riting and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hick'ry stick

On the other hand, my third grade teacher did paddle children for the slightest infraction. In fact, she paddled a boy named Johnny every morning when he entered the classroom to remind him to be good. Punishment, and sometimes literal sticks, were used to keep us in line.

But I digress. For my kids, kindergarten was a totally different story. The late 70's and early 80's were the era of Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If you are the Gen X child of Baby Boomer parents, you may have posted this on your college dorm wall:

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That was pretty much what was taught back then. The play kitchen, blocks, and art easels made kindergarten as familiar as the preschool my children attended. The only discipline I remember was removing the baby cow from the collection of play animals after one of the kids tried to flush it down the toilet. This was an era of lots of "carrots" that mostly came in the form of smiley stickers and praise.

Back in August, my grandson started kindergarten filled with apprehension and hope. He is a generous, creative, spirited little boy who, while tall for his age, had just turned five, making him one of the youngest boys in the class. So I was a bit worried about how he would survive his entry into the world of formal education given the current trend toward developmentally inappropriate expectations for young learners.

My grandson had three specific questions at the start of school:

  • Will my teacher be nice?
  • Can I get cookies?
  • Do they have a tiger robot in their toys?

Of course, cookies were out because snacks need to be healthy. Sadly, there were no toys, so tiger robots existed only in his imagination. Yes, his teacher was nice, but she was also bound to a curriculum and expectations, complete with homework, that would have been challenging for most first graders. And there was the discipline philosophy for his school, a "carrots and sticks" approach, called Positive Interventions and Support (PBIS), that dogged this active little boy all year.

I'll confess off the top that my grandson is no angel. He was a loud voice and large, enthusiastic personality. He loves messing around with his friends. He has opinions about many things and sometimes forgets rules. In short, he is a young kindergarten boy who would rather be playing than sitting to do his work.

PBIS, the currently popular method of maintaining school-wide discipline adopted by many of our schools, is defined as, " a continuum of positive behavior support for all students" and is implemented in every area of the building, including hallways, lunchrooms, and even restrooms. Here's how PBIS works for kindergarteners. There are behavioral expectations such as sitting quietly at the rug when the teacher is talking, walking silently through the halls, not laughing out loud in class, and only interacting with peers in defined ways and places. My grandson, and I suspect many other five-year-olds, finds it hard to sustain these behaviors over a 6 ½ hour school day.

To motivate him (the carrots), his teacher dispenses SWAG (Success, Willpower, Achievement, and Goals) tickets when she catches him following the rules or "being good." When he collects enough tickets, he can visit the SWAG store filled with an array of party-favor type goods/swag and cash in his tickets for a prize. There are assemblies extolling the virtues of following the rules and earning these tickets.

But there are also little boys with big impulses like my grandson who don't care much about SWAG. To deal with these guys, some "sticks" are also needed. Here's how that works. There is a weekly behavior report emailed home. My grandson has received his share of sad-face emojis accompanied by comments like "hallway behavior." His parents are expected to motivate him to stop these infractions. And they do talk to him about it.

Like many young boys his age, his impulses sometimes win out over his ability to follow all of these rules. When that happens, the rule is "3 strikes and he's out." He receives a warning, followed by time in the "refocus chair" (AKA, a time out) if the warning is not enough to prevent a second infraction. Because his school believes in this "strike 3" policy, there is a mandatory sentence in the form of the dreaded red slip sent home to his parents for the third infraction.

And he has received a few of these red slips. His main failing is talking to friends at rug time or LOL when he should be silent. Once, he received one for putting a marker dot on his best friend, who proceeded to LOL. His most recent one involved laughing and uttering the forbidden word "fart."

That episode illustrates why kindergarten discipline is so difficult for my grandson. The child next to him told him he farted. The teacher didn't hear that, but she did hear my grandson say, in his deep and loud voice, "I didn't fart." Of course, now the entire class was guilty of the LOL offense and the red slip came home.

That incident was likely "strike 3" for him that day, but here's the thing. He didn't snitch on the child who accused him of farting because he said that child had enough problems and couldn't help it. Turns out, that child has special needs and my grandson has enough empathy not to get him in trouble. He just wanted to set the record straight. So I'm actually a bit proud of that offense.

I know. Like generations of kindergarteners before him, he has to learn proper school behavior. But SWAG and red slips will have less of an impact on the trajectory of learning these things than time. As he matures, he will be better able to control his impulses to talk to friends at the wrong time, laugh when he should be quiet, and color outside the lines of school expectations.

I just worry that all of this kindergarten discipline, along with the developmentally inappropriate expectations, curriculum, and homework of today's kindergarten experience, will squash the creativity, compassion, love of learning, and spirit of a special little boy. And I worry that too many "sticks" will make him shut down, much like I did, afraid to raise his hand to answer a question and watching the clock for the day to be over.

A version of this post, Kindergarten Discipline: Carrots and Sticks, appeared in ChicagoNow on May 4, 2015.