OK I know I'm tired - and probably a bit hormonal, but even making due allowances for both, I read something on the internet today that struck me as really sad - and I need to get it off my chest.
It was a three-year old's account of life in her nursery: "If you're a good girl you live on the sun or a rainbow. But if you're a naughty girl you end up on the rain cloud and if you're really naughty... you end up on the thunder cloud". Apparently she hid after play time, and consequently ended up on the rain cloud.
This three-year old - at an age when most are barely out of nappies - is already learning that life is about performance. She is already learning that people love to judge - in fact that throughout her whole life she can expect to be judged. Is this the kind of lesson that we want our preschoolers to be learning?
I used to think that incentives for good behaviour were the way to go. After all we want to teach our children the difference between right and wrong; we want them to learn how to differentiate between 'good' and 'bad' behaviour, don't we? The problem I have here is that I fundamentally disagree with labelling a child as good or bad. By all means explain that certain behaviour is unkind, or hurtful, or unhelpful - or even unacceptable. BUT DO NOT LABEL THE CHILD. Presumably in the example above, the child's photo or name was attached to a visual representation of a rain cloud. Possibly the nursery leaders had spent hours slaving over the display, making it as colourful and inspiring as possible. Unfortunately, however good their intentions, the little girl went home with just one message: she was 'naughty'.
What had she done? Simply hidden after playtime. Maybe she was scared, maybe she was not ready to stop having fun, maybe she was pushing the boundaries a little. Whatever the reason, I do not think it is acceptable to label a child. It is the adult's responsibility to show the child that they are not their behaviour. Granted, the way we behave is generally a reflection of what we are feeling on the inside - and a whole lot of negative behaviour is a pretty reliable indicator of a whole heap of negative feelings on the inside.. but I'm talking about a three-year-old being labelled as naughty, because she hid. Her words of "ending up" on a raincloud have such a depressing ring of finality about them. Maybe she redeemed herself with exemplary behaviour for the rest of the day (although she still went home remembering the shame of being put on the raincloud). Maybe she did what Middle (and so many others) tended to do, and wrote herself off as bad because of one negative label, continuing to behave badly for the rest of the day. Either way, I can not see how this was a positive experience.
So how about if the nursery had just put a sun and rainbow up (conveniently ignoring the fact that we all have periods of stormy behaviour)? Well for my part, I do not see that that would be any better. I have seen similar systems in use, and the children who were regularly in the top spot were mostly there because of their compliant personalities more than any motivation offered by the incentive system. The others very often gave up hope of getting to the 'rainbow slot' - they still wrote themselves off and were uncomfortably aware that so had their top-of-the-class peers. I think it was also damaging even to those at the top. For example, I was the sort of child who needed to be at the top - the sun and rainbow would have not only appealed, but become a rod for my own back. In school - at least in primary school - I was at the top of the class and lived in fear of misbehaving or losing my 'good girl' status. That may have made me a cooperative child to have in a class, but did it do me any good? I doubt it. Did it teach me compassion for my fellow classmates or did it teach me to judge everyone by the standards that I found so rigid and uncaring?
Is what I'm saying so very radical? I do know that teachers need some sort of 'class control' system - but does it have to be a system that labels? Do we have to have public displays showing everyone how we have behaved today? If a child does well must we proclaim it to everyone, teaching them an early lesson in pride? If a child is having a bad day do we really have to display it on a wall for all to see, or can we - surely, somehow - show compassion to each child, letting them know individually that what they did was not helpful but that it did not change their value as a person, and by the way, are they OK???
Which brings us to the crux of it I suppose: teachers, nursery staff, classroom assistants - they don't have time to deal with every troubled child; they have too many plans, assessments, targets to tend to. And that makes me grateful for home education: for the chance to spot when my child is struggling, and sit down and have a chat or leave them to have a bit of space if needed - but it makes me sad for the children in nurseries and schools being put under more and more pressure to perform academically, socially, and behaviourally. The good news is that there are some wonderful teachers etc out there who are making a real difference, who do get to know their children, who do have kinder systems in place for teaching acceptable class behaviour... I would love to know how they do it - truly. But for our little three-year-old at the start of this post, I just hope that somebody made the time to ask her why she hid - to check that she was OK. And I hope that tomorrow she can have a good day - a day of sunshine and rainbows... but that even if a raincloud does crop up in her day, she will be told by the adults around her that no matter what, she is wonderful.