Adoption and School: Why the classroom discipline plan often fails for our kids.

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If you have seen the inside of an elementary classroom in the past 20 years you have probably seen this classroom management chart or some version of it.   You might be curious as to why this simple chart is the topic of today’s post.   What could it possibly have to do with adoptive families?  The truth is this chart (and other behavior modification tools) can have a large and sometimes negative  impact on our kids school experience.  So with school starting back up we wanted to take time to  talk about how these charts are used, why they can be a problem particularly for our kids, and what to do about it.

How the chart system works:
The  way this classroom management system works  is very simple.  Each child has a set of cards in the pocket chart.  Usually the cards are green, yellow and red symbolizing the go, warning, and stop signals of a traffic light.  Some teachers add an additional  black card.  Every day each child starts with their green card on top.  As the class moves through the day the teacher asks students who show undesirable behaviors or make poor choices to change their card color.

So seven year old Johnny starts the day with a green card on top,  but when he shouts out an answer without raising his hand the teacher asks him to change his top card to yellow.  Later when he turns in his math paper partially incomplete the teacher asks him to turn his card to red.   And finally when he pokes Sally in the arm with a freshly sharpened pencil she sends him to change the card to black.  Of course, landing on red or black usually means a note is sent home or a phone call is made to inform parents and to plan for better behavior.

Each school and individual teacher puts their own spin on the system.  For example, sometimes cards are only changed after several warnings.  Sometimes teachers have children fill out “think sheets” about their behavior when they change a card. Some teachers make individual plans with the parents of struggling students to give daily reports, and on and on.

So what is the problem with these charts and other behavior modification systems?
Sounds like a pretty simple system and I know a lot of teachers use it very successfully with typical kids.  So why would it be any different for a child who joined their family through adoption?  The key to the struggle is not actually about adoption, but instead about less than optimal care in the beginning of a child’s life, and how that care impacts the child’s ability to successfully navigate a behavior modification system like the color chart.

Many of our children waited in an orphanage, an abusive or neglectful birth home or were bounced from foster home to foster home prior to their adoption.  Research tells us that not having needs met in a timely, effective, and nurturing fashion over and over again early in life has an impact on a child’s brain development.   Often these children lag behind their peers in the development of brain based skills like cause and effect thinking, impulse control, self regulation, empathy and trust.

So lets go back to Johnny.  Let’s say his development of these skills is not that of a typical 7 year old because he spent the first 2 and ½ years of his life in an orphanage.  Does he have the impulse control to not shout out the answer?  Does he have the self regulation necessary to complete the math assignment without assistance?  Has empathy developed enough to think about how Sally will feel when she is poked?  Probably not.

But even more concerning is that our children who have experienced repeated cycles of unmet need are often lacking in trust, and children who lack trust usually have a strong need to control their environment.  When this is the case behavior modification systems like the color chart are almost certain to fail because the child is more motivated to control the environment than to get any reward that is offered.  In some cases children even seem to purposefully choose behaviors opposite of expectations;  their lack of trust and need to control leading them  to test the competency of their teacher.   It is as if they are saying, “Am I safe in this place?”  “Can you handle me?”  The behaviors are not usually  malicious but instead a sort of desperate  grasp at control.  Not surprisingly this type of  behavior is often misunderstood by teachers and school administrators, and sometimes results in a series of punishments that increase in intensity over time but never really seem to fix the behaviors.

What’s a parent to do?
So what as parents can we or should we do if this type of system is in place in our child’s classroom?   If behavior modification is being used in your child’s classroom and your child is successfully navigating it, obviously nothing needs to be done.  But if your child is struggling to behave in the classroom, is showing poor self regulation or impulse control, has to change their color over and over again for similar behaviors, or is showing signs of controlling the classroom through his or her misbehavior then it’s time  to advocate for your child and  her real  needs.  This means sitting down with the teacher and talking about why your child is struggling, and coming up with a plan to manage your child’s behaviors that will prove more successful.   To get ready for that talk check out this article with tips for talking to your child’s teacher.

And if you have completed the Because They Waited education system you will remember making a parenting plan that included discipline techniques that made sense given the science and research surrounding the adopted child.  We encourage techniques like pull close parenting, time in not time out, and more.  These techniques can be helpful to teachers too.   I’m reminded here of of one of Katie’s posts about time in at school.  Share examples like these with your child’s teacher.

The bottom line is that in order for our kids to be successful at school we need to continue to turn that cycle of need to completion at home thus building and shoring up those brain based skills.  We also need to help teachers understand why color charts (and other behavior mod techniques)   that work perfectly  for so many children, can be problematic  for the child who comes from a background of less than optimal care.  And finally, we need to partner with our child’s teacher to come up with effective ways to manage the sometimes difficult behaviors that kids struggling in these areas bring to the classroom.

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