Kindergarten Lessons – Better than Skittles

My classroom closets are filled with candy and trinkets as I shamelessly use every possible form of “positive behavior management”. No piece of plastic crap can compete, however, with the power of relationship. Many years ago James Fowler, building on Kohlberg and Piaget before him, pointed out that while our most primitive ethical choices may may be based on cost and/or reward, our more significant and lasting work must be based on deeper values. Inasmuch as my kids stay seated for a reign (or rain) of Skittles, their attention is at best weak and invariably focused on the coming of the next sugar high. Occasionally I see evidence of a child finding inner satisfaction and even tangible evidence of their connection with others.

One day last week we were coming back from PE and Sam was, as usual, jumping up and down and tapping on the wall. I looked back, made eye contact, and reminded Sam that in the hallway, “our feet are on the ground, our hands are at our sides, and our mouths are quiet”. Sam nodded most seriously and we continued a few hundred feet. As I turned around in the corner of my eye I could see Sam starting to leap towards the wall. Facing forward, he caught my glance and then, miraculously, caught himself. Sam made a different choice not because I was going to punish him, I wasn’t. He made a different choice not because I was going to reward him, I wasn’t. He made a different choice because I believe in him and he wants to please me. And he did. I stopped what I was doing to celebrate his great choice.

Psychology students study the effects of rewards on classroom management and I work closely with some great young professionals studying and working in the field of positive behavioral coaching. While the positive energy of these young adults have had an incredibly great influence on our community, I wonder about the strategies themselves. Of course children, like all animals, can be trained to ding the bell on cue. But are these successes the ones that are lasting? Are these the strategies that will help the child understand their power in the face of an adrenalin rush? Are these tools that will transcend our particular setting? Training a child to behave for a reward (or worse, to avoid a consequence) is definitionally limited. Necessary to survive the day, perhaps, but totally inadequate to face the world and make meaning of real life.

On Friday, Wilson arrived having had another difficult bus ride. This time the driver sent Wilson in with a written report which described both his physically aggressive and sexually inappropriate behaviors. I read the note and felt at a loss for words. I called Wilson to the back room and sat down. As Wilson stood in front of me, I handed him the note and said simply, “read this to me.” Wilson began reading in his typically defiant mode. As he read further, having to speak aloud his behaviors with my disappoint silently facing him, he wilted. He stopped when he reached the most egregious part; head hanging he shuffled silently back to his seat where he put his head down and cried. No additional words were added. I was astounded to realize the power of simple relational accountability. No consequence in my repertoire would have elicited the level of remorse that he exhibited in that moment. No plastic trinket could deliver the powerful teaching that we encountered together.

To be sure, I’ll continue to buy Skittles and plastic trinkets. I’ll keep the charts and the reward systems for all of these tools serve a purpose and often buy time until relationships can be established. The real successes, however, are the ones without tangible rewards, where children discover that they have the power to make choices and even more miraculously that there are relationships worthy of their choosing.