Label jars – not children

I came across this blog post about labeling children and the consequences
(you can read the article here ) recently.

This reminded me of the case of a young child that I taught during my first year as a classroom teacher. And I always love to tell his story, when I give workshops on classroom management, because I have learned so much from it.

Meet Sam

Many years ago there was this little 3 year old boy. Let’s call him Sam.
Sam was a pretty active child from the beginning, but the more time he spent in school, the worse his behavior got. Normally, it should be the other way around, right? But in the end, you get what you expect and you as teacher may even cause some of those behaviors without noticing or wanting it.

Back then, the school had the traffic light behavior chart system, which means children start the day with “green”, then they go to orange and eventually red if the behavior was not all that great.
So Sam always (!!!) ended up with red –  every single day. And after a while he just didn’t care about it anymore. He was well aware that he has been “put into the misbehaved child drawer”. The teachers would let him know just as well as his parents. In the end he would get “red” anyways at the end of the day. Often even, when he didn’t do anything, but the teacher presumed he did something.

I was wondering why the traffic light thing worked for the others, but not for him – and then, what could be done to help this little guy.
So I went observing … I had a close look at his behaviors and the behaviors of the teachers and my own behavior with him (never ever forget to question yourself and the role you may play in the whole story!). And I realized that we were all pretty quickly judging. When somebody made a noise, it was automatically him (but we had no proof, it just came from the corner where he was sitting, it could have been the other 3 kids around him). Whatever was going on, it was automatically him, because every teacher (and even the parents) had in their mind that this kid is a trouble maker and who else could it be?!

You know, the problem with this is … never punish for something you didn’t see with your own eyes, because even if you are 99.9% sure that it was him, there is that 0.1% that it wasn’t him. And you punish the wrong person. So what now? In the little child’s brain it goes:
“I’m punished for something that I didn’t do, so I might as well act up and get punished for something that I really do, because obviously there is no difference and I’ll have a lot more fun this way. I’m the trouble maker anyways.”

Sounds logic, doesn’t it? How much would you care about being a good student and paying attention, if everybody thinks low of yourself anyways, either with your behavior or with your performance.
If you believe that everybody thinks that you are stupid anyways, why should I care and try to write As, obviously it’s not something people think I can do. After all, I’m just a kid and the adults should take care of me and they know best and if they already don’t trust that I can do it, then how can I start to believe in myself? I’m just a small child.

Finding a new solution

We started to be focused so much on the negative things, that we didn’t even really see the good things he did. And believe me, they do good things!
As soon as I realized this pattern, I thought about how to deal with him differently. And I added a card to the traffic light system. The pink card. This was a card you would only get, if you did something really awesome! It was a total game changer, let me tell you!

So I would look at Sam and try to find whatever good he did and praise him. Even if it was something completely normal, like putting a pencil back in the box, I would tell the entire class about what a great job Sam did! And I would give him a pink card. Now, this may sound crazy to you, but it seriously changed him from one day to the other. He was so surprised to have a pink card and so proud and happy, that he literally did everything (!) to not lose it.
Even after class, when the parents came to pick him up and he proudly announced he has a pink card, the mother came to me, asking if he is not lying or if maybe I mixed up the names.

And I’m not exaggerating … he became the greatest kid in the entire class, organizing everything, helping everybody, being a real teacher assistant. From being the most feared child of all the teachers he became one of the most beloved – with such an easy change.

I tell you this little story to show you first hand, how labeling children and what expectations we have for them has a direct influence on them and that we as teachers have to be very careful with how we label children – good or bad.

Make sure to always check yourselves as well, and not just the child, their environment or home and question yourselves and your methods at all times. Yes, we are teachers, but we are also only humans and we can make mistakes and we have to be more aware of this and open to learning from out mistakes. And it’s exactly this, what will make you a great teacher in the future!

Comments (2)

  • Mary

    Thank you for this great post !

    • Svenja Sara

      You are very welcome, Mary! I’m glad that it’s useful 🙂


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