Monday, April 14, 2008

Professional Pet Peeve: Popsicle Stick and Clothespin "Discipline"

This post was originally published by me several years ago, but has been updated to include reference to today's ever popular "clip up" behavior management charts.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a complete popsicle stick and clothespin advocate when it comes to classroom and home crafts, or, go figure, for making popsicles and hanging up laundry.  It's when these creativity-inspiring, cool-snack-enabling pieces of wood and plastic are used for classroom discipline (oops, I mean "classroom management tools") that I find myself biting my tongue and checking my facial expression and body position (so that I won't be accused of negativity or not being a team player) as I mentally maneuver my way through possible suggestions or responses to colleagues who are asking for my input or ideas on how best to get their students "to behave."

Discipline: training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character; control gained by enforcing obedience or order; orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior; a rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity; a form of punishment.

Have you witnessed a student being told to go "pull a stick" in a classroom after demonstrating behavior that a teacher doesn't like?  You've likely heard a student be told by classmates "Oooh, you're gonna have to go pull a stick!"  Perhaps several students have whispered "Uh oh, if you lose another stick you won't get to go outside for recess!" Are you a teacher who routinely warns students about their "stick status?" Substitute the words "card," "face card" or "move your clip" for "stick" in any of the above examples- it's the same concept: using public humiliation as a form of behavioral control. Sadly, popsicle stick pocket displays and clothes pin clipper charts are popular classroom management tools.

Excerpts from "Public Humiliation" at Wikipedia: "Just like painful forms of corporal punishment, it (public humiliation) has parallels in educational and other rather private punishments (but with some audience), in school or domestic disciplinary contexts, and as a rite of passage. Physical forms include being forced to wear some sign such as... a "Dunce Cap", having to stand, kneel or bend over in a corner, or repeatedly write something on a blackboard ("I will not spread rumors" for example)." "In some cases, pain or at least discomfort is insignificant or rather secondary to the humiliation..." "Even when not strictly public, humiliation can still be a psychologically "painful" aspect of punishment because of the presence of witnessing peers, relatives, staff or other onlookers, or simply because the tormentor witnesses how self-control is broken down. This is also true for punishments in class."

Classrooms are not supposed to be prisons. I am no warden. As a teacher, I am employed to educate, guide, and serve the academic, physical, social and emotional needs of my students. To fulfill my job requirements successfully, I take the time at the beginning of each year to build a positive rapport with my students and work with them to establish a safe environment in our classroom. This means I observe my students at length, I interview their parents (personally and in surveys/questionnaires that are sent home), open lines of communication between school and home, and I constantly model appropriate behaviors and reactions to most, if not all, of our classroom experiences.  No yelling or threats, just explanations, questions, and role playing appropriate reactions for "next time."  Praise, explanation, appreciation, modeling, practicing, and more praise.

"You must feel so good inside. You accidentally spilled the glue, but you told me and helped me clean it up. That's terrific!"

"Thank you for showing J. what a good friend you can be. You hurt his feelings, but then you apologized. I think he feels better now, I hope you do too."

" I'm so glad you remembered how to move safely during free center time! You didn't run, so you didn't get hurt/hurt others today! Good job!"

"Thank you for letting B. have a turn to talk with me. When I'm done talking with her, your turn will be next. Thank you for waiting nicely, you're being very polite."

I'm certain I sound Pollyanna-ish, and admittedly, I go home with a sore throat and sore face every day for the first month of school because of how much I verbally communicate and smile with each of my students. In my classroom you'll find popsicle sticks in our Creative Construction Zone and counting chart and centers.  Clothespins clip to our lunch chart and help us display our artwork and posters.  You won't find either used to crush a child's spirit into compliance.


~ Just-turned-five-year-olds are not experts of self-control.  Neither are many adults.  Have you ever seen an adult burst into tears, "vent" in a less-than-appropriate venue, or behave in publicly embarrassing ways?  Of course you have.  No one is perfect, though adults have years and years of experience built from successes, mistakes, and regrets that young children can't and won't possess in a month's worth of school, no matter how many time outs, cards pulled, clips moved, or whistles blown that you inflict upon them.

~ First graders tend to be a little more acclimatized to school than kindergarten students are, while second graders demonstrate a bit more familiarity with the choreography of the classroom environment than they did the previous year.  Fifth graders don't have automaton groupthink mastered, just as tenth graders don't march lockstep between classes because they're in high school.  Students are children, organic and dynamic individuals who are in school to experience and explore concepts and materials introduced to or suggested by them.  They are not dull, programmable mimics.

~The need to guide and respond in meaningful ways to our students is great, but it's a practice that many teachers and schools ignore because they believe "there isn't time." Popsicle sticks are faster.  Clothespins are faster.  Embarrassing a student is faster.  Encouraging silent and not-so-silent peer pressure via public humiliation is faster.  But it's not better, and if you really think about it, it's bullying.  I don't care what polka-dotted or chevron patterned decor you use on your behavior charts, bullying isn't cute, appropriate, or necessary if you build authentic relationships with your students.

~ Too often teachers forget that their students are children, no matter what they wear, how they behave, or what they say. While children aren't social savants, they are certainly masters of observation, and they have emotional reactions to and an elephant's memory for interactions, good and bad, with the adults in their lives. You are making an impression on your students, and your treatment of them will determine their reaction and responses to you.

~ Students are not sent to school in order to make a teacher's day brighter, more cheerful, or to feed a professional's ego. It's amazing to me that a classroom full of children "complying" by sitting in their chairs, completely silent, demonstrating no interactive or inquiry-based behaviors, is considered not only a successful model of classroom management, but also a successful model of teaching. No questions are being asked, no ideas are being explored, no communication is occurring, but teachers continue to receive praise for the silence their administrators and colleagues witness.  Knowledge is exchanged with students, shared and explored amongst peers and guides, not just dumped into their open skull caps, lips zipped.

For my initial month's worth of teaching, guidance, and constant communication, my students work in an atmosphere that frankly, throws people for a loop for the remainder of the year.   Month after month, observers, parents and colleagues come in and sit at my reading table, just to watch and listen, and take it all in. They hear children, those "uncontrollable and impulsive" kindergartners talking, apologizing, encouraging, laughing, singing, and debating.  They witness students approach me with questions, not interrupting, waiting until I'm done speaking to someone else.  They hear explanations of feelings, expectations of how someone can help, negotiations between peers, instead of tattles and screams and cries.  They hear productive noise, which many had previously felt indicated mayhem, a "lack of control," a "zoo," or proof that I'm lacking classroom management skills.  Funny the things visitors hear when they stop to truly listen, what they see, when they truly observe.

Because I've listened respectfully to my Super Stars, and because I've shared and explained without threat by modeling expectations and appropriate responses, I've demonstrated kindness instead of humiliation. I've appreciated my students for who they are and what they do, and in turn they reciprocate when I indicate it's time to transition from one activity to another. They respond appropriately, they enable each other, they cooperate.  When difficulties arise, we work through the problem together, and recover quickly.  There are no reminders of failures or mistakes lit up with neon and glitter on our bulletin boards.  My students help me create and maintain a positive learning environment, their ownership and sense of belonging being the essential foundation upon which the rest of our learning is built.  They apologize, forgive, negotiate, compromise, and contribute.  So do I.
I invest in my students, their feelings, and their potential to learn.  I do not believe their first and foremost responsibility is to learn how to comply, Pavlovian in nature.

If you can only control/direct your students through threats and public humiliation, it's time to rethink your purpose, pedagogy and moral compass.  How would you feel if your principal, administrator, or spouse put you on a popsicle stick chart or added a clip chart to the front of your refrigerator?  Go ahead, imagine it: You speak out of turn to your grade level partner during inservice, and your administrator stops the meeting (or uses a hand signal recognized by all) to tell you to pull a stick.  You arrive late to a staff meeting because your potty break could only happen as soon as the bell rang and you had bus duty, and the speaker stops mid-sentence and tells you to flip a card.  You accidentally forgot to stop at the store and pick up milk, so your spouse reminds you that you'll have to move your clip down on the behavior chart before you fix dinner.  I'm betting it wouldn't take long before you'd categorize such public tracking/shaming as emotionally abusive.  How long would you tolerate it?  How willing would you be to perform your best?  How long could you perform your best while suffering from repeated overdoses of humiliation inducing fight-or-flight adrenalin?  How about the stress and performance anxiety experienced by those who are always "on green" or at the top of the chart?  You didn't realize those "good kids" likely remained on top not only out of fear of you and embarrassment for being human, but because they too come to believe in their own superiority, which trickles out on the playground, at the lunch table, and on the bus ride home.  What happens in the classroom doesn't stay in the classroom.

Many teachers never question why their mentors and role models do everything possible to ensure that public humiliation goes hand in hand with public education, and many new teachers are distracted by the glittery and gimmick-y products fellow educators sell or share online.  Working with a staff made up of mostly popsicle-stickers and clothespin clippers can be excruciating. You see your former students squashed into compliance, their new teachers finding fault in their questions, their exuberance, their anxiety, their need to adapt, and their need to move, express and explore... every behavior that demonstrates how students are children who require guidance, instruction, experience, and time to reflect on situations that might occur outside of the math or reading curriculum.  When I've suggested relationship-building to colleagues who ask how to get their students to behave like mine, they groan, roll their eyes, obviously disappointed that I don't offer them a quick fix.  My advice is seen as a chore, an invalid "touchy-feel-y" approach, instead of as the foundation to which I referred earlier, an essential "safe" zone where students can re-evaluate, recover and learn from natural mistakes. Teachers don't invest in effective content-rich communication with their students because it's not immediate, and it isn't mastered after a particular grade.

Are you a teacher who prefers efficient embarrassment?  Why not invest in reasoning, valuing, fairness, and communication?  Invest in an attainable and attractive ideal that enables the best kind of learning to take place.

Invest in your students.


  1. That was wonderful! I wish there were more teachers like you around. I did raise my daughter like that. Now shes my best friend, well behaved, well adjusted gal at 26. Laurie

  2. Thanks for coming by. I teach a painting class to a group of teachers. I am always listening to how they handle situations. How they handle the Parents is also interesting. When my daughter was about 4 and headstrong..someone told me about a book...about give your kids choices...I chose the choices, but she felt empowered by being able to choose...was the single best advice I ever! Laurie

  3. i stumbled onto your your this post .. what an amazing teacher you are .. my soon to be 5th grader had a fabulous first grade teacher who had the same beliefs as you..
    she holds a solid first with us as far as teachers go.. i am so thankful for those like you who set the early school years pace as exciting & positive!
    thank you!!
    ~ maggie ~

  4. Excellent article.

    In addition to disrespecting students, I've seen that these systems generally don't work. Well behaved students behave with or without the cards and when students need to learn some self control, changing a card doesn't quite do it.

  5. YES!!! Reading your blog 'charges' me up to advocate for my children. Oh how I wish other parents were awake!

  6. One of my favorite sites..

  7. Yes, I did read this when you first posted, but am just re-reading to freshen up. I wish more people could have this perspective and insight. Amazing when you think of kids as kids rather than mini-adults.


As always, thank you for your comments, tips, suggestions and questions!