When You Don’t Agree With the Behavior Program

Sometimes parents are uncomfortable with the behaviorist strategies used by their schools. (ABA strategies, PBIS/PBL strategies, rewards charts, clip charts, smiley face charts, ClassDojo, etc.)

I think it would be outright impossible for me to write to every single possible permutation of every individual situation, but my hope is that this very thorough post can give you some confidence and some tools to use when deciding what to do with that uncomfortable feeling, and deciding what to do with the school, and perhaps in talking to the school. None of the things in this post are “in order of importance” or anything like that; I’m not saying “I think you should do X more than I think you should do Y”; I’m giving you both X and Y and telling you that this is a scenario where you have to make your own decisions, but these are some tools to use regardless of what it is that you decide. You know your family, your child, your school. You have a gut feeling (trust it, listen to it!)

Okay, so the two most basic tools and the extremes of a sliding scale on “what to do” would be:
1. Decide to let it go and let it be, and
2. Decide to leave the school entirely and do something else (homeschool, unschool, find a different school placement if you’re in a country where that is allowed, etc.)

These are both completely valid decisions for some situations. You may be in one of those situations.

It is absolutely OK and allowed for you to say, “I think this whole ClassDojo thing is kind of pointless, but it is what it is, my kid doesn’t seem to care about it at all either way, and I’m not going to make a fight where there isn’t one.” Not every single thing in the world needs parent intervention. Not every single adult will interact with your kid the way you hope they would. Not every single system in the world needs you to fight it every second of your life. It is OK to dislike something and still let it go. Only you can know if that is the right decision for you, your family, your child, your situation.

It is absolutely OK and allowed for you to say, “None of these systems work. My kid is being harmed by these plans. My kid is so anxious they can’t go to school. My kid is so anxious, they try to go to school but it is tearing them apart. The school system we have access to is absolutely horrific. We are leaving the school system. I don’t know what the scope of homeschool will look like, but anything has to be better than this.” There are some truly atrocious systems out there. There are some systems that are probably redeemable but it’s not your job to have to sacrifice yourself and your kid to redeem them. There are some times when the right thing to do is to shake the dust off your feet and leave. There are other people in situations much like yours who didn’t think they could homeschool or do something other than public school, who have found a way to do it. There are a million communities out there. It is OK to leave. Only you can know if that is the right decision for you, your family, your child, your situation.

Then there are a lot of middle degrees between those two points on the sliding scale:

You might decide to talk to your child’s teacher, or the administration of the school.

You might ask for formal accommodations for a student with a disability or other special needs.

You might be able to seek out support in the form of a disability advocate to help you with specific resources for your area.

You might decide to leave the school alone and simply work on taking the power out of behaviorist systems at home and in play with your child.

You might decide to talk to your child’s teacher.

  • You could send them an email or text message if you would like to have record of the conversation in writing, to reference later, or if you would like to be more formal.
  • You could talk to them in person or set up a meeting time, if you think maybe things will be less misunderstood or move more quickly in person.
  • You could simply share a resource with them, like The Regulated Classroom, or the “Surprise & Delight” connection techniques from @myclassbloom on Instagram, or an article from my website!
  • You can write down for yourself ahead of time the things you want to make sure you mention. These might include what the school’s behaviorist policy is, why you don’t like it, and what effects, if any, it is having on your child that you have noticed. This might sound something like: “I have noticed that Alyssa talks to us for the whole evening about which of her classmates ‘got on red’ or ‘stayed on green’, but she doesn’t have anything to say about academic things or even fun things she learned or talked about at school. This is sad to me because I really feel like her anxiety over the clip chart is getting in the way of her learning. I’ve read this article about charts like these and how they can impact kids. I wonder if the class would be able to do something different.”
  • Maybe you can’t make progress 100%, but you can help suggest mitigating damage. For example, maybe the class won’t give up the behaviorist strategy, but they are willing to make it private instead of public (so students aren’t being publicly compared to one another). That is a small step to minimize harm. Or, maybe they won’t let go of it entirely but they will opt your child out. You could specifically tell them: “I would like Oliver to be opted out of the ‘marble’ system” or “I do not want Noah’s behavior being publicly tracked. If you have a concern about him in a day, feel free to have the school call me or email me when you might have otherwise moved his clip on the chart. And feel free to talk privately with him about his behavior or to correct it. But I do not want his name or behavior being displayed and shamed in class like it has been.”
  • They might try to argue that your child will feel left out of rewards or things like that, and you could suggest that your child be included in the reward regardless, or at an “average time”. For example, if students usually get somewhere between 3–5 checkers per day in their checker cup, then your child just gets 4 every day.
  • Teachers often don’t have the capacity to change the strategy if it’s being used by the whole school. In that case, you might need to go to the administration and discuss it.
  • You can also make it clear to the teacher that you are not a parent who is obsessing over academics and going to blame the teacher for it if your student is struggling more with behavior, social/emotional struggles, attention, etc and those things are getting in the way of the academics. The teacher may be fearful that they need to be projecting a sense of “I’m on top of this, don’t worry” to parents who are intense about academics or have developmentally inappropriate expectations of their own child.
  • Also, you may have a discussion and the teacher be completely unmoving on the point. That does not mean the discussion was pointless. Maybe you laid the groundwork for the teacher to continue to hear more stories over the years of how the behaviorist strategies are affecting children, and some day they will change their mind or change their behavior. (…ironically!)

You might decide to talk to the administration at your child’s school.

  • Many of the points in the “teacher” section apply here, they’re just taking them one person higher up.
  • Talking to administration may get a teacher in trouble or under increased scrutiny. Sometimes this is important in some situations; in other situations this is hurtful or could really harm a teacher (who, for example, you don’t actually think is intentionally being cruel to your child but is just following school policy or whatever). That doesn’t mean you can never do it, but in some situations it’s definitely wise to have at least spoken to the teacher first, before you go to the administration.
  • You could offer to share resources with them such as Dr. Ross Greene’s work (i.e. his book Lost at School, various trainings that he does). This could be in a direct/confrontational way, or an indirect way, such as, “Hey, I saw this incredible training by a psychologist sharing about these behavior revolutions in schools! I thought it might be helpful for someone at Blahblahblah Primary — here’s the link!”
  • You could offer to coordinate a “surprise and delight” style event for the school — not at all tied to behavior. For example, you could offer to come talk to the school about a holiday or cultural practice that is important to you, or about a sport or activity that you are passionate about (at P.E., recess, etc.) This may also raise casual opportunities to explain your own behavioural beliefs to people in administration, other teachers, etc as you go through the process of coordinating and carrying out an event.
  • You could offer to come in and read a book to the classes during their library or literacy time, and choose a book like The Rabbit Listened, or The Boy with Big, Big Feelings, or Wiggles, Stomps, & Squeezes Calm My Jitters Down, or a book about positive self-esteem and read it to the class and talk to them about it, giving you an opportunity to talk with the class about how different brains and bodies work or how you see kids as good.
  • You could offer to come in and share work like Autism Level Up’s curriculum with Bumper, a Whole Body Learner…in order to talk with the class/the kids about what tools they use to learn with their whole body!
  • It may be more appropriate to go more specific, or more general with your language to the administration.
    • In some instances it might be appropriate to be very specific:
      • “I am uncomfortable with how Harry is becoming so anxious about the behaviour program. I want Harry to be opted out of the program.”
      • “At home we have noticed Jasmine worries greatly about whether she might end up on ‘red’. We want to try 3 months without Jasmine being a part of the class behavior program and see whether that helps.”
    • In some instances it might be appropriate to be very general:
      • “I have noticed how the neighbourhood kids are always playing ‘Dojo points’ on the playground on the weekends. I’m concerned about how this behavior plan is teaching them to police one another.”
      • “I know that Jace has had outbursts in the classroom this year. We are all working on helping him in school, but I’m worried that in the meantime, the school behavior program is causing other kids to see him as a ‘bad kid’ instead of as a kid who’s having a hard time.”

You might decide to ask the school for disability or special needs accommodations for your child, in a formal capacity (perhaps in written form).

  • In the United States, this would be either an IEP (Individualised Education Plan) or a 504 plan. An IEP means that the student needs special education services with support staff of some kind (an aide, a therapist, a special education teacher, etc). A 504 plan means that the student only needs accommodations written into their plan and legally protected, but no support personnel to accomplish it.
  • In England, this would be an EHCP (Education, Health and Care Plan). It is similar to an IEP in the United States.
  • Accommodations might have wording something like this:
    • “Julian will be exempted from the class behavior program.”
    • “Melody will not be penalised with the class behavior program for behaviors related to seeking movement (i.e., wiggling, getting out of her chair, etc).”
    • “The teacher will give Ayda at least one instance of specific, positive verbal feedback (praise) every day [due to her high anxiety about the school behavior program].”
    • “Recess is never to be used as a motivator or removed as a punishment for Darnell. Darnell will always be allowed to participate in full recess with no exceptions.”
    • “Silas’ parents can be called if necessary and will talk to Silas on the phone. Calling parents will never be used as a verbal threat to Silas.”
  • In the US, these are unusual accommodations, but not outside of the realm of possibility. If the school pushes back, you can invite them to collaborate with you on coming up with wording in the way they feel is appropriate while (politely) maintaining that you are the child’s parent/guardian and you are asking for this accommodation to be on their plan.
  • If the school outright refuses, you can ask them to document in their meeting minutes that they are refusing the accommodation that you are requesting, and then you can take it to the next legal level up if it is important enough to you to do so. You can google search “IEP parental rights and procedures”, which the school should also be making you aware of at the beginning of each meeting. (Again, this is US-specific information.)
  • You can always ask the school to clarify exactly what they mean by language. If they are saying “Gio has to participate in the behavior system because it’s school-wide,” you can ask, “What does ‘participate’ mean? What will the teacher be doing in the classroom that’s in front of him and he knows about? What will the other students know about?” etc. Again, you can try to mitigate harm even if you can’t remove it entirely. “I would like all feedback with Gio to be private, not public,” or, “I would like you to hold all comments til the end of the day and then talk with me about them first,” or whatever. You can ask for degrees of accommodation even if not going the full way to whatever it is that you want.
  • If your child has a disability or a diagnosis, this is not the time to be coy about what that means for them, because it may be important to outright say, “He does X because of [autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, past trauma, etc…]” and point out to the school that punishing or rewarding a student for those things is inappropriate. Schools may have an attitude of believing that parents all think their kid is the specialest ever and should be exempted from rules that apply to everyone. You can sometimes shift that by explaining, “Lucy gets up and spins around in the back of the classroom because she is Autistic. She is seeking vestibular motion. I am happy to work with the school on figuring out what kind of vestibular motion she can get in the classroom setting but I am NOT OK with her being punished for it.” “Patrick has ADHD, so of course he is distractible compared to other children. I’m uncomfortable with the way that this ‘star sticker chart’ seems to be telling the class that Patrick isn’t getting as many stars because he just ‘doesn’t try’. He’s trying very hard, every day.”
  • In some countries, you can request therapies! Even if telling the school isn’t the right direct way to go, they might be able to point you in the right direction. You can ask for occupational therapy, physical therapy or physiotherapy, speech therapy, counseling or psychology. You could say, “I’m worried about how [thing at school] is affecting Evelyn and I was wondering what therapy resources are provided in (this city, this state, this country) at school for students? We’re interested in looking into OT if possible,” or whatever fits.

You might decide to search out a disability or special needs advocate who can help you with specifics to your area.

  • Someone in your area who works in this field will know soooo much more than me, who is attempting to write to people in like 50 different countries and approximately 3 zillion different schools!
  • For example, they might know that in your district/county/state/city/country, that it’s illegal to take away recess or lunch from a student. I can tell you that it’s immoral and disrespectful but they might be able to tell you actual laws that back you up in your discussion with the school.
  • They might be able to tell you the types of legal documentation you can get to protect your child at school. In the US, there are IEPs and 504 plans. In England there are EHCPs. I don’t know anything about countries beyond these two, and sometimes one type of legal form is better than another or they will qualify for one type of protection more easily or better than another, etc.
  • Even if your area does not have specific legal advocates who can help you, reaching out to a parent group or other informal support group may be helpful too. You could try google searching something like, “[Your smallest relevant local geographical area] school disability support” or “[Your smallest relevant local geographical area] student special needs support” and see what kind of things come up for you. There are many Facebook groups in lots of places, though sadly not in every single country or every area of every country.

You might decide to downplay, or try to take the power out of, the school’s behaviorist systems, between yourself and your child.

  • This might be part of an appropriate strategy to “wait and see”. There are times of crisis where it is important to act immediately, but there are also times of transition where it makes sense to wait and see whether this is a system-wide issue or a specific environment/placement/transition issue. Maybe your child is having a REALLY hard time with 2nd grade but they didn’t have any difficulty in 1st. It is possible that the teacher or classroom just doesn’t work for them. They might be okay again the following year. Again, this is where it’s really important to recognize that I cannot possibly speak to every single person. You have to know and trust yourself and what you feel and know on this one.
  • You might be able to incorporate elements of the behaviorist system into play. This is especially true the younger the student is.
    • If your child is 4 and their teacher is putting “marbles into a jar” whenever they do something good, it’s possible that part of the incredible, overwhelming, anxiety-inducing, magical, mystery of it all is simply that your 4 year old has never played with marbles before (because they would’ve very recently, or maybe even still, been a choking hazard to your child!) so their teacher has access to mystical, magical, beautiful, glass, fragile things that they’re putting in an untouchable jar on a shelf the child can’t reach. Of course this is a reason for obsession. 
    • It is sometimes the case that just having marbles and a jar as a play tool will help the child process what they need to process about the scenario.
    • For awhile they might experiment with power and give everybody in the house marbles when they “make good choices” or whatever.
    • They might also play imaginative things or pouring them in and out of the jar or swirl them around to see what they do or add water to the jar to see what happens or all the other clever workings of a playful child’s mind.
    • This goes for a lot of “tangible” behavior systems, or even elements of more abstract systems. Checkers in a cup, clothespin clips that get clipped on a reward chart, a whiteboard and dry erase marker for tallies on the board, etc, etc. Consider the behavior system and ask yourself what, if any, elements of it are tangible and could be replicated in play.
  • You might be able to incorporate elements of the reward/bribe/“carrot” into play. If the reward is a pizza party maybe you can call it a pizza party when your family has pizza. If your family doesn’t normally have a certain treat food but it’s being used as a school bribe, maybe you can consider whether it would be appropriate to have access to it in some regular capacity so that its immense power is reduced.
    • If somebody offers me, an adult, ice cream as a bribe to do something…I might do it, but I might also think, “hmm, or I could not do it and just buy myself an ice cream.” What they’re really trying to bribe me with is convenience and five bucks. The power has been taken out of it, compared to when I was a kid and I had no ability to regularly plan or access my own treats.
    • So if your kid knows they’ll have X at home just for existing, no bribe involved, it takes some power out of it.
    • If the reward is something else, maybe you can incorporate that too. My kid’s school has “sit on the teacher’s chair” which, for some reason, my kid was all about that. When the kid regularly started to “sit on dad’s recliner” then she stopped talking about it as much.
  • You might be able to outright tell your child a child-appropriate version of your feelings on the topic. This is especially true for older children, but could be appropriate for younger children too, depending on how you word it.
    • You can tell them, “I know that Ms. Baker puts a smiley face or a frowny face for the day. You want to know a secret? I don’t EVER think you’re a frowny face. I think you’re a great kid, always always.”
    • You can tell them, “I know it’s hard and it absolutely sucks when you have to be somewhere where the adults look down on you or make pointless rules. When I was working at Chuck-E-Cheese in college they made a rule that we couldn’t eat the pizza, even if it was burnt and we were going to throw it in the trash rather than give it to a customer, and I was like, ‘seriously, you care so much about us not getting free food that you would rather it be garbage?’ Sometimes adults are seriously on a power trip. You know I think you’re a great kid and you can talk to me about any problems you’re having. Sometimes you just have to power through a crappy teacher situation and know that I support you 100%. If you have any ideas about what might help, I’m happy to hear them.”

I hope that having information laid out like this might help you figure out what is the best and most appropriate way forward, for yourself, your child, or your class. Lastly, I wanted to give a couple of examples for teachers who are being told by their administration that they must participate in the school-wide behavior program. I also think you can push back silently against this by simply not doing it or doing it in a token way, depending on the situation. But if it feels right to you to outright bring it up, then you could say something like:

  • “I’ve noticed that the kids are all playing ‘Dojo points’ on the playground with one another. I’m concerned about how this behaviour plan we have to follow is teaching them to judge one another as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, I really don’t like that. It doesn’t feel like it sets a good environment.”
  • “Could you explain what data you need from the behavior program? I’d like to track that data for you privately rather than put it on the wall for all the kids to see. It’s really been making some of the kids anxious, it seems like it’s setting us back rather than helping us.”
  • “I think DJ needs some extra support, but I can tell he’s trying his hardest. I don’t know how best to help him, but I don’t think it has to do with earning stickers. Maybe there’s a sensory problem or a speech/language or cognitive issue? What resources/experts do we have that we can ask?”
  • “I read this really interesting book called ‘Punished by Rewards’ and it made me rethink the way that we’re trying to do ‘positive’ behavior systems but they might not be so positive after all… Could I tell you about it?”
  • “We haven’t actually done checkers in cups this year, but I have been trying to collaboratively problem-solve with the kids instead. It’s working pretty well for most of our issues. It would go even better if we had you on board!”
  • “I read this cool article about the ‘NeuroWild Shift’…it’s a sort of alternative framework for behavior management that is better for kids with ADHD or autism. I’m hoping to try that in our class since we have so many kids who need that extra support.”
  • “I love the emphasis that we have here at our school on setting really clear expectations, and breaking down what we expect from the kids, and even creating visuals with it. I’ve actually found that those supports do a lot all by themselves, without needing a reward or a consequence attached at all!”