First grade is for the perfect birds 


Let me just say this up front, before I move on to complaining: I pink-puffy-heart the public schools my kids attend. Our school district is incredibly diverse for Wisconsin, both economically and racially. Our teachers are mostly wonderful, and our experience with special ed has been better than it could have been. (This is a rousing endorsement, coming from me today.)

Teachers in Wisconsin’s public schools don’t feel especially loved these days by their state government, whose Republican leaders tend to create the impression they think PS teachers are whiny spoiled brats and lazy overpaid bums working in schools that are overwhelmingly failing because of a lack of competition from private schools, which problem can magically be fixed by vouchers.

I’m not buying it. I know our PS teachers are using their own money to make up for gaps in school budgets for much-needed supplies in their classrooms. I know they work overtime without compensation, because I see the odd hours at which they send out emails to parents. On weekends. I know how engaged they are with the curriculum. I know how they have loved my kids. They are not whiny babies, and they are not overpaid, and they are decidedly not spoiled.

I also know that public schools don’t suck and aren’t failing. Maybe some are, but in general public schools are doing great and are seriously under appreciated. A thriving public school system is, in many ways, the beating heart of a successful democracy, a great institution that helps create a well-informed, literate voting population. Hypothetically.

Anyway, I’m a supporter of our PS teachers, period.

So understand that my complaints here are about early education models, not about my school system or public schools or my kids’ teachers. These are hard times for PS teachers. I don’t want to pile on.

(Except now I will.)

* * * *

I’ve been hearing on and off all year from Nick about a sliding-scale behavior chart they use in first grade. Nick — an otherwise cheerful and well-adjusted young laddie — was very apprehensive about it at first. He told me last fall that there was a big chart in the classroom with every student’s name on it. Next to each name was a sliding marker on a color scale. If you screwed up, your marker slid down the scale to a bad color. If you didn’t screw up, you stayed at the top on a good color.

I was a little shocked, skeptical even. It sounds a lot like public shaming, like a new iteration of the dunce-cap model. I thought we don’t public-shame our kids anymore.

I asked about a bit and learned the entire first grade team uses this system. I intended to visit the classroom and check it out, and inquire and wheedle about it, but I became complacent quickly. Why? Because Nick is a compliant, hardworking, easy-going kid who handles himself really well at school. After years of Jesse’s struggles, it’s easy for me to be lazy about Nick, whose needs are far less immediate and intense and obvious.

But then last week this came home.

It made me really, really grumpy.

* * * * *

I generally hate color-coded rating scales. Remember when the Homeland Security color chart came out after 9/11?

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I made so much fun of that, living in Washington, D.C. where we felt unsafe every day for a long time after 9/11. There was something stupid about the color-coded system. The different categories felt arbitrary, filling me with meaningless rhetorical questions that distracted me from my job. What is, after all, the difference between a “high risk” and a “significant risk”? And why in that order? Doesn’t “significant” belong above “high”? Why do three of the five categories include the same word in the header and description, but “guarded” goes with “general” and “elevated” goes with “significant”? Why even have the category “guarded” (aka general)? Isn’t there always a general risk of terrorist attacks?

Head scratchers.

I felt the same way when I saw Nick’s behavior chart and the colors.


I couldn’t stop the stupid questions.

Why is there any category higher than “ready to learn”? Doesn’t that seem like, I don’t know… the pinnacle of what we’re looking for in school? What more do you want from these little 6- and 7-year-olds, most of whom are still only barely capable of wiping their own butts after pooping?

What makes a choice good versus a great one? What’s outstanding? Why isn’t outstanding about choices too? Is it meant for the teacher’s pets, like some categorical recognition that you are generally an amazing person regardless of the choices you make?

Why is there a tattle category? Or maybe it’s better to think of it as the nuclear option category, the grown up equivalent of “I’M TELL YOUR MOMMY!” Why isn’t the tattle built into the top of the scale too? Don’t I deserve to be contacted if my kid is “outstanding”? (which, you will note, Nick apparently is, la la la la.)

What silly person picked the colors? Why is PINK outstanding and RED super bad? Pink, after all, is simply white-diluted bled-out red. Is there some secret, insidious, gendered message contained in that choice? I noticed that the color progression follows the rainbow, except one color is missing. Why replace indigo-in-the-middle with pink-on-top?   Every modern rainbow has seven colors, one of which is indigo. Look:

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People really need to commit to a thing and do it right. If you’re going rainbow, just GO FULL RAINBOW. Otherwise, you’re just confusing the kids.

* * * * *

After I failed to get over the color coding, my eyes fell to the “Behavior Codes.” I don’t understand. They’re not codes. They’re a top-eleven (why? why?) list of all the (apparently) worst things kids can do at school.

I scanned the list and finally understood something I’ve been struggling with all year.  When I pick up the kids from school, I like to ask questions like, “Tell me something good you did at school today.” I’ve worried because Nick either can’t or won’t answer that question. He typically shrugs, makes “I have no idea” eyebrows, and runs off to pretend sticks are alien laser-shooting weapons. But he’s always ready to tell me about the tiny ways he messed up.

And now I get it. If I asked Nick what he did wrong, he’d have a ready answer. The school has provided him a handy list of fails by which to measure his days.

More questions stacked up. Nick has told me you can slide up and down the color chart through the day. It’s constant surveillance. But how do you go up or down?  How do the behavior codes translate to the color chart? Is there a counting and adding and subtracting system? Do some fails move you more on the scale than others? Is  it arbitrary and secret, so the kids have no real idea how their behaviors will affect their color? What if you were out of your seat for a good reason, like you were about to vomit and you ran out of the room? What if you save a life by doing CPR? Does that make up for a whole mountain of bad and put you on perma-pink? What if you “misbehaved” (don’t really know what that means without more information, if you have social cuing issues like me) because you have a mental health challenge? Does it still count? Do you get sent down the color scale, or do you get a modification? Does that need to be in an IEP? Does a parent need to formally request a 504 accommodation?

I stared at the chart and behavior codes and tried to slow my racing thoughts, and then a bit of an ache touched my heart. Imagine what this sort of plan does to a kid with severe anxiety, or the extreme-moral-self-judging down side of OCD, or ADHD, or a variety of behavior challenges or home situations that make this stuff hard. Imagine a kid who’s looking for direction on how to behave, not how not to behave. She won’t find it on this list.

I thought of my Jesse in first grade. I think they had a similar system in place, but I was too exhausted from other issues to pay any attention.  Jesse would have been paralyzed in the face of this sort of behavior chart, until she would have exploded in raging fits. Which is pretty much what she did. It would have been an exquisite torture. She would have wandered over to that chart every day and volunteered herself right down to red, in a desperate attempt to be free of the overwhelming, unachievable task of staying good. She would have obsessed on all the ways she could screw the pooch, those thoughts filling her head thunderously until all her self-control was drowned in the noise and she tic’ed her way down the bloody scale. Being on red would have satisfied her, allowing her to discard the dissonance of hating herself while seeing evidence that someone else didn’t think she sucked completely.

I sat back and shook my head. How do we end up here as adults? How do we convince ourselves that these are good ideas? I’m not judging, mind you. I’m the fool who made a behavior chart for Jesse, just last year, that started with “do what you’re told, when you’re told to do it.”

It would be so easy to fix the negativity embraced by this first grade chart. You just flip it to the positive, and see where it takes you.

I stayed in my seat.
I waited my turn to talk.
I followed directions.
I was respectful.
I behaved well.
I helped a friend.
I was kind.
I was fair.

And so on. Kids would have behaviors to shoot for, instead of behaviors to avoid. They might become more aware of all the good things they do, rather than the bad. I think it’s easier to strive than to avoid, even if striving is hard. I think most of us would prefer to climb a steep mountain than to walk through a minefield. Why would we ask anything else of our children?

I have no doubt that most of our elementary school’s teachers actually focus on positives in the classroom (or else how would you ever make it back up the blessed sliding scale?). I know Nick’s teacher seems to be flexible and realistic about what kids can accomplish at this age. I wish the first grade team could just put that attitude on the chart to send home.

* * * * *

The kicker on this list, the thing that made me tell Nick I don’t care what color shows up on it, ever, was the note to the parents.


Parents are only invited to talk about the chart with their kids in cases of failure.

I consider that limited exhortation a full-on system failure.

Parents should be invited to talk about the chart with their kids no matter what. Why in the world would we only focus on what’s negative? If your kid’s coming home PINK every day, doesn’t she deserve a hefty back-pat? I’m not talking about false praise or puffery. I’m talking about reinforcing behaviors we value.

What if we replaced that parental directive with something like this:

Please talk with your child about what color day he had. Ask him what he did right, and what mistakes he made. Talk with him about how positive  behaviors make school more fun and help him learn better.

* * * * *

Jesse came out of school today telling me about some pretty gnarly stuff she did. Definitely in the red zone for a fifth grader. I told her it was unacceptable, and I was a bit of a wanker. At least while she screamed at me and kicked the back of my seat in the car, I didn’t scream back; but I failed to dig for any deeper story. After we picked Nick up, Jesse innocently started telling me about a break dancer who came to school today to do a presentation. Among other things, he was doing the crotch grab-and-grind that Michael Jackson popularized.

Ah. Of course.  There was a reason her obsessions with sexuality had bubbled up. I should have hunted first, instead of just assuming she had let things get out of hand today through lack of effort. She didn’t just go to the red zone; she was ushered there as well, by the school, however inadvertently.

So if I was queen, I would add this to the parental exhortation, in fine print somewhere on that stupid calendar, because I wish someone had said it to me when Jesse was in first grade, so that I could have been a better parent to her. I wish someone would keep saying it to me now:

If your child had a bad day, STOP. Take a breath before you react. Before you get suspicious, angry, or disappointed, before you punish her, before you natter at her… Give her a hug, a kiss, and a snack. Tell her you love her, and nothing will ever change that. Ask her if she’s okay. Ask her to tell you her side. Recognize that every peer in her classroom knows she had a red day, and that is humiliating. Sure, discipline her, have a consequence, whatever. But also help her pick up the pieces. Help her find courage to go back and try again. Tell her about the things she does right.

Tell her she’ll always be pink to you.