Under a Black Cloud – shame-based behaviour systems in schools

My son spent much of his first three years at school under a black cloud.  I’m talking of course about a ’school behaviour system’, in other words, teachers trying to get children to do what they want them to do.

Jamie would often not do what his teachers wanted him to do.  He started school at four, a few months after he was placed with us for adoption. 

His name, along with the names of the other children in his class, was printed on to card and laminated and a piece of velcro was attached to the back.  Three pictures were similarly printed; a sunshine, a sunshine poking out from behind a cloud and a black cloud.  On the first day of the year, all the names were stuck on a felt covered board under the sunshine, because all children are good and the sunshine is a good place to be.  If a child stepped out of line then their name would be moved underneath the sun and cloud.  If they offended again, their name would then be moved under the black cloud.  The black cloud is a bad place to be, it is cold and dark there.  The child would then have to display some consistently good behaviour in order to be moved back towards the sunshine.

The board displaying this weather system of compliance was on a wall of the reception classroom for all to see.  I first noticed it during a parent’s evening.  There were two names under the black cloud, my son’s and another little boys.  Everyone else’s names were basking in the sunshine.  After that I checked the board most days.  The state of affairs mainly remained the same.  Jamie came to school in the morning, four years old, full of joy and his name would be under the cloud, from the day before.  At the end of the day it would normally not have made any progress towards better weather.

Before long Jamie was known as ‘one of the naughty ones’.  You may know children like this.  You may parent one yourself.  It is not long after this that teachers and other parents start to use the word ‘plumber’.

The crux of such behaviour systems and there are many variations on the theme is public shame and humiliation.  Most children have some ability to recover from public shame and humiliation because they know deep inside that they are good people and they want to please and be adored by adults. 

May I be so direct as to say that these systems DO NOT WORK for my son and many like him who have spent their early years becoming acquainted with neglect and abuse.  These children know deep inside themselves that they are bad and that they deserved everything they got.  And we know, don’t we, that victims, even adult victims, blame themselves for that which happened to them? So when a child, who knows they are bad and feels deep shame, is shamed in a classroom, in front of their peers, it only goes to prove to them, that the adults around them see their badness as well.  It confirms that what they know about themselves is right.  And knowing they are bad, they do not have the capacity to prove to others that they are good.

After failing to convince this particular school about the weak points of a shame-based system of behaviour for my son and seeing a similar system in practise in the next school he would attend, we moved Jamie to a different school in a different area.  He was taught by a very empathetic teacher who understood shame, blame and their relationship to abuse and neglect.  She accepted him and nurtured him and understood that in order to make progress he had to be approached differently to many of the other children.  He made great progress and the word ‘plumber’ has not been heard around these parts for a while.

It is time for educators to think more smartly about helping children grow up to make the right choices, or in other words ‘to behave properly’.  These ‘systems’ are crass and can be cruel and they don’t work, particularly for those children most in need. 

As always, comments are welcome.

8 thoughts on “Under a Black Cloud – shame-based behaviour systems in schools

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights with this piece. I wholeheartedly agree with you. In fact, my daughter, who is 10 and is challenged with Asperger’s Syndrome, has been singled out to sit alone in the lunch room at the misbehavior table before. And since kids like her are bewildered and challenged with social norms anyway it is a loss for everyone. Again, thanks for your writing.

    • I’ve been thinking about what you’ve written. These experiences can leave a deep inprint, even in children who don’t have additional challenges. I wonder if something like a naughty table is so much of a progression from a dunces hat. I know that teachers have a difficult job but there has to be a better way.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Thanks for writing this. I agree, the public nature of such behaviour systems is awful. I find it very disappointing that trained teachers are exercising such systems to be honest without any thought to the consequences. We have also had similar issues with behaviourial systems for my autistic children on top of which we’ve had to put up with some teachers favouritising some children. As a result my children have been sidelined many a time and not given a chance to properly participate in school life with the result that my son’s self esteem was destroyed. Even more worrying was that my son was calling himself dreadful names that other children were calling him. I can’t help but think that if the school were properly inclusive that this wouldn’t have happened. Deb

    • Self-esteem is such a fragile gift and once it has been damaged it is very hard to repair. In 2007 a UNICEF report found that in the UK our children are the unhappiest in the industrialised world. Maybe we need to have a closer look at the reasons why.
      Thanks for commenting.

  3. This is one of my big concerns for our adopted child, two of my 5 birth children have been educationally challenged and the shame I have felt waiting in the playground knowing the teacher is heading for me yet AGAIN, it is only now older and wiser that I have been able to question the schools over behavior policies and even moved one of my children in year 9 it really did feel like ‘square peg round hole’.
    I want all my children to have the same opportunities but feel the local infant school is very sheltered and does not have understanding for a child with common learning difficulties let alone something more complex as an adopted child.This school is not alone in their lack of understanding I hear it from frustrated carers all the time, at least once a fortnight a six year old ‘looked after child’ is being excluded from school ! how does this help this frightened child.

    • I think all teaching staff should receive training in how to manage traumatised children. And these children, whether in the care system or adopted, should arrive in school with a package of support that is allocated to them and which does not disappear into a general budget. There is no doubt that they can be challenging to manage in a classroom environment but they have a right to an education. Any child who is or has been in the care system will have suffered beyond what most of us can imagine. It is obvious that they will find school very difficult. And then they are punished for finding it difficult, which increases their anxiety and fear and shame and makes their behaviour worse. Not only is this approach illogical, it is cruel.

      Choice of school for a traumatised child is key to their outcome. I have learnt a lot in the past eight years about what makes a suitable school for our children. Maybe I feel another blog post coming on …….

      Thanks for your comment. I take my hat of to you.

  4. I have begun working in my sons school with a 5 yr old who is having problems ‘conforming’ to the education system. It’s been 3 weeks now since being offered the job due to particular skills that the head felt i have owing to having a 10 yr old with ongoing issues surrounding the school system. Working with this particular child seems a walk in the park compaired to the severity of the behaviour displayed in the past by my own child but the issues i’ve had working in the classroom lie with the teacher and assistant. Shaming and blaming are their chosen method of working with the class of 4 and 5 yr olds, and I aint getting it! Therefore the first day back i made an appointment with the head, after keeping my observations to myself and getting really frustrated and cross with the environment these children are spending their time in. I have also reflected how my own younger son felt being in this class a few years previous and understand now some of the issues we had with him at the time. The head was in total support of what i told her and is backing me with whatever i feel i can do to make the classroom a less shamefull place.
    A big sad face is drawn on the white board at the front of the class with names underneath of the offending child, public discussion about how terrible this child is in front of the child, ‘time-out’ for said child in a postion where all and sundry have to walk past them. The only thing missing seems to be a dunce hat or maybe a big bright badge saying ‘I’M A BAD PERSON!(or similar!)
    What’s it all about? Shouldn’t we be nurturing rather than standing in judgement of childrens behaviour. In my opinion, the majority of children have enough on their plates to contend with, whether it be early childhood trauma, being in the care system, broken families, struggling single-parent families, families who don’t give a damn blar blar blar, surely school should be a happy safe place away from stuff which makes them feel rubbish!
    Well, in my role at school i am gonna do all i possibly can to readjust this negative approach and i don’t give a monkey how many adult ‘friends’ i lose along the way, the kids are far more important and if it weren’t for them i wouldn’t have my job anyway!

    • Thank you so much for your comment. I agree with everything you have written. Interesting that you make the connection with a dunces hat as I have been thinking along the same lines. Or how about the stocks? That’s how it used to be dealt with. These are all visual symbols of stupidity or badness which are so powerfully toxic, especially to damaged brains.

      This sort of thing would never be allowed in an adult place of work – sad faces on wipe boards, a table of shame which everyone has to walk by on their way to the water cooler.

      Keep up the good work!

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