Red Card Riot

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” – Albert Einstein

My sons both go to nice schools. In fact, ‘nice’ is a perfect word with regard to both their schools. If you sit nicely, read nicely, play nicely and do everything nicely you will get nice results in your eleven-plus exam (yes, we still have that in Guernsey), and you will go on to another nice school. All very nice, you may say. For children like my eldest the notion of ‘nice’ is somewhat different to that of the school, so the teachers have a word with him from time to time, they tug his choker chain and he is suitably admonished. In his school they have the ‘red card’ system of discipline, which they have told me they find very useful. In fact, they tell me this every time my son gets given a red card. It signifies to him that he is a naughty boy, but he’s not actually interested in that, as the main consequence to him is that he will not get his platinum behaviour award that gets given to every good child at the end of the school year. Now, rather than have him ritually humiliated on the last day of every school year we just give him a day off that day. He has had a red card pretty much every year since he started at that school, and his behaviour doesn’t seem to have improved much at all, so the head teacher’s argument, that it is a useful tool for the school, doesn’t really hold much water for me. Perhaps he believes that all the nicely behaved children are only nicely behaved because of the threat of the red card hanging over them, or perhaps it’s the thought of that platinum award at the end of the year. Interestingly, once you have received a red card there is no way out for you. Done, finished, kaput, not fixable, you’re just not nice enough.

On a number of occasions I have been called in to help offenders, many of whom have ended up with so many red cards that they are invited for a spell at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Whatever the sentence each and every one of them has an opportunity to redeem themselves in some way – to admit their guilt, work towards a better life and to behave well during their penal servitude. Each one of them has the chance to give their red card back and to ‘downgrade’ to a yellow card.

After one red card incident at my son’s school I was moved to write the article below, which was published in a local lifestyle magazine here in Guernsey. After the article was published I had one local lawyer call me up and ask me if I wanted to take matters further with regard to my son’s human rights, but we demurred on this occasion. We did however get many emails and calls from people who thought it equally unjust. It all brought to mind the crisis in 2009 when the scandal of MP’s being greedy at the trough was in the press. In order to have one of our basic needs met, to feel safe and secure, we need to have faith and trust in those who lead and guide and govern. If we can’t, and if there is not a fair system of justice in place, those who populate the institution, be it school, prison or country, will suffer emotional distress.

I had the privilege recently of talking to a group of teachers who work at a school in the UK that specialises in helping children who don’t fit into the same behaviour patterns as we may wish. They run a school for kids with emotional and behavioural difficulties, but they are having a spate of exclusions where kids are not allowed to attend their school due to bad behaviour. I’m not qualified to teach them how to teach, but I was able to help them explore new ways to help children fit in, and to enjoy the process of learning, once they are receiving the emotional nourishment they need. We looked at ideas which say that youngsters, and teenagers in particular, are different to the rest of us. It’s their brains you see – they are very, very different to ours, and we need to understand why and how in order to negotiate our way around them.

If you ever have the privilege of studying psychology I hope your tutors linger for many weeks on the first lesson, which should always be about perception. Understanding how each of us greatly differs in the ways in which outside stimuli get to the brain, and the patterns which are made from that input, is vital to every student of human thought, feeling and behaviour.

Going back a little in time, well quite a bit actually, it was easier for my teachers. Their options were somewhat limited, particularly with me, it seemed. In those days it was merely a matter of how hard they beat us, and with what. It did hurt quite a bit as I recall, but I soon decided not to do anything that would get me beaten. I didn’t improve my learning skills as a result of that brutal regime, but it was effective in keeping an orderly classroom, and our parents never challenged the word of a teacher. I hesitate to write about child discipline today, as my own little angels are somewhat less angelic than I had hoped for, but I am very optimistic for their future. I decided to try to get them to be really great adults, and they could only do that by making some mistakes in childhood.

There seems to be a common thread which runs through all the ‘new’ ideas of how you get cooperation from children, particularly when their emotions are running high. It’s the notion that chastising a child is a waste of time. Ignore bad behaviour and praise good behaviour. Withdraw attention from naughty youngsters and shower attention on those who are well behaved. I’ve just interrupted my typing of this article to go upstairs and ask one of my kids to stop shouting at the other. He’s annoyed because his brother didn’t put one of his toys away, so he decided to yell until he gets the sympathy and attention that he thinks he deserves. Should I leave him alone to shout and scream, and shower lots of attention on the other boy? But it was him who failed to put his big brother’s toy back? Hmmmm…. whose needs are not being met?

Violence is not the done thing any more, and quite rightly so, so we need to find more powerful tools. My own method is to always try to keep the three Ps in mind. Pre-empt Violence, Prevent Deterioration and Promote Relationship. Whatever happens, DO NOT SHOUT.

Parental guilt and anxiety, and teachers’ stress are problems that I deal with more and more frequently in my consulting room, so I do know that it is futile to beat yourself up when the outcome isn’t what you hoped for. My own policy is to make it as clear as I can to the child that his or her behaviour is unacceptable, and I try to quickly calm the situation, as we all know that emotionally aroused people make poor choices. I then try to quickly engage their imagination in how good life could be once they behave themselves, and with just a very slight hint of a threat as to the dire consequences if their behaviour deteriorates. I try to think of it as 98% carrot and 2% stick. Here’s the important bit – I always make sure I leave them a way back, as we don’t have the death penalty any more, and no child is beyond redemption, no matter how bad their behaviour. Just separate the bad behaviour from the child, and tell them it’s OK to make mistakes, but make sure you set them free to make those mistakes without too much fear.

Maybe I was lucky, as my mum and dad never hit us, and bad behaviour was disapproved of subtly, without making us feel as though we had failed. We were then helped to understand the basic and simple principle that mastery of our own behaviour and our own primitive feelings would give us great reward on its own.

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