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Crime and Punishment

I witnessed a system of crime and punishment today—while substituting in a kindergarten classroom! Tell me what you think of the system I observed—was it just? Was it helpful? Was it necessary? Here is what I saw:

After lunch, I went to pick up my students on the playground. They were wiggling, sitting, and standing on their white line. I noticed there was a large, dark spot on the ground on the boy’s side of the line.

“What’s this?” I asked the children.

“That’s water. Joel spit water out of his mouth at Jose,” blurted several kids.

I bent down and asked Joel, “Did you do this?”

Unashamed, Joel replied cheerfully, “Yes!”

“Well, you can’t spit water at people, Joel. They may not like it—and it spreads germs. I will have to tell Miss Sherry what you did,” I said. Then I led the students back to class.

When we returned, I told Miss Sherry, the classroom aid, what Joel had done.

“Go move your card down to yellow,” she admonished.

Ruefully, Joel walked over to the pocket chart on the wall. It displayed cards with each student’s name, arranged in three sections: “purple”—for students who did exceptionally good things, like write their numbers to 100, “green”—for students who behaved well and got their work done, and “yellow”—for students who did not get their work done or had committed some kind of behavioral infraction. Joel found his card and moved it down to the yellow section. Then he walked slowly back to his seat.

At the end of the day, as students were putting their papers into their backpacks, Miss Sherry walked around, passing out little colored cards: purple, green and yellow. The kids who received purple cards were very excited and happy. The students who got green cards seemed pleased and relieved. But Joel’s face fell when he got his large yellow card with a hand-written message from Miss Sherry to his mother describing what he had done at lunch recess.

“Miss Sherry! Joel’s stuffing his card in his backpack!” cried one of the students.

“Now Joel, you know you have to hand that card to your parents when they pick you up. You can’t hide it in your backpack,” said Miss Sherry.

So Joel gripped the paper in his grubby little fist. I led the class out to the gate to be picked up. Parents came up to the gate and, one by one, the students rushed forward to meet them. I stood at the opening, making sure no one ran out without a corresponding parent waiting on the other side. Then Joel’s mother came up.

Joel walked towards her, yellow card in hand. I will never forget the look of total shame, sadness, fear and trepidation on his five-year-old face. A more miserable expression I have never seen. Slowly he walked towards his mother and the two of them turned and headed towards their car.

I was distracted from observing their interaction further by another class coming out and crowding around the gate, so I never saw how Joel’s mother reacted when she saw his yellow card. Did she frown and scold him? Did she comfort him? Did she ignore it altogether?

I just witnessed the look of abject misery on Joel’s face, and I wondered, Did the punishment fit the crime? Is this what it takes to train behavior? Will Joel never spit water at another student again?

What do you think?