By Kelly Meier
November 25, 2014
If I’m really honest with myself, I knew on the second day that this wasn’t going to work.
I knew as soon as I heard the words “There is no running on the playground” that something was fundamentally wrong with this school system. I knew when I asked what could be done about the no running rule and was told that this was public school, not private school, that something was wrong.
The kindergarten class didn’t have grass. I was told that there’s no running on asphalt. “It’s not safe and can cause really bad scrapes.” By definition, scrapes are not really bad. Scrapes, bumps, and bruises should be a part of childhood—they’re how kids learn to manage risk. Scrapes now prevent worse decisions later.
I was told that the school could not meet my child’s energy needs and that instead he needed to get his energy out at “running club” every morning. The thought of five-year-olds running laps to provide an energy release for what they should be getting through creative play at recess was stunning.
The “No running on asphalt” policy is the norm for the entire district in San Diego. If your playground is all asphalt, well, sorry, no running. How does this not enrage more parents?
In the face of an ADHD epidemic, an obesity epidemic, and neuroscience that proves that kindergartners cannot sit still for long periods of time, how can we require such young children to stay still all day while adding increasingly heavy academic demands?
It is unfathomable and yet, it is happening. It is happening everywhere.
The second week of school, the teachers introduced the discipline policy. This policy, which during my school search had been described as “respectful” and “discreet,” was anything but. Children who behaved well each day were given green cards. After three warnings they got yellow cards, then orange cards accompanied by a phone call to the parent, then red cards signifying a visit to the principal’s office.
And, the cards were public: every day at pick up, children were lined up against the wall, card in hand for all to see.
I don’t love these discipline systems in any context, but they are even worse when the kids are also forbidden from moving around. How many more yellow, orange, and reds are given out as a result of the lack of energy release throughout the day? How does self-esteem suffer in the kids who are trying to behave but incapable of staying still that long? Kids are being punished for acting like kids. They’re caged up with energy to burn.
Worse still, in my son’s class, the kids had P.E. instead of recess one day per week. So on Thursday they had no free play, no break from direction, no time to regroup and let their minds go free. Four straight hours of directed learning—for five- year- olds.
On some Thursdays the teacher sent home reports about lunchtime behavior issues. And not just to my family—parents from the entire class received group emails about Thursday lunchtime behavior. In certain circumstances every single child was getting behavior cards at lunch, even the few who were managing to maintain their self control. The teacher wanted to prove a point and she broke trust with the “good” kids while doing it.
How had no one put this together? Of course they were behaving wildly! It was their first break all day.
I connected the dots. Then I volunteered. A lot.
I thought maybe things would be okay if I could get them to overturn, or at least adapt, the no running rule, but my optimism vanished when I began to see more global problems. The running was now the least of my worries—even if it was, perhaps, the underlying cause of many of the problems.
I heard things like, “there’s no drawing at the writing station, no scribble scrabbling, color inside the lines.” I heard children lectured for minor violations (like drawing instead of writing letters). I saw timers being used at learning stations. I saw children stressed when timers went off.
I saw teachers, counter-productively, withholding recess from children unable to complete their work. Who could think this was a good idea? It was explained to me that children had to learn time management. The kid could be goofing off or legitimately slow and needing help, but the punishment was the same.
I saw kids showing anxious behaviors.
I saw certain boys being labeled and regularly put in the corner as a way to control behavior.
I saw tattling believed and sometimes rewarded, and offenders punished without the chance to tell their side.
I saw the braver ones try to explain, only to be silenced. The not-so outspoken ones sat in dismay, their voices becoming extinct.
I saw a boy fall—the coach, a substitute, said, “That’s why you don’t run.” The boy had actually been knocked down. When the boy asked for a Band-Aid, the coach told him that he was fine, to get in line, that he wasn’t in preschool anymore, he was in kindergarten, that he was a big kid now and didn’t need a Band-Aid. This was the second week of school.
I was beginning to see the pervasive lack of compassion, or even tolerance, for age-appropriate behavior. I saw it from teachers, I saw it from coaches, I saw it from playground staff, and I saw it in the rules that disregarded common sense.
When my son became afraid to write his name, I was concerned. When he stopped writing and drawing all together, I was devastated.
We stayed for six weeks – longer than we should have.
We stayed after my son asked me why kids were always supposed to use good manners, but the teachers never used them.
We stayed even though I couldn’t give him an answer. We stayed after he told me “those cards hurt people’s feelings.”
When he started panicking and running out of the room during simple instructions in activities outside of school, I knew we were on a path to anxiety and early hatred of school.
But we stayed. We stayed to see if it would change. We stayed to give it a chance. It was one of the “best” schools in the district. It had high test scores. Unfortunately, there is no test score for humanity.
Then, one day, one more incident, one more child treated as if he was not a person, and I reached my limit. I had arrived at school at the beginning of P.E. The coach told one boy that he had to sit out because he had told her at the beginning of class that he didn’t want to play. She said to him, “You’ll learn real quick how I am.” He sat out the entire P.E. class.
Another mom came to me and said, “That’s not what happened. He told her he did want to play, but she misheard him.” She went on, “Some of this is hard to watch, isn’t it?”
When the coach reported the behavior problems back to the teacher, the boy who had been made to sit out during P.E. was then made to sit out during class. I told the teacher that the boy had been misunderstood. She told me she wasn’t there, and didn’t know if that the boy might have changed his story when he realized he couldn’t play.
It doesn’t matter whether he changed his story or not. Even if he had originally said he didn’t want to play, he wasn’t asked why he didn’t want to play. Children should be given a chance to explain. Maybe something was bothering him. Maybe he had a blister, who knows. When kids aren’t given a chance to explain, they simply learn to shut down. I saw this repeatedly, that day with the boy in P.E., and from the beginning of the year.
I left school that day and wept. I wept for sending my son there. I grieved for what was supposed to have been—a good community school where my children would grow up alongside lifelong friends. I was done giving it a chance. I was done waiting to see if it would get better. After my son got home that day, he never went back.
I teamed up with a good friend whose son was in the same class. We did some research and notified the school that our boys were leaving. One week later, we started our sons at a new school.
A charter school* where children are cherished, their ideas welcomed, their individuality honored, and their energy celebrated. A school that was able to turn my son around in just three weeks.
The problem wasn’t me. It wasn’t that I was having trouble “letting go” of my first baby, as some at the school had suggested to me. It wasn’t my son. It wasn’t that his energy and behavior were unmanageable. It was the school. It was the school’s profound lack of respect for children. It was their institutionalized ignorance of basic child development.
I hope that the tide begins to turn in our public schools. I hope that educators and parents take a stand. For now, I'm thankful that my son is thriving, delighting again in writing his name.
* I am mindful of the issues surrounding charter schools nationwide. I am in no way advocating for privatization of public education. In California there are a few teacher-led, grass roots charters that are teaching in developmentally appropriate ways. We were lucky to find one of those. I am working on continuing to advocate for public school students because when involved parents leave…changes don’t get made.
You can read more about our journey with school and how we originally chose public school in the following two posts:
There is a vast amount of research supporting the importance of movement for learning. The lack of recess and active play is becoming common in schools. I am sharing several links for anyone else it may help in overturning school policy. Special thanks to San Diego Cooperative Charter School for working so quickly and compassionately with us.
- The Right, and Surprisingly Wrong, Way to Get Kids to Sit Still in Class- Washington Post
- Playing Tag Keeps Children More Focused in Class – Education Week
I’ve had a lot of feedback wanting to know what can be done and I’ll write about that soon. Here is one good place to start:
About Kelly Meier
I am mother to a strong and sensitive little boy and an adventurous little girl. I spent a good portion of my career in corporate America and decided staying home with my kids was more rewarding, if not more challenging. Writing has always been my hobby and creative outlet. I discovered RIE and Positive Discipline when my second child was born.