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How zero tolerance punished the wrong child

My son started kindergarten with exuberance and within a week was sullen. Soon after, we started receiving notes from the school that he was harassing three girls. As a consequence, he was not allowed to run on the field; he had to stay on the playground so that he and the girls could be separated. He was devastated.  We were confused and concerned. We believe in logical consequences and if he was bringing these girls to tears, he had to be restricted. But it was totally out of character. In 5 years of day care and pre-school, he never bothered, harassed or did more than horse around with another child.

Nothing I’ve experienced in my life compares to the hurt I felt when my son was hurting. We couldn’t figure out what to do. We talked with him – but he couldn’t explain what was happening. We didn’t know if one of us should stop working to help him to figure this out. We asked the teachers to tell us what they saw. I even tried to surreptitiously observe recess. We asked friends and parents for ideas. Maybe he was too young for school.

Then my husband tripped on a toy train and put his arm through a plate glass window severing his ulnar nerve.

His reluctance to tell many people how he got hurt led him to sequester himself with the children at a community event and he saw an older girl, a third grader, approach our son.

Children playing tag
“Chase me?” she asked.

“No” he responded.

“C’mon, chase me!” she said

“No” he responded.

“Please, chase me!” she goaded.


And he did. Caught and tagged her. Then she burst into tears and headed for her parents. She didn’t count on being observed and intercepted by his Dad. My husband told her he saw and heard everything. After a feeble attempt at denial, she acknowledged that she was asking my son to chase her.

It was a game – three third grade girls discovered they could control the teachers by provoking my son to chase them, crying about it and getting him punished.  He was just 5 and had no way to put together that the invitation to play tag was the bait to get him in trouble.

Suffice to say, the game ended that night. My husband spoke immediately to two of the girls’ parents (with the girls whimpering alongside) and I informed the Head of School about what was transpiring.

To the Head’s credit, he immediately apologized; spoke to the on duty teachers and the girls and the behavior stopped. And that same day, my exuberant, giving child re-emerged.

Zero tolerance was punishing the WRONG child. It’s so much harder to observe and prevent verbal/emotional bullying.  Kids are smart and they hide it. 

I wonder how else we could have figured out the problem.  Any ideas?


Guest blogging in October at the PEJE Assembly

Next week, I'll be at the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education Bi-Annual Assembly learning more about how to shape the future of Jewish education.  PEJE has asked me to blog about programs at the assembly and share my thoughts.

I've shared what I hope to learn on the PEJE Blog - hope you'll read it.


My bullying prevention program

The first week of October featured a flurry of discussion about bullying in the US – Newsweek , People Magazine, CNN (a week of coverage on bullying).  I was saddened and shocked by the children who committed suicide after bullying. 

Boys playing

Bullying happens.  It has happened since the dawn of time. Animals do it in the wild – they fight for social status and breeding rights. And so do people – we jockey for social position and that jockeying is hurtful to the person who doesn’t win. I know, as a kid, I was pretty low on the social status meter as a child.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman’s NurtureShock aggregated research showing that “Zero Tolerance” is a 100% failure (chapter 9, Plays Well with Others - synopsis here).  It often penalizes play or simple bad judgement. With the severity of the penalties for any form of bullying (“tag” is considered bullying by some definitions), the children drive this behavior underground where the bullying includes threats if the subject asks for help.  Zero tolerance is catchy and as a parent, sounds reassuring, but it doesn’t work. And it’s not realistic training for life.

How do you stop bullying? Or help your child avoid the temptation of being a bully online or in person?  How should you help your child deal with being bullied? Is there any way to enable your child to share with you if they feel bullied (and verify the story if needed)?

From all the writing of the week of Oct. 4 plus NurtureShock and my own experience, I think parents have all the tools we need to conduct a 16 year bullying prevention program.

  1. Start when they are toddlers.  Kindness must be taught to toddlers and reinforced for the rest of childhood. If you explain, model and reward kindness with social status, children learn that there is a healthy path to social acceptance. If you missed this window, start now.
  2. Parents, teachers and people in the community have to make an effort to recognize and applaud kindness. And be absolute in reaction if your child is a bully – it’s unacceptable and they should be ashamed and embarrassed.
  3. Listen to our children without taking action. They need to decide what they want us to do – to just listen, to brainstorm, to act. They have to know it’s safe to tell us what’s happening.
  4. Help our children develop a thick skin. Not everyone is nice or polite. Not everyone is going to like you. Sometimes you have to let it roll off you.
  5. Teach our children when and how to fight back.  Whether through words or acts, in person or digitally, they have to know how to stand up for themselves.

True zero tolerance comes from their peers. Kids, especially teenagers, care more about what their friends think than what their parents or teachers think. Zero tolerance comes from peer pressure. When, among your peers, it’s just not okay to be a bully – when it lowers your social status – there’s no benefit to doing it. And it stops.

What do you do about preventing and dealing with bullying?


Hide the spinach with a Vitamix

My eldest son will not eat green foods, except for M&Ms, and there are only so many battles a mom can have with her son.  He's in good shape and very healthy, so I stopped fighting this problem. And that's when a solution popped up. 

As we traversed Costco last weekend, he stopped me by a demonstration of a Vitamix blender. I was skeptical - we have a blender and it didn't cost half of what this blender costs. The first sample was a strawberry-banana smoothie similar to Jamba Juice (in fact, Jamba Juice apparently uses Vitamixes). Then the demonstrator pulled out all the stops and made a drink that had oranges, pineapple, carrots and...spinach. 

My son watched him put every ingredient in the blender. Vitamix is known for liquifying foods - so every food, including the spinach, was in full view. The mix was made and the green sludge was poured into Dixie Cups for the tasting. His green aversion was mounting but so was his curiosity. And then I had a stroke of brilliance... 


For a boy who loves playing plants vs. zombies whenever I'll let him have access to my iphone, this was the most incredible possibility. He had to taste it.  He wanted to like it.  And like it he did. A lot.  And that's how I wound up with a Vitamix 5200 in my kitchen.

At the farmer's market the next day, my son trotted to the farmer with bags of fresh, organic spinach and briskly purchased two bags. And after a few tries, I am now a highly successful smoothie barrista making bright green zombie juice virtually every day.  Sometimes we make pink smoothies (strawberries, pomegranite, orange).  Or green smoothies (yellow fruits plus spinach).  Even made fresh butternut squash soup (pretty good). Nothing quite as fabulous as zombie juice, but hey, he's drinking his vegetables.


When should a gifted child start kindergarten?

Jokingly, my friends and I will say that all our children are gifted.  In fact, in all the conversations I've had with parents about when to start a child in kindergarten, absolutely no one has said that their child isn't smart enough to start - it's inevitably about social or athletic concerns. It's sort of assumed that the intellectual development of the child won't really be impacted either way.

The President of the Montana Association of Gifted and Talented Education's post on Teacher Magazine's EdWeek suggests that for gifted children, perhaps we should be considering EARLY start - or, as in the case of fall children/boys kids, ON TIME.  She cites 50 years of research (summarized and available at the Acceleration Institute which is focused on Gifted and Talented education) on the benefits of acceleration (skipping grades).  Certainly something to consider for the parents of bright children considering holding their children back for non-academic reasons.

Whatever you believe about skipping grades, its virtually undisputed that schools should challenge every student and encourage students to go beyond their comfort zone of abilities. How to do this without creating pressurized schools is a challenge. Personally, I like the project based learning models that I see at our school and others as a way for each child to learn according to their learning style and push beyond their comfort zone. 

Students in Science Class

An example - the fourth grade at my school started their year learning the scientific method and immediately applying to an experiment testing different brands of paper towels. They 

A quick review of the scientific method:

  1. Observe something
  2. Form a hypothesis that states the explanation of the observation
  3. Predict what would happen if the hypothesis is true or false.
  4. Create an experiment to test the predictions.
  5. Analyze the results and determine if the hypothesis is on track.

So the fourth grade observed that different paper towel brands are different and ran experiments on absorbency and strength over the course of a week.  Then the kicker...when the experiment was done and the data collected, each child had a week to create an advertisement for the brand they chose - a poster ("print" in my world), jingle or video. Their ads were to be "big, bold and beautiful", make and defend scientific claims and engage the audience. The criteria for excellence was written and distributed to students (and their parents).  The result was every child strove for public excellence and expressed themselves and their abilities - whether or not they are gifted in science.  Or writing. Or art.  And when they presented their ads, the classroom erupted with support and feedback - from the students and staff. 

There are possibilities to challenge every child every day. What is unacceptable is letting students disengage from learning because they are either bored, lost or something else. It seems to me that finding a school that will engage and challenge your child appropriately is crucial - whether they are truly gifted or not.