Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Crime and Punishment: Part 1

When Jack was in kindergarten his teacher used a form of discipline known as the "red and green cards." At the end of every day that a child was "good" and behaved well in class, the teacher handed him a green card  as he filed out of the classroom. If he was not good, he got a red card. When a child had accumulated 20 green cards, he or she could trade them in for a toy from the treasure chest.

I don't recall Jack getting a red card in kindergarten. He almost always got a green card, but there was a time or two that he didn't receive a card at all. Usually it would be for not being a good listener or for compulsively mimicking his best little buddy. This is an except from a message I sent to his kindergarten teacher at the time:

I'm really concerned about this obsession Jack has with copying or mimicking. When I'm in the classroom, I notice that he looks at C rather than at whoever is speaking and does whatever C does. When we were coming into school today, C was carrying his Weds. Envelope in his hand, since it doesn't fit in his backpack. Jack immediately had to unzip his backpack and take out his Weds. Envelope, too. Yesterday at the park, we almost had to go home because he was refusing to wear his helmet on his scooter, because C wasn't wearing his helmet (his mom forgot to bring it). 

Looking back I realize that his copying compulsion was a social coping tactic. Not having good social skills himself (we didn't yet know he had autism), he thought he needed to do everything his buddy did.

The couple of times he didn't receive a green card, he was devastated and would sob uncontrollably. Charlie and I both felt the upset he felt over not getting the green card was punishment enough. We would always tell him, "Tomorrow is a new day. You can do better and get a green card tomorrow."

When he entered first grade, the system changed slightly. There was a chart on the wall of the classroom with every child's name and a slot which contained three colored cards: green, yellow and red. Everyone started the day with a green card. If the teacher felt they were misbehaving or not working as they should, a child would be instructed to "go change your card to yellow." They could at some point be changed back to green, but if the behavior got worse, they would have to change the card to red.

One day I had business in his classroom. As I entered the back of the room, three children ran up excitedly to me and reported, "Mrs. K, Jack got a red card!" My heart sank. Even more so when later that evening, my husband said, "Jack, I hear you got a red card today," and Jack's response was to hang his head and whisper, "I hope you still love me." Breaks my heart even now.

Our sweet, bright boy was having difficulties at school. We didn't understand it. We knew there was something not right here, but it would be almost another three years before we would get a diagnosis.


  1. It's a shame that the trained professionals at school were not picking up on these early clues.

  2. Exactly! I wish I could even remember how many times I asked, "Is this normal behavior? Do you think we could talk to the school psychologist? Do we even have a school psychologist?" I was screaming for somebody (anybody) to throw me a rope, but nobody seemed too concerned about it.