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Dealing with a Foul-Mouthed Kindergarten Student

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
Summary of the article: “A Principal’s Job Is also to Teach” by Karen Poplawski in Responsive Classroom Newsletter, Fall 2013;

In this charming article in Responsive Classroom Newsletter, Karen Poplawski describes how she, as a novice principal, handled Devin, a boy who was repeatedly sent to her office for using profanity. The boy had lost privileges, his parents had been called, and he had even been suspended for a day, but nothing seemed to work. Other students’ parents were calling, and the pressure was on Ms. Poplawski to come up with a solution—which was assumed to involve consequences.

The next time Devin arrived in the office holding a referral sheet and looking remorseful, Ms. Poplawski suddenly remembered Word Cemetery, an approach she had used as a classroom teacher to help students avoid bland, overused words in their writing. She cut a piece of paper into strips and said to Devin, “Tell me all the words that keep getting you in trouble.” He nervously muttered each profanity, and Ms. Poplawski wrote it on a slip of paper, showing no reaction.

“All the words we just wrote down are now dead,” she said, “and we are going to bury them.” Ms. Poplawski took a spoon from her cabinet and they went outside. On the way, Devin noticed a dead cricket on the ground and asked if he could bury it with the words, and she agreed. Devin dug a hole with the spoon, and Ms. Poplawski said, “Today, we are saying goodbye to *#!^,” and read the word on the first slip. They continued until all the words had been buried—and then interred the cricket.

Back inside, Ms. Poplawski said, “Now that we cannot use those words, we need to think of other words to use. What else can you say to the kids in your class?” Seeing Devin’s blank stare, she realized that he actually did not know acceptable ways to speak to his peers. She had not asked herself the most important question: Does this child know how to do what we expect him to do?

Principal and student started brainstorming a list of conversation starters: “What is your favorite thing to do at recess?” “Do you want to play?” “I like your shoes.” and made a poster of the new phrases with picture clues. They practiced a few, and Devin, encouraged by his teacher, decided to hang the poster near his desk as a reminder. In the next few weeks, every time Ms. Poplawski made her daily rounds, Devin pointed to the poster and beamed.

“Working with Devin reminded me that while consequences may stop a problem, only teaching—making sure the child knows how to do what we are asking him to do—can solve it,” Ms. Poplawski concludes.

“Devin buried his words that day, and I buried my notion that an administrator’s role is merely to enforce consequences. I am, first and foremost, a teacher.”

Summary reprinted from The Marshall Memo 497, 12 August 2013.


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