When I was in second grade, my teacher had a behavior chart wall to help with classroom management.
We all had index cards with our names on them and the wall was divided into three sections – one green, one yellow, one red. Our cards started each day pinned to the green area. As you can probably guess, if we did not follow the rules or failed to pay attention in class, our card would be moved from the green to the yellow, and then the yellow to the red.
Not only that, but each month, the teacher would count the number of “pin holes” in our cards from the tacks she used to stick them to the wall. Children with only one pin hole got to have a party while the other kids had to do extra work.
IT. WAS. AWFUL.
I only had my card moved to yellow once, for talking in class about our history lesson. I was really excited hearing about the American Colonies and I told my friend Shannon that I wished I could go back in time and live with Betsy Ross. (For the record, I have never once claimed to be cool.) The teacher caught me talking and… yellow it was.
The extra pin hole in my card brought me so much shame, all month-long. It was worse than having to do a worksheet while Shannon and a few other kids got to have treats.
There was also a little boy in my class that, looking back now, I realize likely had some attention issues and learning differences that made that classroom setting pure torture. His card looked like one of the targets at the gun range after an expert practiced with a fully load machine gun. In facts, some months, the teacher commented on barely having any card left to pin.
IT. WAS. AWFUL.
This was the 80’s. The truth is, we also could’ve been sent to the principal’s office to be spanked with a paddle, so the card system was supposed to be an improvement. Looking back, I can see how it seemed progressive. I can see how it seemed like it might work.
The only problem is, it didn’t. The same kids almost always celebrated at the end of the month. The same kids felt shame every single day as their cards moved away from the green. Behavior seemed to be a relative constant in our classroom, and the chart served as a punishment rather than a motivational tool.
What is shocking to me is how often this same approach is taken in current classrooms, and is also recommended by many pediatric therapists today, almost forty years later. Now, even when there is clear evidence that they do little, if anything, to really effect any change at all.
What’s So Bad About A Behavior Chart?
For starters, they are actually the least effective for a child struggling with impulse control, attention issues and behavioral differences.
Plenty of schools use behavior charts to track their students’ behavior. Behavior charts come in all shapes and sizes and are used primarily to motivate students to behave better while in class. At the core, the idea seems right: by tracking our students’ reactions throughout the day we encourage them to make better choices. But like many things, the idea works better than its practical applications.
Behavior charts can reinforce students who are already sociable and well-behaved, but negatively affect those students who aren’t. Using charts in your classroom can affect students with a history of trauma, shame your students, and enforce strict obedience instead of actual change.
The children who are having the most issues will not only not be helped by a behavior chart, it often actually causes an increase in negative behaviors and a decrease in positive performance.
Why Behavior Charts Fail The Kids Who Need Them Most
Shame Based Learning Is Never Best
For obvious reasons, given my personal story about these types of behavior charts, I believe the focus on negative performance, inherent in this type of behavior management, is shame based. Even if a behavior chart is not publicly displayed, the truth is a child is always trying to avoid the negative, instead of focusing on the positives of making progress.
If a chart is needed for one reason or another, I have found a reward chart to be much more effective and encouraging. A reward chart focuses on rewarding good behavior only. Most importantly, the goal is to allow the child to reward themselves when they are proud of themselves for a job well done.
When my son’s therapist recommended a behavior chart last year as a means to help him manage anxiety, I was able to articulate my concerns. I, instead, proposed a reward-based system for things like allowing me to leave the house for 30 minutes without a violent meltdown and other anxiety related behaviors. While she agreed, it was obvious that she believed I was coddling him and possibly contributing to his anxious behaviors.
She was wrong. Shame never, ever helps our children make long-term progress. The good news is that my son is doing so much better and I can easily leave the house now. Also, she is no longer his therapist.
Lack Of Relationship And Communication
Because a behavior chart is so focused on performance and performance alone, it gets in the way of one of the most powerful tools we have in helping our children make strides – the open communication that flows from being in a close and connected relationship.
Our children need to feel heard and understood when they are struggling. They need to feel like they can trust the adults in their life to care for them when they are struggling.
This is one of the reasons why I think behavior charts can also cause negative effects for the children who seem to do well with them. The child who is always “on green” often stays there with a sense of dread and panic. One little girl I know started refusing to go to school because she was so scared she was going to accidentally do something that would make her yellow for the day. She’s six-years old.
Differences Are Often Not In A Child’s Control
This is perhaps the most heart-breaking of all. Like that little boy in my classroom so many years ago, some children are simply not yet capable of meeting the expectations required for behavior chart success. Sensory issues, ADHD, executive function deficits, and even mood disorders all easily derail a child in the midst of a typical school day or therapy session. How sad that they are repeatedly punished for so many differences that are not yet in their regular control.
What Are More Effective Alternatives To Behavior Charts?
I can’t stress enough how ineffective the typical behavior chart really is for our children’s long-term success. But the question that is often asked is then, “Well, what should we do instead?”
Please come back next week, where I will be sharing many alternatives that are not only more effective for behavior management, they are kinder, more respectful and allow for much more significant strides in learning.