Miss Night's Marbles

Musings, mumbles, marvels, and sometimes mockery, live from kindergarten.

Chuck the Chart, Part 1: But why?

on 14 July, 2014

This is part 1 of a multi-part series about how and why to consider removing a chart-based behavior management “system” from your classroom. To read the introduction to the entire series, click here.

Oh my goodness, I am so excited to be posting this! My first post about why I don’t use behaviour charts set up a hypothetical situation where a publicly posted chart was used in an employment setting, and, while I still think that post drives home the emotional impact of these sorts of systems, I thought it may be helpful to do a point-by-point breakdown of the biggest reasons why, to me, these systems are problematic. Before we start, though, let’s lay some vocabulary groundwork, to make sure we are all speaking the same language. When I refer to a behaviour chart, I specifically mean a system that is publicly posted, where each individual child has a clip or a card or a jar or a row to indicate how he or she is doing that day. This includes stoplight-style charts, clip charts, sticker charts, individual marble jars, etc. Charts record the daily progress of individual children, in a way that invites direct comparison. If you have no clue what I am talking about, do a google image search for “behavior chart”, and you will see a bajillion examples. So, with that understood, here are my four big objections to these charts:

1. They are public. If you have used these systems, you know. It is the same kids who lose cards/clip down, every day. The rest of the class knows it, too. The kids go home and tell their parents “Mariah lost all her cards/was on red AGAIN today. She is ALWAYS on red.” When parents come into your room, for pickup or drop off, or to volunteer, or for parent-teacher conferences, they see the chart, too. How is poor Mariah EVER going to get a fresh start or see herself as capable of progress, if every single person who comes into the room can see that she is on red. AGAIN???  To me, displaying these charts publicly is a way to use public shaming and humiliation as a way to control children’s behaviour, and that seems completely incompatible with creating a safe and nurturing environment. We can manage our classrooms without using shame to do it.

2. They do not allow for individual development, needs, situations, or progress. For some kids, constant interrupting is a behaviour we are trying to diminish. For others, the problem is that they NEVER EVER speak up during class discussions. If you have a publicly posted behaviour system, and one of the “clip downable” offenses is interrupting, what do you do on the day that your meekest, shyest, never-says-boo little mouse FINALLY shares an idea during circle time, but HAPPENS to interrupt when he does it? Does he clip down for interrupting? Do you think he will EVER speak up again if he does?

3. They create comparison and competition instead of building community. I know. “The world is competitive and they are going to have to learn to compete.” But is that any more true than “They need to learn to be kind, to collaborate, to support one another, to be tolerant of others who are different from them, to never take pleasure in someone else’s pain, that their successes should never come at someone else’s expense…?” Yes,our students will have to compete: for jobs, for college placements, and for some, on a sports field… someday. That is not an argument that they need to start now. They will also watch R-rated movies, stay up until 11pm, drive cars, use matches, SOMEDAY. It doesn’t make it safe or appropriate for them do to any of those things NOW. I don’t want my students to see their classmates as competition. I want them to see our classroom as a family full of people who help one another, and where different people work on different skills in different ways, at different rates, at different times, using different tools.

Kids already know who is ahead and who is lagging. They don't need a chart to reinforce this.

Kids already know who is ahead and who is lagging. They don’t need a chart to reinforce this.

4. They are reward-based. The research on rewards is pretty clear. As my friend Alfie Kohn says (ok, it is a stretch to call him my friend, but bear with me): “This is one of the most thoroughly replicated findings in the field of social psychology: the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward… More specifically, researchers have found that people’s interest in a task ordinarily plummets when they are acutely aware of being evaluated on their performance — even if the evaluation is positive.” (The Schools Our Children Deserve) All of the following count as rewards:

  • actual trinkets from a treasure chest or class “store”
  • a sticker on a chart
  • special play time/extra recess/a class party
  • the simple act of moving  a clip or card “up” a chart

Yes, in the short-term, rewards work, if by “work” you mean that they produce compliance in the form of desired behaviours. They do not, however, build kids’ self-regulatory capacities, decision-making skills, or intrinsic motivation. I want my students to do the right thing BECAUSE it is the right thing, not because it will earn them a treat. As my good friend Matt B Gomez has been known to say: behaviour systems are about the teacher controlling the kids, not about the kids learning to control themselves.

There you have it. Those are the 4 big reasons why I think we can do so much better than charts for our students. I have a million examples and clarifications for each of these, so if any of them are not clear, hit me in the comments. Often, when I have this conversation, people raise the following points:

But Amy, my chart is ONLY for recognizing good behaviour. Kids never lose points/stickers/marbles. They never have to “clip down.”

If it is publicly posted and creates direct comparisons between children, it is still a chart, and there are still kids who NEVER clip-up, and other who clip all the way to the top within an hour of arriving at school. 

But Amy, I don’t use the kids’ names. I assign them numbers so that it is anonymous.

Kids can count. Within a few weeks, they will know exactly who belongs to which number.

I use a collective system where small groups of children earn points/marbles/pompoms/stickers for their team. This, to me, is BETTER than a publicly posted individual system, but it is still a reward-based system, and it creates comparison/competition. The team who has THAT KID (you all know THAT KID. You have all taught THAT KID every year.) will feel like they are at a disadvantage.

I know. I am kind of being hard-nosed about what a chart is, and why I don’t believe in them, but to me, this is something we need to be very clear about. For those of you looking to Chuck the Chart, YOU need to be very clear about what charts are and why they are problematic, because next up: we’re going to talk to your administrators… Stay tuned!

And, hey, if you have questions, please post them in the comments. I will answer there, and will probably add them to this post. Remember: if YOU have a question, someone else probably has it, too!


13 Responses to “Chuck the Chart, Part 1: But why?”

  1. Kay says:

    So, what kind of behavior management techniques would you recommend to someone just out of college working as a substitute teacher? I already feel like I am at a disadvantage being young and small (I’m only 4′ 9” so some kids have a hard time seeing me as an authority figure). If I’m only with a class for a day I don’t have time to get to know all the kids well enough to build the special kind of relationships you talk about. And often times I’ve walked into classrooms that already have behavior charts. If I ignore the charts the kids seem to see it as a free pass to act up. Mostly I give children warnings and then if they continue a bad behavior (which to me is anything dangerous or too rowdy) I will docks them recess time or tell them I need to leave a note about their behavior to their classroom teacher. What can I do to help students control themselves so that they don’t get to that point. And how can I help students keep their voices at a reasonable level when doing partner work so that they can all concentrate. I don’t mind some chatting, but I shouldn’t have to shout over a class to get their attention. Any tips?

  2. Kirsten says:

    The charts are used to motivate and discipline children. The mechanism they use is public shame and recognition (or shame avoidance.) When a child is moved down the chart, they are often feel embarrassed in front of their peers. Check out the FAQ’s on the California Department of Education site: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/ss/se/bullyfaq.asp “Just as a student may bully a student thinking they are motivating him or her, adults who socially ostracize or humiliate a student in front of others may believe they are motivating or disciplining the student when, in fact, the student being embarrassed is actually being bullied.” These charts could be considered a form of teachers (adults) modeling bullying behavior from the front of the class.

  3. Amy,

    I am curious to know what your thoughts are on using Class Dojo when it’s kept private. I know the obvious answer, it’s a another form of a chart, but I wanted to know if you had any further thoughts on the topic.

    • Miss Night says:

      Hi Elizabeth!
      The short answer is that, while private is ALWAYS better than public, I do not love Class Dojo. Even if it is kept private, it still amounts to children being motivated by a reward rather than developing self-regulatory capacities. It may be a great, short-term tool for some very specific children, in very specific situations, but as a class-wide technique, for general management: thumbs down.

  4. Anita kuniegel says:

    Your arguments are completely valid and I am very conscious of your points. However-My chart is not publicly displayed and there are no treats. Natural consequences are the results of our bad choices, but yes they flip as well. We have many discussions, read books, make charts about what a good friend looks like & how they act. As a matter of fact the flipping was VERY minimal last year. The reason I’m taking time away from my summer morning & cup of coffee is that I really don’t appreciate your threat, “we’re going to talk to your administrators.” We don’t need that in this hard enough profession. We do this because we care… And the teachers I know are interested in good teaching methods. Your article was a great refresher, but we all need to do what works for our classes while keeping in mind what’s going to help each child grow.

    • Miss Night says:

      Hi Anita
      I’m so sorry if I wasn’t clear – the line about talking to administrators was not a threat at all, but rather a reference to the next post in this series, which discusses how to talk to administrators about removing a behaviour chart system from your classroom. You can read it here: . It sounds like you have some great strategies to manage your classroom – can you share why you feel you need a chart system in addition to the other techniques you use? I think that often, the question of “what workds for our classes” boils down to our definition of “works.” Yes, behaviour charts can create compliant classrooms, but that is not the same as developing children’s self-regulatory skills. I hope you will read the rest of the posts in this series, as well as the new ones I have planned. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  5. […] Chewing on the fish out of water… Chuck the Chart, Part 1: But why? […]

  6. Melody says:

    Would like to hear how this will be done. Hate charts and rewards for everything

  7. Morah says:

    A teacher on my floor has been using a behavior chart system for years despite my begging her to end that archaic nonsense. I emailed this article hopefully he will finally hear my point!! Thank YOU for a well written piece to share with colleagues!!

  8. Katie says:

    I never cared for charts either! I want my children to understand how to behave in our classroom family because it is the right thing to do. Not because they get a treat! Each situation needs to be handled with care as you said. I would handle the habitual interrupter differently than the quiet one who finally got the courage to answer!

  9. andrea says:

    Never had any success with behavior systems. I was so inconsistent. I always made sure my monkeys earned their way back to a happy face and then forgot to give out rewards. Not my thing. 🙂

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