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.
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!