Classroom Behavior Charts Are Ableist And Humilating

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram and The Trauma Informed Teacher/Facebook

As soon as my child with special needs started school, I was introduced to the horrendous realities of classroom behavior clip charts.

Every time my child got “clipped down,” meaning their clothespin labeled with their name was moved to “think about it” or “consequence” because of some sort of behavioral infraction—all hell broke loose. My child would melt down and fixate on the clip chart. This meant that not only was my child not learning the material—say, how to write the letter C properly—but my kiddo was being taught that school was an unhappy place to be.

I was furious. As a former educator, I am a firm believer that expectations should be clear, that grace should be offered when needed, communication is paramount to success, and public shaming of students is always inappropriate. So why in the world was my child—one who was fresh out of diapers—already perceiving school as an anxiety-ridden place and learning to label themselves as “bad?”


It was that damn clip chart.

Have you seen a clip chart? Or some version of it? Basically, it’s a category chart displayed in the classroom in which each child has a clip with his or her name on it. Clips are moved to different categories throughout the day based on the child’s behavior. All kids usually start in a neutral category and can have their clip moved to something like “role model” for good behavior and “contact parent” for bad behavior. These charts are visible by teachers, peers, and anyone entering the classroom (like other parents as noted in the above photo).

My son’s emotional well-being was suffering, and I wasn’t having it. I promptly called an educational team meeting and stated that clip charts are not only inappropriate, but they are detrimental. I wanted it added to my child’s IEP—that’s their Individual Education Program—that clip charts shouldn’t be used. I was successful in my request—but what about all the other kids, with special needs or not, who are subject to the public display of humiliation? We need to find a new way.

Now, I’m not throwing our teachers under the bus. Most of my friends are in education, and they are extremely limited on how they can discipline children and maintain order in the classroom environment. And teachers are under so much damn pressure. Between standardized testing requirements, following some student’s IEPs (and trying to help kids who don’t have one but may need one), getting through all the required material, and dealing with administration and parent demands, teachers deserve much more pay and much less grief. Teachers are freaking saints.

Which is why I think we all deserve better. Clip charts have got to go, because they are deeply problematic for several reasons.

1. Clip charts don’t allow kids to be kids.

We all have bad days, no matter our age. And it’s ridiculous to display those days on a chart for everyone else in the class to see. We need to teach kids to acknowledge and work through their feelings instead of shaming them for being human. What’s ironic is that as adults, we’re allowed to joke about our loathing of Mondays and saying, “It’s 5:00 somewhere, right?” — but our kids don’t get the same opportunity to have a tough day. It’s not okay.

2. Clip charts humiliate.

Clip charts are the dunce cap of our time. When I was in school, you didn’t want your name written on the board. And then those dreaded check marks next to it. Three check marks, and we were sent to the principal. Newsflash—these simply didn’t work. They humiliated the kids who cared and had zero impact on the kids who didn’t. Taryn Anderson, former educator and mom of a child with special needs, told Scary Mommy that the other issue is that any person can walk into the classroom and immediately discover who the “bad kids” are—further humiliating the child—because of course, “bad kids” are treated differently than “good kids.”

3. Clip charts encourage peer competition and judgment.

On one hand, we teach children to be kind to everyone, no matter what. Then on the other hand, the public display of judgment encourages kids to compete and judge one another for behavior. Kids are labeled as “bad” or “good”—by the teacher—and then this bleeds into peer relationships and interactions. Yes, there’s such a thing as healthy competition, but clip charts don’t encourage that. We’re not talking about a friendly game of kickball. We shouldn’t be assigning kids as losers and winners in the classroom setting.

4. Clip charts intimidate and are counter-productive.

You might be thinking, isn’t the point of a clip chart to motivate students to behave? Well, yes. But for kids who struggle with perfectionism and anxiety—as well as perseveration which is common in children with ADHD and autism—behavioral clip charts can intimidate the child. So much that they can become paralyzed by the fact that their clip was moved down. Essentially, they get stuck on the clip chart and are not longer learning the material, such as the case for my child. These charts paralyze the child so they aren’t succeeding.

5. Clip charts lose their effectiveness.

Anderson told Scary Mommy that she used clip charts in her early years of teaching, and she soon noticed that they lost their effectiveness. She found that she stopped moving the clips since “they did nothing to motivate my students.” Why is that? She added, “The reward at the end also does nothing for intrinsic motivation and instead relies on extrinsic factors to motivate the students.” She also noted that because the charts are too abstract for some kids, they simply weren’t effective for class behavioral control.

6. Clip charts are time consuming.

The time spent moving clips up and down could be better spent utilizing a reward system, positively affirming the kids’ good choices, or, you know, actual teaching and learning. A reward system can be equally as problematic as a clip chart if not well-planned and administered, but at least it focuses on encouraging and uplifting rather than calling out and shaming students.

So clip charts are problematic, what are schools supposed to do? I think the answer is to be proactive rather than reactive.

For one, our kids need more recess–and taking away recess for bad behavior needs to end. Play is a learning opportunity, and recess gives children the opportunity for socialization with peers and movement. Taking recess time away from energetic kids makes zero sense. Kids were made to move, not sit still and be quiet for extended periods of time. There’s a reason our parents told us when we were growing up to go outside and not come in until the sun went down.

Another focus should be on better identifying children with special needs and getting them a 504 or IEP to meet their needs. A 504 provides a student with a disability with accommodations so they have an equal opportunity to learn alongside their peers. An IEP provides accommodations and specialized instruction. Letting children with disabilities struggle month and after month and year after year is setting them up to hate school, to disrupt the classroom, and to not meet their potential.

Finally, my years in the adoption community and learning about how a child’s brain works has taught me that some techniques work way better than punishment. Positive reinforcement, assistance with problem solving skills, the chance for a do-over (to do the right thing and in the right way), and connection—such as eye contact and conversation — can go a long way in helping students individually succeed and then, collectively succeed.

I’m not saying our children are angels who never misbehave. Not every child has special needs. I absolutely believe in holding children accountable for their actions. They need to make amends and try again. Ditching the clip charts doesn’t mean students get a free pass to be disrespectful, hurtful, or menacing.

Ditching the clip charts does mean that instead of punishing a child for their “why” — the reason behind what looks like misbehavior — requires us to discover and then address the child’s unmet need. Trying to punish or humiliate the need out of the child never works. With some tweaks, everyone could be a whole lot happier.

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