Why Classroom Behavior Charts Need To Stop

by Jessica Smock
Originally Published: 
A crying girl wearing a flower shirt, blue shorts and a pink backpack sitting on a blue chair in cla...
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When a classmate of mine from high school posted a note on my Facebook page about her child’s “behavior” warning, my first reaction was to gasp. Was this for real? Did someone actually write this about a kindergartner? My next reaction was to get angry.

This slip was sent home with my friend’s 5-year-old daughter Kate because she had “misbehaved” in kindergarten by playing with her shoelaces during circle time, and doing other kindergarten-y things like stomping her feet. Kate was handed the “naughty note” by her teacher and humiliated in front of her classmates. For doing something that is entirely age-appropriate and not disruptive, like wiggle around. (Kate is not her real name. Kate’s mom wants privacy for her daughter.)

As a parent, I can’t bear the thought of this type of shaming ever happening to either of my children — especially in their classroom, where they should feel safe and secure.

As a former educator and education researcher, I am outraged that practices like this are still happening in today’s classrooms, despite so much research that they are ineffective and can harm children.

These types of disciplinary notes, color cards, sticker charts, and public behavior charts need to be taken out of all classrooms. Here’s why:

They shame children.

They are public reminders that you have been disobedient. Eventually, after days and weeks of constant reminders of their misbehaviors, kids can start to think of themselves as “bad” kids. Kate — if she keeps getting these notes sent home to her parents — might start to think of herself not as a normal kid who squirms and gets bored during circle time but as a “bad” kid who is disliked by her teacher.

They do nothing to address the underlying reasons why a child might be misbehaving.

Much of the time a child might not even understand the specific reasons for the discipline, other than “being bad.” They do nothing to teach kids why they should listen and how to behave appropriately in developmentally appropriate ways.

They can damage the relationship between a teacher and her students.

Instead of being a trusted and empathetic partner in learning, the teacher is a person who punishes and is feared.

They promote extrinsic motivation, rather than intrinsic.

It teaches children that it’s the judgment of others that matters — what others think of you — rather than your personal goals. As a writer and former teacher Galit Breen explained to me, “What they don’t teach is an intrinsic want or need to be the kind of student who works hard, helps others, and goes above and beyond simply because these are great ways to be. Without that intrinsic drive, the short-term impact of the system is, well, short, and the long-term impact is minimal at best.”

They can cause anxiety, stress, and depression.

Many kids begin to worry — even outside of school — about the charts and slips. They can start to feel incapable and useless. When I emailed positive parenting expert and author Rebecca Eanes to ask about her perspective on these sorts of approaches, she wrote me, “Behavior charts are humiliating to children and cause unnecessary anxiety and fear. Many kids fear having their colors or names moved and become very anxious to avoid the shame. Others embrace the “bad kid” identity these charts impose on them because they feel utterly defeated. They pretend not to care if theirs go to yellow or red, but inside, real damage is being done to their self-concepts.”

Another friend of mine confided in me that last year when her daughter was in kindergarten, her daughter would obsess and cry about the behavior chart in her classroom. Her daughter’s worries about being embarrassed in front of her friends escalated throughout the year and became so overwhelming that she didn’t want to go to school anymore.

They interrupt classroom learning time.

Teachers must spend important instructional time focused not on teaching but on filling out slips or changing colors on a behavior chart.

Finally, to me, the worst part of these types of disciplinary approaches is that they’re hypocritical, as author Heather Shumaker points out. Imagine if you had to go through a bad day — we all have them — with a behavior chart in the background. Shumaker writes, “Sometimes I think about how well we adults would do if someone erected a giant behavior chart for us during the day. Scream at the kids getting out the door in the morning (move from green to yellow); get grumpy at someone at the gas station (move from yellow to red); procrastinate and not get something done (we’re already lower than red, now we have to skip our coffee break). By 10 a.m., we might be hopelessly irredeemable.”

What can parents do? First, talk with the teacher. Get her perspective about why she’s using these approaches in her classroom. If you, as a parent, observe that a disciplinary system is not working for your kid, explain to the teacher what you’re seeing at home. You can ask if you can opt your kid out of the system and work with the teacher to come up with an alternative approach. Also, explain to your child at home that the behavior chart at school says nothing about them as a person or a student and downplay its importance.

Teaching is an incredibly difficult job. I was a teacher for more than a decade, and I get that. But being a kindergartner (or first-, second-, or third-grader) today is hard too. We shouldn’t be doing anything in our classrooms to make it harder for kids to learn, thrive, and succeed.

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