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Behavior Charts for Kids: Do They Work?

 By Traci Esposito

Sorry Johnny, but you’re going to have to move your color to red. That’s no recess for you.

Mia, if you don’t clean your plate you won’t get your sticker for tonight.

Ryker, you are going to lose all your points today if you don’t clean up right now!

Do any of those sound familiar? If you have children at home, of any age, it is a safe bet to say that you have encountered some type of behavior management system, whether through trial and error in the home, or something your kids’ teachers implemented. There are many varieties out there, but we will group them into a common term known as a behavior chart.

What is a Behavior Chart?

At its core, a behavior chart is a chart that tracks behavior and is meant to create rewards and punishments based on said behavior. Seems simple enough, and it’s probably been used on you and/or by you at some point. Let’s review some common types of behavior charts:

  • Color-coded behavior charts
  • These can be a stoplight system or a rainbow of colors. Typically, kiddos start at green, or a neutral color in the middle of the chart, and their “marker” (a magnet or clothespin that holds their name) is moved up or down to track their behavior throughout the day.
  • Sticker behavior charts
  • grid-like chart that holds space for stickers to track desirable choices leading up to an earned reward after so many stickers, similar to a potty incentive chart.
  • Point-based behavior charts
  • This is a step up from a sticker chart and tracks points for desirable (or undesirable) behavior. Points can be turned into rewards, or in some cases, allowance.

Many teachers find success using some sort of behavior chart as a tracking system for all students, and parents typically appreciate this as it’s a quick and easy way to communicate about the day by posing the question, “What color were you today” or “Did you earn your sticker today?” Some teachers have probably figured out excellent ways to use this type of tracking system with discretion, caution, and empathy. Unfortunately, all too often, that is not the case.

Many behavior chart systems are well intended, and have external benefits that lure adults towards using them because:

  • They guide children towards firm and clear boundaries.
  • They set up clear expectations. 
  • They offer a sense of order and discipline. 
  • They give caretakers the idea of control. 
  • They create a visual tracker.

But, internally, behavior charts are not capable of creating a lasting behavioral change. Students who are often “on red” switch from one type of “red” behavior to another. Others find success in sticking to the expectations of one classroom and one teacher, but it does not directly transfer to another - they are learning to fit the parameters of an adult to avoid punishment rather than amending the internal cause of the misbehavior. Long-term, something just doesn’t add up.

Why a Behavior Chart Does Not Work

Behavior charts are rooted in both positive and negative reinforcement, tracking behaviors in order to ultimately shift them (although it doesn’t always work that way). Sticker or incentive charts might be used to track positive choices in order to earn a reward or a positive consequence. Color-coded charts track both desired and undesired behaviors and therefore assign positive and/or negative consequences. “Good” colors end up with positive remarks, praise, and sometimes rewards while “bad” colors end up with scolding, and sometimes, actual punishment. It’s a bit like training a dog - “good dogs” who sit and settle when told to get praise and treats, while “bad dogs” who bark or mark get scolded. 

Essentially, parenting and managing classrooms with behavior charts reduce humans to the level of a trainee. It devalues their emotional needs and underestimates their abilities. Children need a lot more than “good job” or “bad job” in order to navigate their behaviors, emotions, and their place in a family or classroom setting. And certainly, we want more for them than to simply comply with a command.

Behavior charts set the expectation that mistakes are closely tracked and punished rather than communicating that mistakes help us learn and grow. And this is unfortunate because, the truth is, none of us are perfect, and our missteps do not define us. Because behavior charts focus on the child being either "good" or "bad" or behaving desirably or not, they rob children of the information needed to modify and learn from their behavior. Behavior charts take those chances away

What to use Instead of a Behavior Chart

For some teachers, it might be really hard to imagine a world where you don’t use some sort of tracking system for behavior management. In fact, some administrators require it. We hear you, and understand the value of tracking behavior in order to communicate with parents and document disruptive behavior. 

At the same time, the tracking of this behavior does not need to be done with a very public, and more often than not, humiliating visual system. A teachers-eyes-only notebook to track mild behaviors versus unsafe disruptions would allow teachers to see which students are acting out as well as how, when, and why. Trends might become evident and that is helpful data when students are being evaluated for special services or when parents want more information. 

The positive parenting approach does not mean all behavior is desirable and without consequences. It also does not leave children free to repeat mistakes that are harmful, hurtful, and/or disruptive. Instead, it creates a system of connection and safety to hold space for these perfectly imperfect humans who are still finding their way. Our job is to guide them along their path, not steer them into the safety zone without a chance to grow into their place in the world.

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