My friend Katie called me in tears last week. Her three-year-old son Max started having these new, long, weepy temper tantrums every day at preschool drop-off.
Katie had the mamma guilt blues. Why was Max getting so upset? He loved school. How could she keep leaving him like this each morning? Where did this sudden change in her son come from? After doing some sleuthing, Katie figured it out.
Max didn’t want to be “on red” again.
Katie discovered that every morning right before snack time. Max was shoving his friend Olivia and in response, his teacher was moving his name to the big red rectangle on the classroom bulletin board where his name would stay for the rest of the day. It was the scarlet letter, on repeat.
Generational Uses Of Behavior Charts
If you grew up in the United States in the last thirty years, you might remember a rainbow of behavior management systems adorning your classroom. Think sticker charts, clip-downs, color cards, blurt charts, stars, and checkmarks, all tied to a system of rewards and punishments.
You may be using a system like this with children in your home or classroom and that's okay, these things are everywhere (just head to Pinterest). But before you decide to add or to continue using behavioral management charts, let's take a closer look.
Here are two questions to ask yourself. Are these systems helping children learn? And are they having long-term positive effects, not only on children's behaviors, but on their sense of self and their mindset?
Was the preschool’s use of a behavioral management chart working for Max? Uh ... no. And it was actually not working out so well for little Olivia either, or for Max’s teacher who had to keep punishing Max for the same disruptive behavior day after day.
What Is A Behavior Chart?
Behavior charts are systems that come in the form of charts, checkmarks or similar to visually represent the behavior of children and their achievements. They can be used both for good and bad behavior - good actions should be rewarded and bad actions usually carry some sort of shaming.
Behavior charts can be used to shape the behavior of children by using a reward or punishment. By learning to do something, like for example, say please and thank you or help cleaning the table after dinner, children are expected to pick up some life-long habits.
Why Behavior Charts Are Ineffective
The thread that binds almost all behavioral management charts and systems is that they operate based on extrinsic motivation, the sort that lives outside (rather than inside) our children and/or ourselves. In the short term, using extrinsic motivation with children may seem to result in "obedience," but this often short-lived adherence to the rules comes at a cost. Extrinsic motivation inspires a “transactional mindset” instead of a relational one, conditioning children to expect a reward for their efforts, and perhaps the most detrimental of all, preventing children from experiencing another form of motivation: intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is wanting to brush your teeth because you like to eat sugary things and you want to see the "sugar-bugs" go down the drain, or because you want your teeth to be strong and healthy; or because you want to see your mom act like a crazy person when she sings that silly tooth brushing song she’s been singing every night since you were two. All of these are examples of intrinsic motivation for brushing our teeth.
Intrinsic motivation encourages you to learn something new because of the joy and pride you feel bubbling up inside yourself when you do. It’s the feeling you have in your body when you get to cross another thing off the list. The satisfaction and comfort you have in your heart when you know your efforts are helping another. Or perhaps you are encouraged intrinsically by less than pleasant natural consequences you might experience if you don’t do something. In our example above, the intrinsically motivating natural consequence to not brushing your teeth might be painful cavities that need drilling and filling.
Alternatives To Behavior Charts
I have polaroid-fuzzy memories of my fourth-grade teacher giving soliloquies about the pizza party that would only happen if everybody got their stickers. And the day we had to put our heads down on our desks for 20 minutes because Jeremy Spencer got three checks on the whiteboard.
If you have these types of memories as well, you may also remember a little voice inside yourself that said, “this doesn't feel right.” Well, it turns out, your inner voice was spot-on.
There is another way.
Though typically delivered with the best of intentions, behavioral management charts can have the undesirable side-effect of shaming children into compliance and at the same time, failing to motivate the very children they are often intended to motivate, namely strong-willed children and/or kids that lack the social-emotional skills necessary to meet the desired behavior being monitored by the chart.
Take Max for example. At age three, having his name moved “on red” each day was doing little more than confirming his own worst fears - that he was “bad” and that his teacher didn’t like him. The negative reinforcement of moving his name into the red rectangle was done publicly, in front of the class for all his peers to see, rather than placing attention and energy on getting underneath the misbehavior.
Some children are asked to clip their own names up or down to help track their behavior in real-time, a public shaming experience that can result in anxiety, not only for the child being called out but even for the compliant child who is sitting in her chair, fearing the day this might happen to her. Wanting to please, the cooperative child vows to "be good" and to do whatever it takes to avoid a similar humiliating experience herself. In this way, behavioral management systems can disempower children from having a voice and/or feeling confident enough to stand up to an authority figure that might be doing or saying things they feel are not right. Instead, punishment and reward systems encourage children to seek approval from outside themselves (parents, teachers, peers) and to make others happy over tuning in and trusting their own intuition.
For young children who are still forming their brain’s capacity for things like impulse control, reasoning, and empathy, and most especially for children who have experienced trauma, the use of behavioral management charts can actually be traumatizing. They reinforce negative core beliefs some children harbor like “I’m stupid,” “I am bad” and/or “Nobody likes me.”
As parents and educators, when we become the arbitrators of children’s behavior, we become a figure of judgment - not a figure of empathy - and that doesn’t feel good inside our bodies either.
Not All Behavior Charts Are Extrinsic Motivators
Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% pro-stickers and I have nothing against charts.
Playing with stickers (like playing with markers or Playdoh or bubbles) can intrinsically be just FUN. And charting behaviors can be rewarding, not only to children but adults as well. Data collection yields helpful and motivating statistics (how many steps did you walk today? Check your phone!), data, and vital information about our children. Think medications, mood, sleep, nutrition, and all the many other things we might need to record, review, learn from and share with others including care providers and medical professionals.
Please hear me, it’s not the charting of behaviors that I am calling into question, it is how we as adults are using this information.
When I created the Time-In ToolKit to replace behavioral management charts and time-outs, I included a poster and a set of animal stickers to help classrooms and families chart which PeaceMakers cards they had already pulled and shared. Using the stickers does not come along with any sort of punishment or reward. The simple act of connecting with others and playing serves as its own reward, ensuring that this intrinsically rewarding “get-to” experience (connection) is not turned into an extrinsically motivated “have-to” experience instead.
Behavior Charts: How To Advocate For Your Child
Back to Katie. The heartbreaking morning tears had to stop. The shoving had to stop. Max needed to get back to loving school - for everybody’s sake.
Katie decided there was only one solution: to work with the teacher directly. First, Katie and the teacher got to the bottom of why Max was hitting Olivia. They determined it was hunger and proximity. With this discovery, the inseparable friends were intentionally given some space until post snacktime, when Max’s blood sugar was on the rise and his mood was as well.
Then, the harder part: talking about the dreaded … “on red.”
In situations like this, many parents are tempted to take their complaints about schools and/or teachers to social media. Others might go directly to school leadership for solutions. But by engaging directly with the teacher privately, and in the spirit of partnership, Katie was able to explain how deeply having his name moved to red was affecting Max.
Has the big red rectangle been banned from Max’s classroom? Not yet, but Katie took the first step, having a respectful conversation with her son’s teacher about the negative effects of behavioral charts.
Working to replace punishment-based behavioral management systems in homes and schools around the world is playing the long game. Still, Katie did something profound. She modeled the very conflict-resolution skills she is fostering in Max. She shared her insights and needs honestly and with kindness. She listened, and she was heard. And if we each follow in these same steps, I believe that one day soon, we will get there.
The world can be a safer, more connected place for all.
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