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.
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.
HAVING YOUR NAME MOVED TO RED.
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. Are these systems 1) helping children learn and 2) 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 ARE A BEHAVIOR CHARTS?
A Behavior chart is a system that comes in the form of charts, check marks or symbols to visually represent the behavior of children and their achievements. They can be used both for good and bad behavior - good actions can be rewarded and bad actions usually carry some sort of shaming.
Behavior charts can be used to shape the behavior of children by using 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.
IS A BEHAVIOR CHART EFFECTIVE?
The idea of how a behavior chart can regulate the behavior of children is essentially a good idea. However, in practice, it can provide results that are far from satisfactory.
Students who are doing well and who are sociable are usually the ones who get the most benefit out of a behavior chart as they get rewarded for something which they have already picked up as a habit. However, what about children who are not doing so well in school or are shy. Instead of modeling their behavior, a behavioral chart puts them on the spot, teaching them only to be obedient instead of how to behave well. This approach is understandably very stressful for children and can even lead to bullying just because they are labeled by a chart that does nothing to help them grow.
The idea of how a behavior chart can regulate the behavior of children is essentially a good idea. However, in practice, it can provide results that are far from satisfactory.
Let’s go back to the red dot chart. While it is meant to do well and motivate students to reach the green dot it has, as already pointed out, negative effects on some students. Imagine doing something only marginally wrong and being publicly shamed for it. This is especially wrong if the child is asked to partake by sticking their name on the red dot which is not something that is unheard of happening in the US classrooms.
It’s also strange how little it is discussed how behavior charts can impact those who are doing well in a negative way. Sure, in some cases, behavior charts serve as validation but they can be silently fueling different behaviors that can only become more exposed later in life.
While being motivated to do well in certain activities and receiving a reward for doing well is in no way a bad thing, excess is not encouraged. And that’s not something behavioral charts are known to be able to provide as they aren’t responsive.
Being constantly rewarded for what is basically your way of doing things can be fueling a narcissistic behavior and also make it difficult for children and students to cope with failures and defeats. The impression that they are good at everything they do can prove to be very damaging later on when the child is grown up and starts tackling life goals.
Essentially, what a behavioral chart lacks here is a way to be more responsive and a way to offer children the opportunity to learn how to adapt and overcome any obstacle in order to achieve their goals.
Another thing to consider is the fact that children don’t really understand behavioral charts in the way that we understand them. Those charts don’t explain why certain activities are good while others are bad. In the broadest sense, a bad action that a child did might be the product of other earlier activities that lead up to this. So, by placing the name of a child on the red dot we avoid properly communicating with them about their behavior.
But if a behavior chart doesn’t help differentiate good and bad behavior and if it doesn’t stimulate growth, why are we still thinking it’s a great strategy. It’s mostly because people tend to stick with what they have even if they don’t fully understand it. We focus on the good, on the empowerment and the reward system that benefits some, while ignoring the bad that affects others.
CAN BEHAVIOR CHARTS WORK FOR TODDLERS?
A behavior chart may work for toddlers in some scenarios but it’s important to understand that a toddler might not have the cognitive ability to fully comprehend what you are trying to accomplish. And apart from the challenge of trying to convey what the chart is for, by using a chart you might indirectly support bad behavior which the chart doesn’t address.
Think of the following scenario: your toddler is always doing well and they get their little stars for achievements. You might think that the behavior charts work perfectly for you however what will happen when your toddler throws their first tantrum?
If your child is constantly receiving rewards for good behavior they might start thinking that they can do no wrong and that they constantly deserve awards. When they do something bad, you will have trouble explaining to them why what they did was wrong and chances are they will not listen or care. All they want is their reward.
As a parent of a toddler, you can still use behavioral charts if you want to but stay mindful of the problems that a behavioral chart has.
INTRINSIC MOTIVATION AND ZERO HUMILIATION.
The thread that binds most 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 a 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 lead to drilling and filling.
RAISING YOUR CHILD DIFFERENTLY THAN WE WERE RAISED.
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 most 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 STICKERS 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 want 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. However, 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.
HOW TO ADVOCATE FOR YOUR CHILD.
Back to Katie. The heartbreaking morning tears had to stop. The shoving had to stop. Max had to go back to 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 “on 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 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.
SO, HOW DO WE REWARD GOOD BEHAVIOR?
First, we can define what you want to reward your children with. Don’t think of rewards only as material things - they can be social and emotional rewards that will have an impact on the child’s character.
Social rewards are instant and they teach your child how to be affectionate with others. When your child does something good, don’t hesitate to reward them with a hug, a kiss or a pat on the back. Such rewards build a rewarding parent-child relationship.
You can also reward your children by spending more time with them. Activities such as playing with them, reading together or simply cooking something nice together will have a positive impact on your child.
Clearly, your time as a parent is limited, especially if you work a full-time job but you can still find extra 10-15 minutes that you can spend with them as a reward.
Another good way of rewarding your children is by taking them somewhere special as a reward for something they have done, for example, a high mark in school. You can choose to take your kids to a fun event nearby or even take them to the movies if there is something that they want to see.
Naturally we want to motivate our kids intrinsically and it goes far beyond allowing your kid to snack on something sugary if they wash their teeth regularly. Think of fun activities that you can do together that offer clear benefits so that your children can learn that good things come to those that work towards their goals.
Material rewards are as good as they are bad, much like behavioral charts. When you provide material rewards to your child for every goal they achieve they might think that monetary compensation is the highest affirmation in life.
If you want to spoil your child a bit go ahead however don’t do it often. I’m going to repeat something I’ve already said - moderation is key. But so is balance, so let’s think of other ways you can reward your children.
As a reward for good behavior, you can cook your child their favorite meal, buy them that bicycle that they’ve always wanted, pay for a family vacation, help them start up a hobby they might be interested in such as music or help them learn new things. Choose what you use as a reward for your child based on their personality and your own abilities. But be wary of the side-effects the rewards might carry.
For instance, psychologists argue that if your child associates rewards for good behavior with food, especially high-calorie food, they might feel like they can to reward themselves after successfully carrying out a task. Such behavior through adulthood can lead to obesity and health problems, so even if you reward your children with food, make sure you point out that eating healthy is still important and that they can start taking care of themselves as a young age.
But what about money? Is it okay to give a child cash as a reward? Rewarding your child with money can be a good thing as it can teach them the importance of money and how difficult it can be to earn enough. Keep the amount you give them low but allow them to express their thoughts about it and even encourage them to negotiate terms.
If you want to start giving them money at a young age the rule of thumb is to give them a dollar for every year they have lived. If your child is 5 years old, then their allowance might be $5. This can also help them practice counting, adding and subtracting. Letting them be in charge of their small allowance will teach them that they cannot always have everything they want and that often they can choose what they are going to get.
HOW TO REWARD YOUR TODDLER?
Psychologists worldwide praise rewards as an effective strategy for teaching behavior. Young children do not completely understand the concept of reward so first, they can be taught how to connect with other people and be emphatic.
Words of encouragement and a kiss or a hug are the best rewards for a toddler. Reading a bedtime story to them is also a very good reward for your kid as you will get to bond with them and promote good feelings.
When it comes to material rewards, young children don’t have a fully developed concept for value. Avoid getting them anything that would frustrate you if it ends up broken or missing. If you get frustrated with your toddler how they treated their reward that reward might get associated with feelings of frustration or even fear.
Toddlers respond best to immediate rewards. First, they can learn how rewards work and as they get older, you can shift their focus. You can to teach your children that it is not always about the reward but about building strong relationships with fellow humans and about compassion.
TEACH YOUR CHILD TO RECOGNIZE EMOTION
Emotional intelligence is important and can be developed from an early age. If you sit down with your child and explain to them how emotions work, they will not be able to understand the concept you are describing.
Children at a young age do not have the concept of abstract things so it will be difficult for them to wrap their heads around what you are saying.
However, you can teach your children emotional intelligence through playful activities. One such game is Feelings Bingo. With this game, your children will be able to recognize emotions in others and understand how to help other people if they are sad or angry.
Your children can also learn how to describe the emotions they are feeling through the Feeling Faces poster. They will start recognizing that the human emotion range is wide and under each main category, there are also other, more specific ways of how a person can feel.
CREATE A CALMING PLACE
Children can get stressed and agitated just like you can. Their problems might seem funny to you, but to them, it’s as serious as it can get. Creating a calming place where they can de-stress and relax is really effective.
The Time-In ToolKit can help you do that in a very engaging and entertaining way. You can teach your children that being sent to their personal space is not a punishment but actually time off for their own sake. This allows your kids to get into the habit of being more patient and to practice self-care.
Truth be told, being a parent is not the easiest thing in the world, and we are all on this journey together. You can sign up to our Positive Parenting course and learn which approach to take at different stages of your child’s development.
Generation Mindful creates tools, toys, and programs that nurturing emotional intelligence, connecting the generations playfully. Click here to join our free community of parents, educators, and therapists. We’ll send you four free gifts to welcome you and to help you teach children social and emotional skills.
PeaceMakers mindfulness cards and the Time-In ToolKit help children understand their emotions and talk about their feelings.
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