Behavior charts have been widely used over the past thirty years and, at first glance, they seem like an effective way to reform behavior. They are ordered and structured, and let's face it, Pinterest lures us with thousands upon thousands of bright, printable options with the promise of organizing misbehavior right out of our children.
For some children, especially those who are visual learners and/or those with unique developmental challenges, using charts to track moods and behaviors can be a game-changer for parents, a tangible expression of what can otherwise seem abstract or challenging to remember. What we will examine in this article is not the charting of behaviors alone, but the punitive and/or reward-based ways adults often use behavior charts with children.
The vast majority of behavior management charts are tied to a system of rewards and punishments where desirable behaviors and compliance are rewarded by the adult and actions deemed undesirable are met with punishment and often shame. Clip-downs, checkmarks, and the all-too-familiar “traffic light chart” are used to tell children they are either good (green), on thin-ice (yellow), or bad (red).
While behavior charts may be effective in achieving the short-term goal of obedience, this approach to discipline misses the goal of building the executive functioning part of the brain where life-long skills such as personal awareness, empathy, impulse control, and problem-solving are cultivated.
Four Ways Behavior Charts Are Ineffective
- They fail to get underneath the behavior. When a child misbehaves and is asked to clip their name from green to red, typically one of two outcomes occur - either the child temporarily ceases the undesired behavior or hides it. And while on the surface it may feel like the immediate problem has stopped, behavior charts rob us the opportunity to understand the why beneath the child’s actions. Like a band-aid, they mask the root cause (the unmet need) and address the symptom (the behavior).
- They enforce short-term obedience instead of long-term learning and change. Behavior charts teach children that mistakes are unsafe and those who do not follow the rules and directions will be punished. And while the use of fear and shame may create compliant children in the short term, it fails to actually teach the skills we are asking of our children - to notice, name, and share their emotions, and manage their bodies.
- They focus on external motivation. One common thread that binds most behavioral management charts and systems is that they operate on extrinsic motivation, the sort that lives outside (rather than inside) our children and/or ourselves. Extrinsic motivation inspires a “transactional mindset” instead of a relational one, conditioning children to expect a reward for their efforts, and perhaps even more detrimental, preventing children from experiencing intrinsic motivation - doing something because it is personally rewarding. So instead of sharing the toy because they got a sticker on the sticker chart or because they feared punishment such as a time-out, they did so because they wanted to. They were empathetic because they chose it. They participated because they felt empowered to do so.
- They create separation. Punishments and rewards can create dissonance in homes and schools, creating a culture where children with consistent positive behavior are resented by their siblings/peers, and those who struggle with behavior are defined by it. So much so, that the child labeled “bad” often begins to lean into that role and accepts this as their identity. Have you noticed that most of the time the child who is “on red” today is the same one who was “on red” yesterday and the day before? And is likely to be “on red” all year long?
Let’s take a closer look at how behavior charts affect both the compliant and the defiant or strong-willed child:
Behavior Charts And The Compliant Child
Say you have a compliant child who on the surface sits still, listens attentively, and her name is always on the top of the green traffic light chart. You may think behavior charts work well for her, right?
Well, it depends on your definition of “works”.
While behavior charts tend to reward children who are already cooperative and have regulation skills, they can also be a disservice, too.
Often, below the surface of these well-behaved children is fear. Fear to be imperfect. Fear of making a mistake. Fear that her name will one day find itself on the dreaded red. And most prominently, fear of being labeled “bad”.
Children begin to foster the idea that when they do bad, they are bad. And so they must remain good - aka compliant - to be good.
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. This teaches children to overlook their own intuition and to seek approval from outside of themselves.
And sometimes, so much mental energy is encompassed by fear and compliance, that it leaves little energy for the child to focus on the lesson - emotional, behavioral, or academic - that is being taught.
Behavior Charts And The Defiant Child
Now, imagine being called out to publicly move your name from the “good” to the “bad” slot.
Shame not only increases our heartbeats, but it increases stress and anxiety, too.
This negative reinforcement confirms the child’s worst fears - that they are bad because they did bad, and that their parent/teacher doesn’t like them.
Rather than placing attention and energy on getting underneath the misbehavior, behavior charts shame children into compliance, and at the same time, dis-incentivize the very children they are intended to motivate, namely strong-willed children and/or children who lack the social-emotional skills necessary to meet the desired behavior being monitored by the chart.
Emotional punishment is just as detrimental to the developing brain as physical pain. And for children who are still forming their capacity for impulse control, problem-solving, reasoning, empathy and personal insight - and especially for children who have experienced any level of trauma - behavior management charts can be traumatizing and send a child further into the fight, flight, or freeze modes that are wired for survival and safety.
What To Do Instead Of Behavior Charts
As parents and educators, we can choose to become a figure of empathy rather than one of judgment, recognizing misbehavior as an unmet need. The best way to reform behavior is to model and teach that of which we are asking, and when mistakes become safe, we help strengthen the parts of the brain responsible for emotional regulation.
The goal is to meet each child where they are in a ritualistic and playful way to make connection a habit. When we do this, it sends the message to our children that they are not bad but rather they are feeling bad and that they are in need.
By helping children notice and understand their emotions and behaviors in healthy ways, we inspire intrinsic motivation and nurture their brain wiring and relationships. This can be done in homes and classrooms alike with educational tools and resources.
The problem is not the sticker or the chart. As with any tool, it is all about intent.
For example, Generation Mindful’s Time-In ToolKit, a set of social-emotional learning tools that replaces time-outs, includes animal stickers and a colorful chart of positive mantras for kids, but the tools are used with children in daily, playful ways as neither a punishment nor a reward.
The social-emotional learning activities that make up the Time-In ToolKit are used to nurture connection, not control, and to build a growth mindset in children and adults alike.
Time-ins are not something an adult does as a reward to manipulate children into doing something else (aka a bribe). Rather, the toolkit uses cards, stickers, posters, and games to build trust and improve emotional regulation. Eye contact, listening, and positive attention are the byproducts of using the time-in approach with children. Time-ins are moments children can feel proud rather than ashamed, as they typically feel when their color has moved from green to red.
We lead and guide most powerfully by example. When we, as adults, say goodbye to time-outs and behavioral management charts, we can learn to embrace mistakes for the learning these “teaching moments” bring, growing in our ability to accept not only who our children are, but who we are as well.