We have many thoughts and ideas about behavior charts, most of which would not surprise our long-time readers. While perhaps well-intentioned, behavior charts can cause anxiety, shame, a loss of intrinsic motivation and can increase stress behaviors.
I remember the frustration behavior charts caused my son and our family. He would come home from school with the color-coded behavior chart, often crumbled up, torn into pieces, sometimes taped back together, or hidden in his backpack. Think about the concept: the expectation is that a child will track their behavior throughout the day on a printed behavior chart (or on a digital app). Each time they do something wrong or don’t meet an expectation, the child is expected to color it red or orange or give themselves a low score. They are likely reminded that their behavior didn’t meet the expectations and may be reminded that now they won’t earn a prize or incentive – they didn’t earn it. If the child wasn’t already upset and dysregulated, I am sure they are now. What is the behavior chart communicating to the child? Often, the message is that I am a “bad” kid. Children may begin to feel shame, anxiety, and low self-worth. To make things worse, we expect the child to take the behavior chart home to share with their parents or caregiver and they will likely suffer more consequences.
Imagine, as an adult, you had to carry a behavior chart all day. Sounds fun, huh? After each work assignment, you reviewed the chart with your supervisor in front of your co-workers and were instructed to assess your behavior and performance. Maybe you believe you did a great job, but then your supervisor questions your evaluation and suggests that you could have done better. Your co-workers hear the conversation and know you are having a “red day.” After work, you are required to take the sheet home and share it with others. How are you feeling about yourself? Are you excited to come back to work tomorrow?
Today, we are looking at an example of a behavior chart (below) submitted by a community member from a public elementary school.
Ask the Experts
We contacted several national experts in the field and asked them to review the behavior chart and the accompanying directions and share their thoughts. So, let’s hear what the experts had to say about this behavior-tracking chart.
J. Stuart Ablon, PhD
Founder and Director
When you look at the description of the family role in this behavior plan, it talks about not putting pressure on your child but encouraging them to make good choices in their classroom. That language reminds me how many people still believe that behaving well is simply a choice and that behavior is determined just by whether people want to make the right or good choice. When we use that language, we reinforce that notion with kids so that they come to believe that if they have difficulty managing their behavior, it’s simply that they are making the wrong choice. Who would want to make the wrong choice? The most important thing for us to keep in mind is that behavior is not simply a choice; it is only a choice when you have the skills to be able to meet the expectations that are in front of you.
My concern with traditional behavior plans these days is less the fact that they’re rather ineffective for those to whom they’re most applied, but actually how harmful they can be because they teach kids that we, smart adults, think that the root of the problem is that they’re not trying hard enough or why else would we be trying to motivate them to behave better?
My grandfather taught me that if you give a dog a name, eventually, it’ll answer to it. If you treat kids like they are unmotivated and not trying hard enough, they will begin to internalize that view of themselves.
The reality is that some kids can meet expectations much easier than others because they have the skills to do so. It’s the kids for whom we are designing these behavior plans who are precisely the kids who struggle with the skills needed to handle these expectations in the first place. So we’re barking up the wrong tree, and we’re also sending these kids the wrong message.
The missing piece here is skills. If you’re going to have any effective behavior intervention plan, it needs to address what’s giving rise to the challenging behavior in the first place – skill, not will. What we should be assessing is not how hard a child is trying to meet expectations but what skills they are struggling with that are leading to them having a hard time meeting those expectations. Then, the behavior plan needs to be oriented around not motivating the child to behave better but rather helping them build the skills they need to handle those expectations better, and doing that collaboratively. You can’t just tell kids what they need to do better and expect them to do better; skills need to be taught and practiced.
Another important point is that these types of behavior plans, and people don’t like to be as blunt about this, but they involve adults trying to leverage the power that we have, the power differential between us and kids, to try to manipulate students to behave differently. Using power and control to manipulate a student’s behavior is not how you form a helping relationship with a kid, and it also eats away at the very things that we know facilitate internal drive in kids. When we try to motivate kids with external reinforcers, it decreases internal drive. When you think about what fosters internal drive, it’s kids feeling successful, feeling some sense of autonomy, some sense of connectedness. Using behavior charts is the opposite of fostering autonomy.
Dr. Lori Desautels
Butler University’s College of Education
Behavior-focused charts and protocols only look at behaviors through the lens of intentionality! We are feeling and sensing creatures who often carry our adversities and trauma through implicit preverbal memories. These memories do not feel or look like memories. They are reactions, and often terrifying reactions.
Trauma logic from students is misunderstood, and again, we are punishing reactions to environments, sensory activators, and people who signal cues of threat or unfamiliarity. This is not conscious, but education as a system lives inside a cognitive-centric world, and we often automatically attribute ‘behaviors’ to cognitive states such as intentionality, entitled, disrespectful, oppositional, and defiant.
Trauma logic is defined as the protective and survival instincts arising from a nervous system living with toxic stress. From this perspective, it is logical not to trust adults at school if every adult in your developing years has mistreated or neglected your biological needs. It is logical to run from a space where you fear a tone of voice or look on someone’s face. It is logical to yell, fight, and defend yourself if your perceived survival is at stake.
If we do not begin reaching beneath behaviors, understanding that many children carry in early imprints from developing years filled with chronic unpredictability, isolation, and a nervous system that is constantly scanning the environment for safety and connection, we will continue these worn out belief systems that all challenging behaviors are crying out for attention and are in need of harsher consequences.
From the words of Dr. Nicholas Long and Dr. Larry Brendtro, “In any discussion about punishment – whether for the troublesome student or in the form of retribution for a violent youth – one finds enthusiastic support from many adults. What sustains the antiquated practice of punishment in the face of all scientific evidence to the contrary? What societal values and personal theories anchor our culture below the waterline of reason in this realm of human experience? What thinking errors are used to uphold the belief that harsh punishment is effective in fighting defiance and delinquency in our own kids?” (Brendtro & Long, 1997, p. 130)
Connie Persike M.S., CCC-SLP
At first glance, a chip-based behavior chart might seem like a tried-and-true method of supporting classroom behavior. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll quickly find that there’s more to the story.
Undoubtedly crafted with the best of intentions, these systems have serious negative ramifications.
Here are just a few of the reasons why educators need to reconsider such approaches:
- Risk of Stigmatization: The public removal of chips can result in negative long-term consequences. This action not only singles out students but can repeatedly subject the same individuals to feelings of shame, thereby affecting their self-perception, self-esteem, and peer relationships.
- Addressing Symptoms, Not Causes: This behavior chart doesn’t delve into the underlying reasons for a student’s actions. Behavior is multi-faceted, and without addressing root causes, any intervention remains superficial and fleeting at best.
- Ambiguity in Rules: Rules such as “Listen and learn” or “Be kind and caring” sound nice, but they are open to interpretation. Each student might understand these differently. Punishments based on broad rules can feel inconsistent, confusing, and unfair.
- Over-reliance on External Rewards: Heavy emphasis on external incentives, like choosing from a treasure chest, can stifle the development of intrinsic motivation. While rewards might show short-term success, intrinsic motivation remains more sustainable in developing long-term behavioral change. To read more on this subject, check out The Dark Side of Rewards.
- Lack of Individual Consideration: A generic system doesn’t account for an individual student’s needs and differences. This oversight becomes even more glaring when considering our neurodivergent students.
Stacy G. York Nation, LCSW
Go Be You
The dilemma with consequences and reward charts is that we are making the assumption that students, of all ages, have the brain development to actually understand the cause and effect of their behaviors. We know that the ability to understand this lives in the cortex area of the brain. The cortex does not fully develop until 25-30 years old.
Asking students, especially elementary students, to engage in “good choices” and not make “poor choices” does not support healthy child development and is not brain informed.
We serve students better when we provide repetitions and practice for social interactions and engage in collaborative practices to assist students in emotional regulation.
A Better Way Forward
So, are behavior charts a helpful strategy or harmful practice? We believe that they are a misguided and harmful practice. It’s time to ditch behavior charts, as many have started to do with their clip charts. There are far better ways to help children than behavior sheets, rewards, and consequences. Many of the common approaches in our schools are rooted in behaviorism and are failing our children. We need to shift our perspective and our practices. We recommend trauma-informed, neuroscience-aligned, relationship-driven, neurodiversity-affirming, and collaborative approaches. There are far better alternatives. It is time to reframe our perspective, awareness, actions, and relationships and do better.