My daughter started her first day of fifth grade this week with a wonderful new teacher and, to my delight, the absence of one of the most annoyingly ubiquitous “tools” in modern classrooms today: the Behavior Chart.
You know what I’m talking about, right? Those color-coded charts meant to represent your child’s level of behavior that day. If kids are “good,” they get rewarded with a good color. If they’re “bad,” they’re punished with a bad color — which often accompanies some type of actual consequence.
Four of Maxine’s five elementary school teachers — including her fourth-grade teacher — used behavior charts of one type or another. And, depending on their implementation, they have ranged from being completely useless to damn near abusive.
I’m certainly not the first to suggest outlawing behavior charts, but — after seeing them at work — I am firmly in that camp. Here’s why.
1. They’re demeaning.
Rewards are for training pets, not people. You give your dog a command, he obeys and you give him a treat. Why? Because dogs have small brains. They can think, of course, but they can’t reason or talk or make rational decisions, which means we humans have to communicate with them in relatively primitive ways. Elementary school kids, on the other hand, have very large brains. Sure, they’re brains are still developing, but they also are able to read and write and reason and think very complex thoughts. Rewards charts underestimate children’s abilities — and, I would argue, their humanity.
2. They make teachers a figure of judgment, not empathy.
Treating behavior as “good” or “bad” is part of an antiquated paradigm that doesn’t take into consideration a child’s temperament, developmental stage or emotional needs. When a child disrupts class in some way, there is a reason for that. It’s because they are a kid. Now I get it: Teachers don’t have the time to sit and empathize with every child; they are very busy and have two dozen other kids to look after. But just because a child’s behavior isn’t permitted doesn’t make it “bad” — or the child “bad.” And when you judge behavior as such, you pit kid-against-kid in the most subjective way. Do we honestly think that keeping score of how “good” or “bad” a child is being in any given moment does a damn bit of good? I mean, seriously.
3. They encourage extrinsic motivation.
What parents want is for their children to be intrinsically motivated, right? We want them to be responsible because it feels good to be responsible — not because responsibility gets them a cookie. Behavior charts do nothing but teach our kids that the approval of others is what matters. It becomes all about what the child “gets” from the teacher rather than what the child “gets” from himself. It doesn’t matter if the child thinks she is doing a good job keeping her impulse-control issues in check that day; what matters is what the teacher thinks. That’s classic extrinsic motivation, and it’s a classic self-esteem killer.
4. They shame children.
Behavior charts are embarrassing for children. And that’s kind of the point. When you interrupt your teaching to ask a kid to “change their color” — you are subjecting them to public embarrassment. Behavior charts are not private matters between teachers and students; they are public reminders of your screw-ups, and that’s shaming kids on purpose.
5. They’re hypocritical.
If kids are put in the position of being their very best selves every moment of every day, why aren’t teachers and administrators (and parents, for that matter) held to the same standard? What happens when the teacher comes to school in a bad mood? What happens when she snaps at a kid, or forgets to give out an assignment? Where is the behavior chart for the teacher?
6. They’re unnecessary.
I can hear a lot of principals now, saying: “What else are teachers supposed to do to keep order in their classrooms?” As though behavior charts are somehow necessary. But they’re not. There are plenty of alternatives to behavior charts — far more effective and far less damaging (like this one, for example) — if only teachers and administrators took the time to explore them.