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When Behavior Charts Don't Work, Throw Them Out!

When Behavior Charts Don't Work, Throw Them Out!

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Illustration of a trash can

Does this sound familiar? You have a student in your class who constantly has issues with something. Maybe it’s calling out, maybe it’s staying on task, or maybe it’s disturbing other students. You start each day with the hopes that today will be the day that the classroom expectations sink in, but alas, he has that same difficulty again. You give a reminder or verbal warning – maybe you even give two – but then, once again, that student repeats the behavior and heads over to turn his card/change his clip/move his button. 

Does it work? Has your student lost the desire to play with her eraser now that she is looking at her name on the “Stop and Think” section of the behavior chart? My guess is no.

In my classroom experience, when a student had to turn a card to yellow one of three things would happen: the student would feel remorseful and change her behavior, cry hysterically, or continue the behavior with no change other than a negative attitude. I found that the same students were always turning cards and that once a student had faced several yellow cards he or she was not very phased by it. Card changes came with consequences, but unless parents were concerned about daily behavior, students with behavior challenges kept having the same challenges. 

This year I took down my behavior chart – I just ripped it off the wall and threw it out. It felt amazing! After four years of teaching second grade I knew I had developed good classroom management and felt confident that I could hold my students to high expectations for behavior without the dreaded behavior chart (okay, I was a little scared). 

I had spent the summer reading about different management strategies and rule structures. I developed five concise rules that I felt encompassed all the important aspects of our classroom and school and made a sign for each rule that is posted right at the front of the room:

1. Respect yourself. Respect others.
2. Raise your hand to talk.
3. Be safe, be kind, be honest.
4. Work hard. Try your best.
5. Make our class a happy place.

We spent the first two weeks of school reviewing these rules and we continue to review them throughout the year.

One idea gleaned from my research was the idea of asking the whole class to recite a rule in lieu of calling out a student directly. This gives the whole class a quick reminder and also lets that student know, indirectly, that you would like him or her to adjust their behavior.

Does this mean that my class has run perfectly all year? Of course not! I try to stick with the idea of whole group reminders, but there will always be those students who need to be reminded individually. After giving reminders/warnings, I have had to resort to the big consequence in my class this year – the Think Letter. 

The Think Letter involves the student and I sitting down and together determining which rule he or she is having trouble with and forces the student to come up with the plan for what to do next time. Instead of telling the student what I think he should do next time, I guide him towards an idea instead. I really want it to be the student’s own plan, so that it has a better chance of success. This letter goes home and needs to come back signed by the parent the next day. In addition, I make sure to send a parent email as soon as I can after school to explain what happened in a little more detail. I knew that if I was not going to send students home with a yellow square on their behavior logs, I wanted to send them home with something to grow from.

This year I have a very challenging, yet extremely successful class where students are engaged and our classroom community thrives. Misbehaviors are managed and discussed in a constructive way with the goal of students becoming better individuals. It is my hope that this year without a behavior chart has taught them that there is more to life than earning a green or blue card – and that it is important to be a good person and “make our classroom a happy place” (rule #5).

If you have always disliked your behavior chart but weren’t sure if you could do without it, trust me, you can.


This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Deb Stahl's picture

I haven't used a behavior chart for a long time, for the reasons you outlined. They had become a time-sink in terms of clips and administering consequences, and they were undermining my relationships with the students.

I focused instead on making connections, on dealing with issues organically as they arose, and on giving kids more of a "buy in" to class harmony, and the results were amazing.

I had a brief look at things like ClassDojo but I wanted the classroom to function less on extrinsic motivation than on intrinsic, so ditched the outward rewards as well: no points, no slips of paper - all gone now.

If you want to move even further along the no-chart continuum - and really, is ClassDojo so different at its core? - I suggest looking at Alfie Kohn's and Dr. Ross Greene's work in school discipline.

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vlevans3's picture

I am a Sign Language Interpreter in an elementary school right now. The method they use is moving down a students clip when they disbehave. Like you stated, with some children this does not effect them at all. I hear some of the teachers complaining that the student still continues with the misbehavior. The Think Letter is a great idea for teachers to use. I think if is important for children to realize when they are wrong and come up with their one strategy to want to change. People can tell us as adults to do something all they want, but if we don't want the change or understand our mistake, it will not happen. The same goes for children we cant just give them a solution on how to fix the problem if they dont really understand what they did wrong or want to change for the better. When a person is able to see their mistakes and realize what they can do to fix it, then change will happen.

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Rebekah Price's picture

I love this. Especially, the "handle" the tough kids part. As a Special Education teacher, we are often thought of as behavior specialists. However, from my experience with inclusion, a lot of general educators want our knowledge when "our kids" are "acting up".

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alextobin's picture

Mandi, I see your concern with some students having trouble identifying the problem behavior and think including visual cues in addition to the whole group expectations is a great idea. I do like how the "Think Letter" allows for some self determination and the student creating their own plan of action to get back on track with behavior. If the teacher identified a target behavior and then a replacement behavior and made that a part of the "Think Letter" I think you'd have enough support for the more challenging situations. Overall, getting rid of the typical "clip chart" seems like a great idea!

Sharon Maroney's picture

Great post. So glad to hear you moved from a punishing system (the dreaded behavior chart) to a positive system - 5 positively stated expectations and the Think Letter. This change will change the whole atmosphere of your classroom. Thanks for your post.

Pamela Rowe's picture

Thank you for the post, I agree that showing student's that are on the negative path doesn't do much for their confidence to put themselves on the positive path. Positive reinforcement goes a long way and some students need a constant stream of it to move their thinking out of striving to fail to striving for success.

vlevans3's picture

Hey Rebekah,

I agree with you. It is important for general education to know also how to handle students who are not behaving appropriately. It is extremely important for them to have strategies on behavior that they can use and not be scraed to use them.

Rebekah Price's picture

Hello vlevans3,

I agree with actually teaching and guiding kids. This is especially true when establishing and maintaining expectations in our classrooms. In addition to teaching curriculum, we must teach behavior.

akjacks2's picture

I agree that it is important to teach students in those teachable moments. This is more likely to provide students with tools and experiences to learn the appropriate replacement behavior. Expectations is something that is constantly taught throughout a school year but the daily reminders or reminders during difficult times of how to correct the behavior will support the expected behaviors of the classroom.

Lee Johnson's picture

In my experience working with children and their teachers, behavior charts work great...until they don't. They work when the child has the skills to deal with the who, what, where. While the criteria is often concrete, things in the environment and their internal state change all the time. To summarize, 9/10 times, it isn't the chart that is "working."

" You start each day with the hopes that today will be the day that the classroom expectations sink in, but alas, he has that same difficulty again." One way they go wrong is they overlook skill deficits and put an emphasis on motivation.

"Card changes came with consequences, but unless parents were concerned about daily behavior, students with behavior challenges kept having the same challenges. " Another way they go wrong is that the motivation they attempt to inspire is driven by promise of consequence. Plenty of the children I have worked with have had "consequences" from parents that most of us could never dream of, and it doesn't change their behavior...even though they fear it and know it is very real and coming for them after the fact. Like a sticker chart, that fear will work when they are in a moment and place where they can deal in the environment and their internal state.

Another form of motivation is coming from shame. Especially if they are displayed for all to see like the sticks, clips, and whatnot. I'm guessing most teachers would never want to work in an environment where their performance evaluations were hung on the outside of their classroom doors. It may motivate us ...but only in a moment and place where we can deal in the environment and and internal state.

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