In my years as a classroom teacher, I shied away from using behavior charts. I wondered: How does such a system build a child’s sense of positive self-worth? I know it can be tempting to use behavior charts to encourage prosocial behavior with preschoolers—they’re visual and easy to track. But I worried that they might have unintended consequences for impressionable young learners.
At a conference on proactive behavior strategies, Dr. Julie Causton, coauthor of the book From Behaving to Belonging: The Inclusive Art of Supporting Students Who Challenge Us, made this point dramatically. She shared a story about a professional development workshop she had run during which she had all the participants write their names on a whiteboard. She also asked them to provide a phone number for a loved one.
When an educator at the workshop would repeatedly whisper to tablemates, Causton would eventually call their loved one—in front of the whole workshop—and tell them about the behavior. The point was this: Adults feel shame when they’re called out in front of their peers and get reported to a loved one—and this is what some teachers do to students when using behavior charts.
That’s not to say that behavior charts are bad: Some teachers, for example, use “caught being good” points when the class follows co-created behavior norms to encourage respect and responsibility without calling negative attention to individual students. But behavior charts may unintentionally tell students we think they can’t meet the expectations of the classroom. They may also make learning stressful and cause anticipatory anxiety that we might tell the person students love the most that they’ve been a disappointment.
Moving Beyond Behavior Charts
One classroom management alternative to behavior charts is a 4 Cs approach, which asks teachers to adopt a system of belief that presumes good intent and to explicitly share that belief with preschoolers.
1. Compassionate curiosity: Compassionate curiosity is a practice that comes from trauma-informed teaching. It asks teachers to act as nonjudgmental investigators to better understand what’s going on in the minds and lives of students. The more you’re willing to recognize there are things you don’t know about your students’ experience or what they’re feeling, the more able you are to see behavior as a reflection of those feelings.
To exercise compassionate curiosity, instead of reacting to behavior you can try pausing, asking caring questions like, “Is there something important on your mind today?” and then listening to the answers with your full attention.
Preschoolers may not always be able to fully verbalize the answer to your questions. In giving them your full attention, you will likely also observe nonverbal cues that can provide insight.
2. Collaboration: Compassionate curiosity leads well into building a collaborative classroom. Students who know you’ll be curious instead of furious are more likely to feel comfortable showing you who they are, what they know, and what they want to learn more about. Investing the time and effort to get to know who students are provides them with an incentive to invest in the classroom.
Collaboration can look like:
- Talking to students about their interests and passions.
- Tailoring activities to meet their interests.
- Teaching students to ask and answer questions, both of you and each other.
- Treating and talking to students with the same level of respect you ask them to show you.
- Valuing and encouraging different perspectives in class conversations.
3. Choice: With choice, you work with your students to determine what they’re learning, why they’re learning it, and how they prefer to learn it. Allowing students choice in your classroom activities and culture teaches negotiation and compromise, and gives students a sense of control over their environment and actions.
While there are things that may be non-negotiable from either a safety or curricular perspective—or both—consider whether you really need to say “no, we can’t do that,” and whether you can instead say, “let’s give that a try today.”
4. Clear consequences: Using clear and logical consequences is a way to make sure the reaction matches the action and is the same for every student. It begins by using pre-correcting and prompting to let students know the behavioral expectations in a given situation. After they have been given a chance to correct, if they still mismanage the situation, a natural or logical consequence occurs—one that is reasonable, is related to the problem, and results from the action.
A natural consequence is the unavoidable result of an action. For instance, a student who chooses not to wear mittens in the winter will end up with cold hands.
Logical consequences are also related to actions but happen when we intervene before the action results in harm to the student. If the student above wanted to play on an icy patch that was off-limits, the natural consequence—falling and getting hurt—would have to be replaced with a logical consequence, like restricting their play to an area less desirable to them.
Both natural and logical consequences show students the connection between what they do and what happens next, allowing them to learn from their mistakes and know that they have the power to change their behavior.
We need to give preschoolers a safe space in which to develop positive self-esteem and self-regulation skills. They need to know that we care about why they’re having a tough time and that we want to help them.