What questions should you ask a prospective elementary school? If you are determined to raise a successful adult, don’t ask about what languages they’ll learn or even what kind of extra-curricular activities they offer; ask how they manage behavior and if they use stoplight charts. Let’s take a look into how this practice and similar behavior management tools (like reward charts) can actually have a negative outcome, whether used in school or our homes.
The Search Begins
Oh, the mental torment of finding the perfect school for our children. While often distracted by the promised success of their academic achievements, I believe most parents are ultimately, at least subconsciously, more concerned about their child’s well-being while at school than they are about any grade sent home on a report card.
Does my kid enjoy learning?
How do you empower them to make good choices?
How will you nurture their talents as they unfold?
These are the questions we should have if we are truly concerned about their success as an adult; their ability to take care of themselves no matter what happens. Their own steadfast certainty of their self-worth, motivation to continue learning, and social + emotional skills mean a lifetime lived beyond limits. That is the ultimate goal for each of us: To live a life to our fullest potential through expression of our own unique gifts and creativity, to not depend on others for happiness.
As my daughter nears kindergarten age, my school search is made more tedious by having such contrasting values to what each school is putting in their marketing materials. As a conscious parenting expert and parent + relationship coach, the questions I have are related almost entirely to behavior management in the classroom. The fact is, negative classroom behavior management affects each child’s long-term success; such as whether or not they are bullied or become bullies, likelihood of substance abuse, and more — even whether or not they experience anxiety or depression.
Red Lights Put a Stop on Growth
An alarming trend still prevalent in today’s classrooms for some reason is the use of a “stoplight” or behavior chart. Teachers prominently place a red, yellow and green poster or similar somewhere in their classroom and put each child’s name on a clothespin or other marker, then move them between the colored areas depending on the day’s behavior. Children in the “green” zones may receive tokens or treats, while children in the red zones may receive disciplinary action.
I can’t find any research that supports or even suggests a tool like this. Have they just evolved over time from teachers writing names on the board? Are they stumbled upon on Pinterest? In any event, I’ve seen it in use even at our Montessori preschool and have read countless stories of parents all over the country frustrated with the devastating effects they’ve had on their children.
Of course, managing the behavior of 20+ students is no easy task and I give full credit to each teacher who attempts this, especially at relatively low wages. I trust that they truly believe they are doing the best thing utilizing this method.
Unfortunately, what these charts amount to is public shaming. Undesired behavior isn’t addressed privately with each student, rather, the child is reprimanded in front of the class. In some cases, a student may even be asked to move their own marker. The child is humiliated, resentful, embarrassed, and starts to direct these emotions inward, resulting in feeling shame for who it is they are. Dr. Shefali Tsabary, clinical psychologist and the author of “The Conscious Parent,” notes: “The fact is, bullying works — for a time. Then it boomerangs. When we bully someone into conforming, we might well destroy what may be the last shreds of self-worth the individual has.”
Shame and humiliation are the lowest emotional states an individual can be in. Creating this state in a child creates major disconnection, which will render the authority figure powerless. I can assure you that these defeated moments, trivial though they may seem, are the exact same moments that I work through with adult clients every day as they navigate the reasons they are stuck in different negative patterns in their life.
“For the kid who doesn’t earn the stickers, clips down instead of up, or never climbs above the yellow card, these charts can be shame-inducing. Imagine seeing your bad day played out in bright colors on the very wall that all of your peers stare at all day long. These systems can leave students feeling worthless, overwhelmed and incapable. They can negatively impact the student’s self-confidence, which can result in poor academic performance and even more behavioral issues. These behavior management systems, although well-intentioned, can be downright devastating.” – writes Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, for the Washington Post.
The Punishments of Rewards
Other classroom programs aimed at improving behavior, while a step in the right direction by teaching more about positive actions and social skills, promote ignoring emotions and using time-outs, thus missing the mark at being well-rounded lessons in empathy and problem solving. And others still work off a token economy, meaning the student receives incentives for behaving in a desired fashion, despite no compelling research indicating their effectiveness. The main problem with rewards for desired behavior is that they are 1) still a punishment in disguise, as the child doesn’t receive the reward unless they do something, and, 2) extrinsic motivation doesn’t always work and doesn’t work long-term. In fact, extrinsic motivation only seems to be somewhat valuable when an individual is tasked with a particularly undesirable activity.
“Threats and bribes can buy a short-term change in behavior, but they can never help kids develop a commitment to positive values. In a consequence-based classroom, students are led to ask, “What does she want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it?” In a reward-based classroom, they’re led to ask, “What does she want me to do, and what do I get for doing it?” Notice how similar these two questions are. Rewards and punishments are really two sides of the same coin. And notice how different either one is from what we’d like children to be thinking about: “What kind of person do I want to be?” or “What kind of classroom do we want to have?” – Alfie Kohn, educator and author of 14 books including “Punished by Rewards.”
According to a 2013 study, extrinsic motivation actually plays a more “debilitating role” for the student overall by the end of fourth grade.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my child to be an adult that has to be bribed to be a decent human being. Nor do I want them ever believing that they aren’t one because of a momentary upset in first grade. Rather, I’m looking for teachers that have a high capacity for empathy and are able to reflect my child’s experiences back to them without shaming or criticizing their natural emotional response. I’m looking for a supportive environment where my kids enjoy learning, a skill that will serve them the rest of their lives.
Evidence Points To A Better Solution
Research indicates the same thing that we know about parenting, that there are multiple factors at play that can cause undesirable behavior, which is always a child’s best attempt at getting their needs met. Evidence-based suggestions for improving behavior in the classroom go beyond a mindless tool, and none involve shaming the child in front of class.
From privately tracking behavior in an attempt to find the conditions that might prompt it, to working directly with parents to try to gain more insight into conditions at home that might contribute, the Institute of Education Sciences’ recommendations in their 2008 report take a proactive approach. The two strongest methods are modifying the classroom learning environment and teaching appropriate behavior:
“We recommend that teachers actively teach students socially- and behaviorally-appropriate skills to replace problem behaviors using strategies focused on both individual students and the whole classroom. In doing so, teachers help students with behavior problems learn how, when, and where to use these new skills; increase the opportunities that the students have to exhibit appropriate behaviors; preserve a positive classroom climate; and manage consequences to reinforce students’ display of positive “replacement” behaviors and adaptive skills.”
It sounds so simple, but how often is just teaching or even stating what IS desired overlooked? Often, in our own frustration, we instead model the same behavior we admonish them for — behavior like not listening or not being respectful. We have a history of laying out rules and then expecting obedience, but that just doesn’t work with kids. They need to be taught how to behave in a classroom full of their peers as much as they need to be taught any other life skill.
I found two evidence-based programs that do just that: the PAX Good Behavior Game and MindUP. Both utilize social-emotional learning, and MindUP also incorporates mindfulness, which would give each child effective ways to manage their emotions and self-regulate. Another resource is the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, which provides lesson plans for K-8.
A 2015 controlled trial found that students in the social-emotional learning program with mindfulness “…(a) improved more in their cognitive control and stress physiology; (b) reported greater empathy, perspective-taking, emotional control, optimism, school self-concept, and mindfulness, (c) showed greater decreases in self-reported symptoms of depression and peer-rated aggression, (d) were rated by peers as more prosocial, and (e) increased in peer acceptance (or sociometric popularity).”
To be clear, we aren’t just talking about the chaos in the classroom: we’re talking about the long-term success of each child within that classroom. These skills allow each child to flourish as independent adults, when they will be faced with countless conflicts they need to be able to resolve.
With results including a reduction in substance abuse and bullying, plus improvement in mental health, how can we not support our teachers and schools in rolling out these or similar lessons? The peaceful learning environment is merely icing on the cake at this point. We’re talking about raising respectful, resourceful and resilient adults that thrive individually as well as collectively.
We owe it to our kids and future generations to evolve beyond cycles of shame and punishment and become champions of worthiness, empathy and respect.
The use of stoplight charts negatively impacts the child at worst and is an ineffective tool in managing classroom behavior at best. There are a variety of different evidence-based programs that teachers can utilize instead, and some that encourage the added component of mindfulness to take self-regulation and cognitive ability a step further. Work with your teacher and school to help them help your child today by just reaching out with empathy and the facts. A quick email to our Montessori’s new director confirmed that she stopped this practice in our center. As Dr. Shefali says, “One is a million.” You never know the positive impact your voice can have.