The Problem With Behavior Charts

In this article, Vivian Chen, Literacy Partners senior staff developer, gives us an important lesson behind her realizing the harm of behavior charts.

When it comes to Twitter, I tend to be more of a read-only participant. So when I do post things, I typically hear crickets. However, a couple of months ago, educator and author Shawna Coppola posted this question:

“What did you used to do (and “used to” can include yesterday) as a teacher that you now know NOT to do?”

An opportunity to admit to some of my teacher wrongdoings brought me out of the shadows. The one I posted has weighed heavily on me over the years. Maybe putting it out in the Twittersphere would assuage my guilt. Maybe it would prevent another well-meaning teacher from committing the same mistake. My response received the most interaction I’ve ever gotten on Twitter — 26 likes and 2 retweets. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lot more than the one (or zero) likes I usually get.

It turns out behavior management charts are a hot button topic.

Although I got several responses agreeing with my choice, these charts (clip charts, color card charts, and the new digital version that I’ve never used, Class Dojo, etc.) are still very much the norm in classrooms. Getting rid of my behavior management charts was one of the best changes I made in my teaching practices. Unfortunately, it took me way too long to realize just how ineffective and damaging they are. They’re harmful for all students, but they’re especially harmful to our Black and Brown students.

Are you still with me?

My reasons for using the behavior charts were informed by good intentions. But what matters is not our intent but our impact. (Isn’t there an aphorism about good intentions?) I believed I was doing the best I could with the resources I had, just like all teachers do. I learned to do better. When we know better, we do better. (Thank you, Maya Angelou.)

Here’s how it played out in my classroom. See if it sounds familiar.

At the start of each school year, I‘d resolve to create a behavior management system that would keep the classroom peaceful, positive, and running like a well-oiled machine. I anticipated that children would meet my expectations for behavior, and I would have an efficient system for recording behavior and communicating with parents. I’d get out my construction paper or paper plates or buy pocket charts — whatever was needed to create the latest and cutest trend in behavior charts.

Each day I’d do my best to “fairly” dole out consequences for behavior infractions and record them on some form I had created for myself. The results would inevitably be the same. The system would appear to be working in the beginning, but slowly or sometimes quickly, the system would break down. The child who seemed to be the most challenging never really improved or sometimes it even got worse. I couldn’t keep up with my recording form, so I didn’t really have accurate data to report to parents.

Many times, I knew when I was unfair. I couldn’t possibly see everything that happened, and my biases were probably informing my decisions for who was getting a consequence and who wasn’t. It’s hard to admit, but I do hold certain attitudes about race, gender, ethnicity. I’m working on disrupting those ideas and making sure I don’t let them impact others, but they are there. So how could I possibly have handed out those consequences (or rewards) fairly?

It wasn’t until really reflecting that I came to this realization. Instead of abandoning such a system altogether, I would misguidedly look for a different kind of chart. And the whole cycle would start again.

After some deep reflection and seeking out other resources, I finally abandoned behavior charts.

Some big things I have come to realize is that putting behavior charts on public display relies on shaming, bribing, and manipulating kids into doing things. That’s bad enough, but even worse, these types of systems, more often than not, negatively affect Black and Brown children disproportionately. We all have implicit biases, and these biases affect the decisions we make.

Kirwan Institute

Consider this old riddle:

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” Explain.

Many of us have to stop and think for quite a bit before we get to the answer (spoiler alert): the surgeon is the boy’s mother. That’s our implicit bias at work.

Here’s how I changed my teaching behavior.

Recognizing our biases and working towards managing them is something we can all work toward. As Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, states, “We can mitigate them. We can interrupt them. You can train your mind to catch yourself. It’s like breaking a habit, but the first thing you have to do is become aware of the habit.” (When Implicit Bias Shapes Teacher Expectations, NEA, 2015)

Instead of using any of these behavior management systems, systems that are rooted in our biases, I did what my colleague Kristi Mraz suggests, stopped trying to be a manager, and focused on educating. Rather than seeing misbehavior as something to punish, I looked at those mistakes as opportunities for teaching. I also focused my energy on building relationships and giving students a voice.

If you’re ready to say goodbye to your behavior management system, check out Kristi’s blog post with a more in-depth look at what to do instead.

There are many resources out there for anti-bias and anti-racist teaching. Here are just a few:

  • For a deeper dive into building relationships, check out No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships by Jaleel R. Howard, Tanya Milner-McCall, and Tyrone C. Howard.
  • Teaching for Tolerance has a guide on Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education. Here is the module on Classroom Culture.
  • Dena Simmons, Director of Education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, explains how our implicit biases can turn something like SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) into something harmful, and what we can do instead.

Let’s keep the conversation going. Reach out and let us know how it goes if you try this — info@literacypartners.com

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