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Behavior Charts


I just took over the after school program in our district.  My background is pre-K. In touring the sites I see a wide range of strategies.  Do you recommend any kind of behavior chart for school age children k - 5?  I saw one that looked like homeland security and it really bothered me.  This supervisor is very dependent on this method for behavior management.  She needs something to replace this.  

The chart was mittens, three for each child in a pocket chart; each child had three: blue, yellow, red.   All three mittens were behind each child's name, and each day they started out all blue.  If a child misbehaved, blue was placed at the back, exposing the yellow, then red.   Yuk.  How can I help her be more positive?


Dear Educator,

My name is Jody McVittie. I am part of the team that answers questions for the Positive Discipline Association website.  I am also part of the team implementing Positive Discipline in a few Seattle Schools.  The question you ask is one that we get asked frequently.  

Before answering the question it might be helpful if I go over some of the theory behind Positive Discipline (PD). PD is based on the work of Alfred Adler (1870-1937) and Rudolf Dreikurs (1897-1972) who taught that behavior aims toward an internal sense of belonging and significance.  Misbehavior is based on mistaken beliefs about how to achieve belonging and significance and shows up most often when children do not have the skills to connect or feel valued in socially useful ways.  When we use the word “discipline” then, we are referring to actions that can be taken by the adult that teach children how to belong and find meaning in socially useful ways.

Common practice in the United States focuses on discipline as an action that demonstrates what someone is doing wrong (usually by making life more difficult for them, hurting them or shaming them in some way). The logic is that unless you have an “impact” on someone (implied = negative impact) they will not learn. This is based loosely on the culturally accepted theory of behaviorism that teaches that animals will avoid something that is associated with an unpleasant experience and do more of things that are associated with a pleasant experience.  Behaviorism does indeed “work” short term. You can get students to change their behavior – at least temporarily. Even the short-term “working” teaches “external locus of control” instead of “internal locus of control.”

What we would argue, however, is that behaviorism is not helpful long term. If it were, children would do what we wanted – we are relatively good at this punishment and rewards business.  The reason it doesn’t work is that human beings do more than just respond like laboratory animals. They are constantly interpreting the world around them: they make meaning from our responses about what the world is like (safe, unsafe, welcoming, unwelcoming) about others (do they like me, or not like me) and about themselves (am I good? bad? helpful? hurtful?).  When children are disciplined in ways that are meant to be unpleasant, they notice that – but they don’t think, “Oh, this helpful teacher is just gently reminding me that I made a mistake, but inside I’m an OK person.”  Instead they feel pressure, shame, resentment and make decisions about their world, others and themselves.  Those decisions might look like “I can’t do this right,” “Adults don’t understand,” “I don’t fit or belong here,” “I’ll never be good enough,” etc.  Which over the not so long term, invites more “mis” behavior.

So, with that background, the short answer to your question is, “no.”  There are MANY more tools and techniques that are more effective long term that also invite children to believe in themselves and learn the skills they need to belong in socially useful ways.  I would really recommend taking a full Positive Discipline in the Classroom training to get a deeper understanding of these tools, but here are a few that might be helpful.
-    Remember that children do the best they can in the MOMENT.  They are not mini adults. This does not mean we should condone or accept inappropriate behavior. We still set clear and appropriate limits and we follow through in ways that are mutually respectful. It also means it is never appropriate to publicly scold, make an example of, or shame a child—which behavior charts do.
-    Ask curiosity questions. Get into the child’s world to understand what is happening. Children respond best to “what” and “how” questions instead of “why” questions, what as, “What is your perception of what happened? What do you think caused it to happen? What ideas do you have to solve this problem?”
-    Learn about the belief behind the behavior. What might this child be thinking (out of awareness) about how to get belonging. In the moment does belonging look like “I belong when I’m the center of attention?”  “I belong when I’m getting people to do things for me?”  “I belong and am significant when I’m the boss. You can’t make me?” or “I feel hurt and the only way for me to feel significant right now is to hurt someone or something.”
-    Ensure that the situation/environment is developmentally appropriate. After school programs may get kids who have had tough days and are pretty “used up.” They don’t have much resilience and struggle to hold it together for a few more hours.  What kinds of activities can nurture and support these children to be the best they can be.
-    Get the kids to set guidelines. When students set their own guidelines they guidelines look almost like the ones the adults set – but there is a different sense of ownership.
-    Focus on children’s strengths not their challenges. They need you to mirror for them what they do well, so that they can use those strengths to their advantage to be problem solvers.
-    Teach problem solving skills. There are a huge variety of problem solving tools in Positive Discipline in the Classroom.  Some commonly used in the younger grades include simple I statements, problem solving or “peace” tables, the wheel of choice, a cool down spot for self regulation, class meetings.
-    Remember that the “kindness” piece of Positive Discipline isn’t about “niceness” and it isn’t about rewards – it is about the power of relationship and connection.

I hope this begins to give you an idea of what we might do instead of charts or rewards.  Best wishes to you and the students in your care,

Jody McVittie, MD

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