How to Stop Using Your Useless, Hurtful Classroom Behavior Chart

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I teach third grade and I use a behavior chart. All of the kids start out with a red, a yellow, and a green card by their names. If a kid does something “bad,” I usually give a warning. The next time, they lose their green card. The next time, they lose their yellow and lose five minutes of recess. After that, they lose their red and go to the principal and I call home. I think I am like many teachers who feel like the chart doesn’t work, but I don’t know what else to use. –Jackie, Dayton, Ohio

Dear Jackie,

Thank you for exposing behavior charts for the garbage that they are. Most American classrooms depend on this ridiculous, hurtful practice. It’s not the fault of educators that they use these systems; they are taught how to use this nonsense in college when they should be learning actual classroom management skills. In all of my days working as a principal, teacher, discipline specialist, and behavioral consultant, I have never once seen behavior charts work with even remotely difficult kids. Behavior charts “work” on kids for whom anything would be effective. It never works with tough kids, and it makes the general behaviors of kids in any classroom worse as time goes on.

Here are a few of the reasons why behavior charts don’t work. For one, kids need as many warnings as they are given. Difficult kids are smart enough to see warnings as permission to exhibit negative behaviors at least as many times as you give warnings for that behavior. You say, “Don’t do that again. That’s your warning.” The tough kid hears, “You are allowed to do that every day at least once.” Your system not only uses warnings, it systematically institutionalizes them into the fabric of your classroom. You say that you warn the kid verbally and then you have him pull a card, but there is no consequence when he pulls that first green card.

Let’s do the math on this: If you have 25 kids in your class, and you warn every kid twice about negative behaviors, well, congratulations: 50 negative behaviors can be exhibited without there being any consequences. Uck.

The “consequences” that you have baked into your system are pretty horrible too. Again, not your fault. You were probably taught in college that you need to tell kids of the consequences for behaviors beforehand. This is a terrific idea if you want to turn your classroom into a nice, hot, raging dumpster fire. Tough kids see a prescribed consequence as a dare. Tough kids love dares.

In other words, losing 5 minutes of recess is totally worth the fame and glory that kid will get for doing whatever high-profile offense he is contemplating. As for going to the principal, this is not even a consequence. It is just another warning, and if he’s not in his office, it isn’t even that! The same is true for calling home because for most difficult kids, they are just going to get another round of threats and warnings at home, which will further compound the problem.

My students, on the other hand, always knew that anything could happen to them at any time for any reason.

The answer to your problem is to skill up and learn how to use consequences. Feel free to peruse my website for actual skills, procedures and solutions to use in your classroom

No “system” will ever work because kids can outsmart any system!