The use of behavior charts, such as sticker and color charts, is widespread across American schools and preschools. A digital extension of these- the Class DoJo app - has gained popularity because it allows teachers to log students' behaviors electronically and alert parents.
As innovative as this may sound, there is an ugly side to this app. A child is graded with a bunch of plusses and minuses, and everyone -- including parents and classmates -- can see these behavior scores. For some children this influences their self-worth.
My son was first introduced to a color chart in preschool. I noticed he became overly focused on his color and whether he was on the "good" color or not. It distracted him from what he was learning, and often he couldn't even remember why his color was changed
Despite the widespread usage of these charts, there is surprisingly little research to back up the practice. On the contrary, most research in child development, psychology, and early childhood education does not support its use.
There are two main reasons why the color charts are a bad idea: (1) They serve as a form of public shaming, and (2) They do not change students' behaviors.
Children's color changes are often publicly displayed in the classroom or, as in the case of Class DoJo, online for others to see. This inadvertently encourages peer to peer comparisons, and the public display can be humiliating for children. However, teachers often don't see this because school age children's emotions are not as outwardly displayed as when they were younger.
Most importantly, these charts -- whether publicly displayed or not -- usually do not change students' behavior in the long run. At times, it can actually get worse.
One of the consequences of a color change at my son's elementary school is lost recess time. This is unfortunate, because children need to move around and expend excess energy at various times throughout the day. Taking away recess time, and thus removing a child's opportunity for unrestricted physical movement, may exacerbate the problem and lead to more misbehaviors.
Color charts are often touted as being visible reminders for the students to follow classroom rules. However, in reality they are a form of punishment. Children are demerited whenever they make a mistake.
And often it is just that -- the child made a mistake.
Certainly there are children who intentionally defy the rules, but they make up a small percentage of all the children who receive color changes.
Instead, classroom rule breaking is often a function of the child's developmental stage.
Children at the early elementary age are still developing cognitively and easily forget things.
They are also easily distracted. While they may be able to pay attention to something they are interested in for 20-30 minutes, assigned or uninteresting tasks are harder to concentrate on.
Some research suggests that children's attention span correlates with their age. In other words, a seven-year-old can pay attention to an assigned task or lesson for about seven minutes.
In a large classroom there are many distractions -- other children talking, laughing, or moving in their seat -- and it's easy for young children to lose concentration and get caught up in an off-task moment.
My son doesn't get his color changed often, but when he does, the explanation he gives me is usually, "It's because Alex kept talking to me" or "Mike was making funny faces, and I was laughing at him."
These distractions are not intentional rule breaking -- they are simply moments of lost concentration and forgetting the rules.
Color charts and behavior apps simply display the behavior. They don't provide guidance for problem solving, nor do they provide motivation for long term behavior change -- other than the fear of public shaming.
Children need to internalize important values and be motivated to behave appropriately in the absence of adult supervision and control.
In order to learn how to independently manage their behaviors, children need reminders without punishment, encouragement, and individual attention.
Individualized approaches are difficult to implement in classrooms with 25 students.
However, a great tool is the Wheel of Choice. It focuses on problem solving at the child's level and reiterates the message that the child has a choice in every behavior he or she engages in. Ultimately, the ability to problem solve and make responsible choices is an important part of independent behavior management.
Color charts have outlived their shelf life, and so has the Class DoJo. It is time for schools across America to try something new.