Stop Documenting Kids’ Behavior at School and Just Start Teaching

When I was in third grade, Mrs. Cartwright didn’t have a behavior chart. She had a paddle. And she used that paddle to control her students, even giving one boy a preemptive paddle every morning so he wouldn’t disrupt class. Of course, that didn’t deter him from acting out. Instead, it terrified kids like me. I never spoke voluntarily that year for fear of incurring her wrath.

I also come from the era of teachers plastering gold stars on students’ foreheads. Leaving school with one (or more) of these was an invitation for kids who did not receive them to tease you. Parents loved them so much that once my cousin and I bought a box of them and covered our faces with “praise.” I never understood what I had to do to earn one other than be quiet. I guess the message I received from the stars and the paddle was to keep my head down and my mouth shut.

Now, we are much more humane. We don’t physically paddle school kids or stick stars on them anymore. Instead, we wield the emotional paddle and gummy stars of behavior charts, clips, and computer systems like ClassDojo.

I have never been a huge fan of PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports). In May of 2015, I shared how one of my grandsons suffered under this system in kindergarten. Basically, PBIS is a carrot and stick approach to classroom behavior, and it is even more popular in 2017. Clips and behavior charts are public displays of how well a child behaves. The thinking is that if a child has to move her clip down from “green” to “yellow” because she did not follow directions, forgot to raise her hand, or talked out of turn, she will be motivated to work extra hard to move her clip up again.

According to educator Justin Minkel in his article from Education Week, Death to the Behavior Chart, he stopped using these classroom management strategies when his young students shared how embarrassed it made them feel to move their clips down in front of the entire class. Instead, he expects his class to follow a reasonable set of rules. He will still ask a student whose behavior disrupts others to move to a different seat or communicate with a child’s parents about excessive misbehavior. The difference is, the communication is private and personal.

Minkel teaches in a high performing, high poverty school in which 85 percent of the children are English language learners. He explains the rules to his class and tells the children when he praises someone for good behavior, it is a clue for what he wants all of his students to do. If children are misbehaving, he gives them a look. If more intervention is needed, he has a private conversation with the child. Amazingly, he found this approach resulted in better behavior than the old clip and chart system.

What Minkel especially likes about this new (old) approach to classroom management is that he can maintain a positive relationship with his students and focus on the why of their behavior. He uses his time to teach, listen, and observe rather than assigning points and doling out token rewards.

Now there is a new (to me at any rate) method of controlling classroom behavior – a computer system called ClassDojo. It’s free and uses technology complete with an avatar to represent each student. Supposedly, the kids love it because they love the emojis and avatars. Some teachers put the display on the class white board so every child can see the points given and taken away. Other teachers don’t make it so public, but there is a ping every time a child is zapped for bad behavior. That would have made a student like me even more anxious. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, I would have been concentrating on avoiding getting zapped.

Many teachers praise ClassDojo because the rewards and punishments are immediate. They love that it is free and helps them keep behavior in line. One teacher claimed she could keep it minimized on her desktop and dole out or take away points for behavior while simultaneously teaching her lesson. She could also send out weekly emails to parents sharing the positive and negative points earned that week. Each Monday, she awards prizes to students with positive points. Mostly, these are tickets to “buy” party-favor junk. Students may also get to choose a new avatar. Because there must be consequences for bad behavior, students with negative points must sign a discipline log. They are also excluded from the outdoor play party she throws at the end of each month.

There are critics of this ultimate PBIS approach, and I am one of them. In a post on teachingace.com, a teacher makes a compelling argument against using ClassDojo in which she asks, “why not just tase your kids instead?” The author explains why she has never used this system. Aside from her aversion to the public shaming of students because it harms their self-esteem, systems like ClassDojo don’t produce long term results, interfere with the important teacher-student connection, and put the focus on rewards and punishments rather than on learning. There is no grace for kids who are just having a bad day, and many students end up feeling like failures. Like Minkel, this educator laments that reward/punishment systems do not build self-motivated learners.

Here’s my take on ClassDojo, clip systems, and other methods of doling out rewards and punishments to ensure good classroom behavior. As a former teacher, I can’t imagine how I would have been able to teach and be responsive to my student’s needs if I were also assigning or deleting points on the side. It would be like texting and driving. Impossible to concentrate on the important task. It would also have stopped me from trying to connect with my students and figure out they why of their behaviors. Being off task or talking in class may be symptoms of learning problems that need to be addressed. As a teacher, I found that mutual respect and honest communication trumped any classroom management tricks.

The teachers I remember most are those who motivated me to learn and participate without the threat of paddling or stars. And I thank them for their wisdom, humanity, empathy, kindness, and grace.

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