You have to learn to pay attention. Scenes like this are common in schools today.
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Pass through the halls of almost any elementary school and you are likely to at some point hear "pull a red ticket" or "you're on yellow now. They represent a practice long overdue for retirement. In thinking about this strategy for managing student behavior, we challenge you to ask yourself a question: Why are you an educator and why do you continue to be an educator?
Did you respond with, "to show students who's boss? Your response was probably some version of, "I want to make a difference" or "I want to be the teacher students need in their lives. Most of us are in education to make a difference in our students' lives and help them become their best selves—aspirations that, in our view, aren't compatible with behavior charts.
In working with students, we've often seen adolescents display challenging behaviors that have evolved over years. We've wondered to what extent their behavioral paths could have been corrected in early-childhood classrooms rather than exacerbated by stigmatizing practices like behavior charts.
Braithwaite's shaming theory highlights the connections between stigmatizing shame and later delinquency.
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Although the relationship between shame and later behavior is complex, empirical studies provide enough evidence to compel us to stop shaming young children and instead build strong relationships and seek alternative methods to promote prosocial behaviors. We present here three reasons to abandon behavior charts.
If such charts are used in your school, we encourage you to have an open mind as you consider our reasoning. And we hope you take down those charts tomorrow and consider trying the alternatives we propose to foster positive behavior. Behavior charts do an excellent job of teaching children that they will be punished if they don't comply with directions or rules.
Although this may work in the short-term to make some students compliant, compliance shouldn't be our end game. We can shoot so much higher than that! We want students to be engaged and excited about learning, to persist when their work is hard, and to interact with others in ways that will lead to positive social and academic outcomes in the future.
Art Costa and Bena Kallick have done beautiful work organizing and describing the skills and behaviors educators should cultivate in all our students, what they term habits of mind. These lifelong skills—like persisting, managing impulsivity, and listening to others with empathy—improve students' competence, confidence, and ultimate success across the curriculum and in life. Such skills are arguably more important than the content we teach; the content is merely a vehicle for teaching them.
Solidifying these habits is what teachers should aim toward. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating what William Deresiewicz called "excellent sheep"—students who play the game of school but lack true engagement and critical thinking. Teaching the whole child is our responsibility. If we are to be effective in our work, faculty at all levels must be able to teach habits of mind such as self-regulation, a key skill for shifting toward more positive behavior.
Simply rewarding and punishing behaviors is not what helps students learn such habits and skills. It's particularly ineffective with self-regulation. Thus, behavior charts can reduce a student's problematic behavior if the student dislikes negative public attention—or public shaming. This is a questionable strategy to begin with since it's based on stressing out the student rather than cultivating new aptitudes.
But for many students, negative attention is something they've gotten used to, or worse, something over which they feel they have no control.
Their identity has become "the kid who is bad. And is likely to be "on red" all year long? What does it tell us if the intervention being put in place doesn't lead to a change in students' behavior? Clearly, the strategy isn't working.
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Why would we continue to use any strategy that isn't working? Nowhere in the literature do researchers recommend that we shame children into being compliant. The most compelling reason to abandon behavior charts is this: They risk harming our students. Lee Ann still remembers the painful effect of the color behavior chart a teacher used when her son, Spencer, was in 1st grade. Spencer was a sensitive "people pleaser" as a young child. He preferred to do what he needed to do with little public attention, but he valued personal relationships.
He was kind to everyone around him and worked hard in school. One afternoon, Spencer came home from school distraught because he'd had to "move his stick. Spencer felt as though he had failed and let his teacher down. He was embarrassed and affected by the event for days. Fortunately, Spencer's experience was a one-time event. But consider the inner voice of the student who is "on red" nearly every day.
When we reprimand a student in front of their peers, we risk changing that student's inner voice, shifting their identity to the "bad kid," isolating the student from peers, and disrupting their relationship with their teachers. At worst, we risk making a student feel unloved.
Imagine the devastating effects for a child who gets most of her or his love at school. Instead of using charts, we could just as effectively reduce undesirable behaviors by dumping ice water on a student or inflicting corporal punishment. Did you furrow your brow at that thought? We would never do that! Young children use stories to explain their experiences before they learn formal reasoning, and the ancient Greeks used myths before they invented logic. Ideas are neural networks with lowered thresholds for activation.
These networks are arranged hierarchically in the brain, with those responsible for the biggest ideas at the top. When those networks are activated, they key the firing of networks in sync with them at lower levels responsible for thinking and behaving. While the networks are initially created by chemical changes in the synapses at the junctions of the neurons, repeated firing causes structural changes to occur.
Ideas cause physical changes in the structure of the brain, and thus change the experience of the world it creates. In light of this new understanding of how the mind works, conventional management practices no longer make sense. For example, consider the time-honored practice of giving feedback to employees to improve their performance. Researchers studied the performance-review discussions of a sample of managers and employees, and then tracked subsequent performance. They found absolutely no correlation between praise and improvement in performance.
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This was to be expected, given that people are intrinsically motivated to achieve and are already doing the best they can. But the next finding was more of a surprise.
The areas that were criticized the most showed the least improvement, leading the researchers to conclude that criticism actually had a negative effect on performance. Although this seems counterintuitive, it can be explained by cognitive dissonance reduction. People strive to maintain a positive self-image, and so they are driven to reduce any feedback that may be at variance with it. They ignore, discount, or rationalize it away. The best way to do that is to persist in the behavior that is being criticized.
Nor is reward any more effective at motivating performance. In fact, studies of using rewards to improve the problem solving of children have shown that extrinsic rewards lessen intrinsic motivation. Rewards also fall victim to the vagaries of perception. The effect of a reward depends on the value that the person receiving the reward places on it. A five percent salary increase in tough economic times may seem generous to a manager, but appear so small to an employee as to be insulting.
If employees receive the same percentage several years in a row, they become accustomed to it and it loses its value. If feedback, punishment, and rewards are ineffective, how about using reason to motivate employees? Rather than tell them what to do, we should ask them. And when a decision or action comes from us, our self-esteem is tied into making it successful.
By using questions, we should enable them to honestly reflect on their performance. If corrective action is required, it should be self-generated. GE found that active participation in the review process, starting with an employee self-appraisal, improved performance significantly. In a non-threatening environment, most employees will actually be more critical of their performance than their managers would be.
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The goal is to leverage the way the mind works as much as possible. The mind works through ideas, with those at the highest level creating a mental environment that selects out thinking and behaving in sync with them. In the mental world we live in, ideas are much more powerful than material rewards or punishment.