Writing on the wall?

Behaviour charts may have become as commonplace in our classrooms as the chalkboard once was but in recent years a growing number of commentors have begun to question their effectiveness.

We spoke to two education professionals to find out what’s being used in their schools and to see if they think time is up for the traffic lights…

A well-established method for of monitoring and regulating children’s conduct, you will find behaviour charts being used in classrooms up and down the country.

Employed most widely in the form of a traffic light system, they involve visually tracking the actions of a pupil over a set period of time, with rewards for good behaviour and penalties for bad.

The basic theory being that students will behave better in order to access the incentives and avoid the consequences of acting poorly.

However, put ‘behaviour charts’ into Google today and your search results will be populated with a host of articles questioning whether the practice is truly effective.

‘Tear Down Your Behaviour Chart!’, ‘The Dark Side of Classroom Behaviour Management Charts’, and ‘Hey Teachers, Please Stop Using Behaviour Charts’, are three of the more strikingly titled opinion pieces posted online.

The main gist of the argument against behaviour charts is that they bolster students who are already well behaved, whilst negatively affecting students who aren’t – meaning they are effectively nothing more than a glorified method of public shaming.

One school here in the North West where you won’t find behaviour charts being used is Abbot’s Lea.

“This year we got rid of all behaviour charts across our classrooms,” says Micah Grimshaw, head of autism research and development at the South Liverpool school.

“There was a student in my class who seemed to revolve their whole day around the behaviour chart – they were so anxious about it. I had a gut feeling maybe this wasn’t right – if a child is anxious are they most available to learn?

“Some staff members were really worried about the move and some students struggled initially, but what we’ve replaced it with has been one of the biggest successes of last term.”

As an alternative to behaviour charts, Abbot’s Lea has introduced ‘The Zones of Regulation’, an American concept aimed at “fostering self-regulation and emotional control”.

Like the standard traffic lights system, Zones uses colours, but instead of children being moved onto a particular colour as a result of their behaviour, the method is centred around student participation.

For example, if a pupil is feeling angry or upset, they can point to an arrow on a chart at their workstation towards the Red Zone, which is used to represent extremely heightened states of alertness and intense emotions.

Underneath each zone the students write down their own personal tools which they can use to help themselves get out of a particular zone and into the Green Zone – the optimal zone for learning a pupil arrives at when they feel happy, focused or content.

“Rather than saying ‘you’re not on task so we’re moving you to yellow’, and that being very publicly shaming and anxiety inducing, what we’re saying is that it’s perfectly normal for students to come off task for different reasons,” says Micah.

“If a child is under or over that [Green Zone] they could be tired, sad, anxious or frustrated. All of these things are normal human emotions and it’s about helping the children identify where they are, what emotion are they feeling, and what can they do to get back to that Green Zone.

“A behaviour chart might meet a short term goal but compliance isn’t the long term goal for kids, and it doesn’t teach self-regulation.

“I understand teachers thinking ‘how do I manage behaviour?’, but it’s actually more important how we help children understand the emotions which are driving that behaviour.

“I’m really excited to see how the Zones model progresses at our school and I’m pleased that all the classes have taken their behaviour charts down.”

Whilst Abbot’s Lea may have decided to do away with behaviour charts, many schools continue to use them.
Progress Schools, a company with independent secondary schools based across England – including Liverpool, Wirral and Wigan, utilises a reward programme throughout its estate based around the standard traffic light system.

At the end of every lesson, each pupil is graded out of 100 in three separate areas – the amount of work they have completed, their behaviour, and their level of participation.

Scores are recorded, added together and averaged out to give a percentage – known as a student’s ‘overall effort’.

Rewards are given out throughout the week for small things that students might have done during lessons, but the points also go towards an end of term trip which pupils decide upon themselves. Unless a student achieves at least 80% ‘overall effort’, they don’t go on the trip.

This summer, pupils have visited Drayton Manor Theme Park and Alton Towers Resort, with one school choosing to enjoy a night of bowling and pizza.

“Reward charts only work if they are handled in a very specific way,” says Charlotte Barton, executive headteacher of Progress Schools.

“Our key focus is not to reward standard expected behaviours but to promote more intrinsic motivation.

“Turning up, doing your work, answering some questions and generally behaving – that’s expected behaviour. Students can only get higher than 80 if they go above and beyond.”

Charlotte describes going “above and beyond” as students questioning their own work deeper or supporting a peer without being asked.

Meanwhile, the consequences for those who don’t hit 80 are taken on a case by case basis with students given a clean slate every hour.

“We expect the staff to say ‘look, you didn’t do so well in that, have your break and turn it around in the next lesson’,” says Charlotte.

“Although we’ve got this system, each case is individual and that’s why it works for us because the staff treat it as such.”
Has the system been a success for Progress Schools? “Yes – but only because of the way our staff do it,” says Charlotte.

“We have to unpick the individual students to find out what motivates them. We can’t just reward expected norms. They have to go above and beyond.”

It’s clear that both Charlotte and Micah believe their classroom management strategies are effective, so to draw any definitive conclusion as to which method is right or wrong would be foolish. The ‘one size fits all’ approach shouldn’t be applied here.

But what we can say is that to be successful, whatever system is employed must be tailored to the school, class, and most importantly, the individual needs of each student.

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