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The effects of behaviour management systems on children’s social, emotional and mental health is a hot topic amongst parents right now.  The use of sticker charts, colour-coded systems and rewards to influence children’s behaviour are extremely commonplace within the classroom. But do they really achieve their desired effect? Or could they potentially cause undesirable behaviours? The advantages of using a behaviour management system are widely espoused as a useful teaching strategy. Some of their proclaimed virtues include limiting the amount of issues teachers experience throughout the day, providing a whole-class approach, providing children with a visual reminder to reduces the need for nagging and scolding them and reinforcing positive behaviour by rewarding it. However, its efficacy is somewhat controversial, and some parents and educators have taken to online platforms to voice their disdain. For example, PBS columnist Wendy Thomas Russell argued that behaviour charts can trigger stress and anxiety in children, as she had observed in a fellow parent’s 5-year-old girl (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/column-hey-teachers-please-stop-using-behavior-charts-heres). Let’s explore some of the noted disadvantages…

It assumes lack of motivation to be the cause of poor behaviour

It’s how sticker charts and reward systems work. It provides the child with an incentive to do what we want them to do. However, there could me a multitude of reasons why a child misbehaves. They may be tired or hungry. They may be feeling overwhelmed or stressed. They may have difficulties with concentrating. They may not know better ways to cope. As we have discussed in earlier blog posts, a lot of recent studies have shown that communication impairment could be the underlying cause of behavioural problems. If this is the case, then they may be finding it difficult to follow instructions and understand classroom content. Thus rewards are not the solution if the request exceeds the child’s current level of ability.

It fails to identify the cause

Behaviour management systems do not always work. They are designed to suppress undesired behaviours but they are not holistic and, therefore, do not work to define the root cause. When parents have exhausted all these methods, the end result is that the child continues to misbehave.

They induce shame

Children may think of it as a “wall of shame”. Behaviour charts means children are judged in a very public way – by peers, as well as teachers. The fear of being ridiculed by peers or upsetting adults can trigger a great deal of stress and anxiety in children and, therefore, make it difficult for them to enjoy learning. Some schools appear to have recognised the colour-coded systems, such as traffic lights, carry negative connotations and have attempted to address these by changing to a sun-cloud system – but is that enough?

They potentially affect internal motivation

Some studies report that rewarding children for desirable behaviours could undermine their desire to do them without rewards (See review ‘The Effects of Externally Mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation’ by Deci, et al. 1999, 2001). It is easy to understand why busy parents and overwhelmed teachers would be drawn to behaviour charts and rewards as it offers a quick-fix solution. However, it is arguable that children may learn only a transactional model for good behaviour.

Alternatives to behaviour charts and rewards

It is not to suggest that you shouldn’t use charts and rewards. But perhaps to bear in mind that these are generic approaches that may not suit the needs of every child. For example, a child with an anxiety or conduct disorder may respond negatively to behaviour charts.

  • Acknowledge their good behaviours and offer praise. Keep language positive.
  • Encourage cooperation by giving them a sense of choice e.g. offering forced choices
  • Offer explanation. You’ve told the child they need to behave – but perhaps they don’t understand why. Support their understanding why they need to follow instructions.
  • Create opportunities for success. Preventing difficulties should be the focus, rather than punishment. You can do this by setting up daily routines, warn children about transitions, planning ahead to manage challenging situations etc.
  • Model the desired behaviours
  • Describe feelings. Often the best reward for doing the right thing is the satisfaction we feel from doing it. After a positive action, you can draw your child’s attention to these feelings by making comments such as, “It feels good to try your hardest and do your best!” etc.