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Choose a Different Method: Color Charts are not Positive

I have been contemplating writing this post about color charts for quite some time. Its message is rooted deep in my heart as a teacher and as a mom who prays everyday her children will have teachers who love and understand them. I hope my message resonates with veteran and new teachers alike as well as parents.  

The theory behind a color chart is fairly straightforward: children are motivated to keep themselves on a “good color.” If a child happens to make a bad choice and is moved to a “bad color,” the child is motivated to change their behavior and learns what the right behavior is. That’s the theory. The practical reality is quite different, especially for children who come from hard places like trauma, abuse, or neglect.

Kids who have experienced varying levels of trauma in their life are sitting in classrooms in every school and, to many, most every day in school is a struggle. They want to do the right thing but find themselves academically, socially, or emotionally behind their peers. They oftentimes experience anxiety or nervousness, and may have difficulty navigating the dynamics of the classroom. On many days, they feel defeated before the bell even rings, knowing they’re unlikely to live up to the one-size-fits-all expectations set for them. Regardless of their circumstances, all of them are looking for, and desperately craving, love, acceptance, understanding from someone who sees them as good and calls them good. In short, they need grace, something only a teacher, and not a color chart, can provide. My little boy, who did not have the best start in life, is an example.

My little boy started last year in pre-K as a sweet, vibrant 4-year old, filled with pride as he walked down the halls with his brand new backpack and lunch box. He was so excited to be like his big brother, going to a big boy school. And then, he experienced the color chart and found himself unable to stay on a good color all day long, every day. I watched as he slowly declined emotionally to the point that he was in tears every single morning begging us not to make him go to school. I knew the color chart was a problem, but didn’t realize how much of a problem it was until I watched him banging on a colored xylophone and angrily stating, “This is a bad color. This is a really, really bad color. This is a good color.” I can promise you that he did not understand the color chart, or how to meet the expectation it set, other than to begin thinking and (eventually) saying, “I’m a bad kid.” 


It breaks my heart to hear my now 5-year old tell me he is afraid his teacher won’t like him this year at his new school. Last week, he told me he really hopes he gets to be the “good” kid this year. Take a minute and let that sink into your heart. He is a week away from starting kindergarten and he is talking about how he hopes he gets to be the “good” kid in his class this year. Think about how many other children there are like him. It’s not that color charts don’t work, it’s that they work in a direction opposite of that intended.

I encourage you to take a look at the available research and information about color charts. That research finds that, for the child who is always on a good color, the color chart is not needed. This child does not need to be constantly reminded or taught how to work with friends, listen to the teacher, or how to sit still and wait turns to talk during circle time. If anything, the color chart teaches these children that other children in the class, the ones on the bad colors, are in fact bad. This leads them to tattle on those “bad” children, thereby reinforcing the teacher’s increasingly negative view of those “bad” children.

For the child who struggles to stay on green, who never or rarely moves his clip up, and who has lost hope that he will ever have a good color day, the color chart is heartbreaking. The chart teaches a child to view themselves in a negative way, is punitive by way of public shaming, and never teaches the child how to change. It’s also a subjective approach to classroom management because behavior is not being randomly sampled throughout the day. After a while, the teacher struggles to see the positive in the child because they start a pattern of always looking for the bad and moving the clip down. Trust me, this is exactly what happens because I was that teacher who used a color chart when I didn’t know a color chart was not a positive method.

As educators have the opportunity to change the entire direction of a child’s life simply by how we respond to a child who struggles with emotional regulation and making positive choices.  I believe that as educators it is our job to be reflective and figure out what we can do differently to help all children learn and grow.

I hope we all remember to find the positive and good in every student and build on their beautiful strengths this year. We are helping children whose minds need all the love and support we can give them regardless of their background experiences. We can’t control our students and we can’t control what happens when they go home at the end of the day, but we can control ourselves and the choices we make as educators each day when we walk through our classroom door.

I hope you have a great start to the new school year. I know it’s going to be a wonderful year for you and for all of your students. 

 

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