Monday, November 3, 2014

Behavior Charts - What Works and What Doesn't

Often an early step for teachers who notice undesirable behavior patterns in their students is to create a behavior chart.  It will state one or two behavior goals ("not calling out in class" or "stay in my seat") and then divide the student's day into chunks of time.  As the day progresses the teacher marks on the chart, indicating whether the child has kept their goal for that time period.  Typically the child has a goal of achieving x number of checks out of the total possible.  I've got a handful of students who bring just such charts with them to my class.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.  Here's what I've observed:
  1. If the behavior chart is going to make any difference the student and parents have to buy into the process.  I've actually had teachers hand me a chart for a child, but when I go to talk to the child about whether or not they met their goals they were unaware that they even had a chart.  Likewise, I've had parents tell me they don't pay any attention to the behavior chart when the child brings it home at the end of the day.  Teachers, front load this process.  If you're going to start using this tool please meet with the students and parents about what it is and how it will be used. 
  2. Sometimes the way we as teachers word our students behavior goals sets them up for failure.  Think about the first example I listed above, "not calling out in class."  This merely tells the child what we don't want them to do.  Also, children tend to focus on the last thing they hear, which in this case is "calling out in class".  Whenever possible (and it's almost always possible), try phrasing the goal in a positive manner - "I will raise my hand when I need to speak in class."  This paints a picture of what we want the child to do.  It's especially helpful for young children, who think in images, not words.  
  3. Children often become frustrated when they have too many goals.  As an adult, I can understand that.  When I get too much negative feedback I feel like I've already failed and I don't know where to start.  Choose one main goal for the child.  Better yet, talk with the child and choose a goal together.  Let him/her have ownership of the process. 
  4. Behavior charts should be flexible documents, but they often become very rigid.  Once the child has shown that he/she can consistently achieve their goal it's time to move on to another goal or move away from using the chart.  We ultimately want the child to learn to set and achieve goals on their own and to manage their own behavior.  I've seen students who consistently get all (or almost all) of their checks on the same goal for weeks, but they're still carrying the same behavior chart with them.  
  5. If it's not working, change it.  If the student's not responding to the chart, find something else that works.  If the student can't remember to take the chart to other classes, work out a different system.  What's the definition of insanity?  Repeatedly doing things the same way but expecting to get different results.  
  6. Typically we simply mark whether the child met the goal or not - a check or an X.  It's an all or nothing scenario.  Consider changing this to a more positive wording - "I did it," "I almost did it," or "I'll keep practicing" teaches a growth mindset.  
  7. I have a student who sets his check count goal too high - he daily sets his goal at earning a check in every time block (for example, 20 checks out of 20 possible checks).  I don't know about you, but I rarely have a 20 out of 20 day myself.  There's always a moment when I made a mistake and have to embrace my oops.  But when this student sets his daily goal he leaves himself no room for mistakes.  And the first time he gets an X instead of a check each day he falls apart.  His day is now ruined because he can't achieve his goal.  You and I know that mistakes are a chance to regroup and learn to move forward, but he simply sees them as a dead end.  Help your students set realistic goals.  Teach them how to recover when they don't reach their goals.  
  8. Often teachers and parents promise tangible rewards if a student meets his/her behavior contract goals.  "You can pick something from the prize box" or "if you meet your goal for a whole week we'll get you a new bike."  But what does that teach the child?  I should only behave when I get something for it.  Unfortunately, as adults we're not given tangible rewards for doing what we're supposed to do.  No one takes me out to dinner for driving the speed limit on my way to work each day.  I don't get to pick something from the prize box each time I safely push my cart on the right side of the aisle at the grocery store.  I learned to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, because it makes me a responsible member of society.  Rather thank giving out prizes, you can encourage this in children by verbally noticing what they've done - "you're walking on the right so that other can move through the hallway, too...  that's keeping all of us safe" or "I noticed you stayed in your seat for all of our math lesson...  that helped everyone to stay focused."  

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