At one point in education, having a poster of a stop light with students’ names written on clothes pins clipped next to the red light, yellow light, or green light was common. While that practice is still being used in some places, a newer trend is to have not just those three colors but instead an array of colors on some sort of continuum. Regardless of the number of colors on the poster, the thinking behind the practice remains the same, to let children know how the teacher views their behavior. The assumption is that children will then make adjustments to their behavior based on the placement of their clip on the poster. I would challenge educators to carefully consider this idea. Is the true purpose of this system to help the children make adjustments to their behavior, or is it to embarrass them into compliance?
Let’s consider an analogy. Teachers enter a faculty meeting and notice a large colorful continuum with every staff member’s name on a clip. As the meeting progresses, people have brief side conversations or read texts on their phones. The administration notices these “undesired behaviors” and tells these people to get up and move their clips. Will these staff members leave the meeting feeling positive about the experience? Will this lead to increased trust in future situations?
Returning back to this practice in the classroom, it has been my experience that the children who repeatedly have their clips on red are the ones who are the least concerned about this consequence. They engage in inappropriate behaviors fairly early in the day, realize they have “nothing to lose” because their clips are already on red, and continue to engage in these behaviors the rest of the day. On the other hand, when the children who typically have their clips on green do something “wrong” and have to move their clips, they often become overly upset and require soothing from the teacher. In both situations the desired result is not realized.
Would we ever consider moving children’s clips to red when they misspell words or make mistakes on math problems? If we really want to help children, we need to see the times when they demonstrate inappropriate actions as teaching opportunities, and help them learn to use appropriate behaviors instead.