Kindergarteners are the newest bunch of students to come face to face with clip charts, visual charts that track their behavioral progress. The result? Embarrassment and anxiety around learning.

By Emily W. King, Ph.D.
Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Every new school year, a variety of visual charts emerge in an effort to track students' behavioral progress. Clip charts, popular among these class-wide management systems, track children's behavior by moving each child's name up or down the chart throughout the day. When a child is good, their name is moved up associated with the words "Star" or "Great" on the cart, when the child is bad, their name will be clipped to the "

"Uh-Oh" or "Bad" section of the chart. The goal, of course, is to help children notice when their actions are in line with classroom expectations and when they have fallen off track.

Kindergarteners are the newest bunch of students to come face to face with these structured classroom behavior demands. When parents think of kindergarten, they usually picture their kids playing house and learning to cut with scissors in craft time. After all, studies show that five- and six-year-old children are developmentally wired to learn through play. But a push for earlier academic success leaves less time for play in the classroom.

As a child psychologist and the mother of a rising kindergartener, I'm concerned. I recently received this email from a kindergarten parent: My son is "scared to go to school because he's afraid he'll have his name moved down. I'm just not sure how to handle it. He's also telling me he's sad but he doesn't know why. I'm really starting to worry it's depression because of school."

Clip charts only work if a child has the skills to rectify their behavior. But what if they have never been to school before? What if it's hard for them to control their impulses? What if being noticed causes them anxiety? Some children will rise to the occasion when presented with a clip chart. Some will not be able to.

The Dangers of Clip Charts

According to experts, we need to be concerned. Clip charts "create more stress for all the children in the class who fear that they will see their status shift due to 'bad' behavior," says Dr. Mona Delahooke, child psychologist and author of Beyond Behaviors. Visual charts "impact the limbic system (i.e., our emotional system, and especially the autonomic nervous system) by attempting to incentivize positive behaviors," says Dr. Delahooke. "Instead, in many children it makes them feel less safe in the classroom by activating the 'fight or flight' pathway of the brain when a child fails to meet expectations."

Clip charts send children the message that at any given moment everyone in the classroom will notice their flaws. Students cannot learn in this heightened state of vigilance. Dr. Delahooke puts it this way: "For children who do not yet have efficient or predictable "top-down" control over their emotions and behaviors, these charts are not useful and can cause additional, needless stress for vulnerable children. Top-down control develops over many years and is a developmental process, so it can't be taught."

If your child's teacher is using a clip chart or other public behavioral system, and you are concerned that it is impacting your child's ability to learn, talk with them. This is what I want everyone to understand:

Clip Charts Don't Build Relationships, Teachers Do

While there is a need for classroom routines and rules to maintain order, setting classroom expectations begins with strong relationships. Clip charts drive a wedge of fear and doubt into the student-teacher relationship, which undermines all that the teacher is trying to achieve. For many students, we lose their trust via the clip chart and, therefore, risk losing their love of learning; in its place, we plant a fear of the classroom.

When teachers build a trusting relationship by finding a balance between firm limits and a loving connection, students feel supported. Portraying their commitment to keeping students safe while they fail and helping them learn from their mistakes reminds students that they are not alone.

The Importance of Private Feedback

Using a system to track progress is helpful, but it must be private. Can you imagine starting a new job and one of the first things explained to you is that your boss will be tracking your on-task behavior and your colleagues will receive notifications to show who is in the lead? This would raise your anxiety and likely distract you from actually staying on task. Yet, if your boss said that they were collecting data behind the scenes to increase work productivity and the two of you would review results together, this would seem much more reasonable, and much less anxiety-provoking.

The clip chart creates a "peer pressure" mentality aiming to improve student behavior. However, this framework is fundamentally flawed for young children. Public negative feedback is embarrassing and humiliating. Now, imagine that you are five years old and getting "clipped down" for something you haven't learned how to control yet. Add to it that you are not yet emotionally mature enough to handle the disappointment. You will likely worry about making mistakes, which leads to poor concentration, and ultimately your potential will crumble.

What about those who are "clipped up" you might ask? Even though it might feel good to get "clipped up," this sends the message to everyone else in the class that they are not "enough" and may create a backlash for the "good student." Guess what happens when the "good student" doesn't like this attention? He or she begins trying to "fly under the radar" and is likely not reaching their potential either.

When teachers track patterns of student behavior privately, they arm themselves with the knowledge to effectively teach the student a lagging skill without shining a spotlight on their flaws.

Clip Charts Don't Teach Skills, Teachers Do

What clip charts do teach is an awareness that a child is not as good or is better than the peer next to them. Do we really want to teach our young children to measure their success by comparison?

Furthermore, when children enter kindergarten, we often don't yet know which skills are in their control to change and which are not. When a child is "clipped down" for something that is out of their control, this will lead to sadness. It's akin to clipping a child down for not participating in recess when they have a broken leg. When the behavior feels out of their control yet they still feel the consequence, they will become anxious and defeated. Wouldn't you?

All behavior is communication. If something is hard for a child, they don't need a clip chart to tell them. They are likely already experiencing negative emotions about their inadequacy. What they do need is for their teacher to notice what is happening, strategize a solution, and show them a better way.

So, Why Are We Still Using Clip Charts?

Well, clip charts get fast results. In a profession where teachers are under-supported, fast results are tempting. Many teachers did not receive a course on social-emotional learning. "Most of my training came from experience as a classroom teacher, professional development, books, and other resources," said Roxann Sykes, 2019 Assistant Principal of the Year in Wake County Public School System in Raleigh, North Carolina.

So as we stand now, implementing effective, yet protective, behavior support depends on the local school district, the school, the principal, and the teacher seeking out training.

Long-term progress will need to stem from a change in teacher curriculum and more funding to teach social-emotional learning. "My hope is that University educational programs will include classes on neurodevelopment, and not simply behavioral interventions, because we now have such rich data from neuroscience that supports relational safety over compliance training," says Dr. Delahooke.

Once teachers are in the classroom, "more training is needed to help them understand how to address behaviors that interrupt teaching and learning in a positive way," says Sykes. "Removing students from the classroom is not the answer, but when there is so much pressure on student achievement, it becomes difficult to stop teaching to address and teach social and emotional skills. If we are able to do this, all students will benefit from building these skills. More restorative practices help to build community and positive relationships."

When children experience positive relationships in their school community, we create a spirit among youth to become individuals who want to contribute their skills to a local, national, and global community. Isn't that what we all want for our children's future?

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