a letter to teachers on the use of stoplights in the classroom

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Dear Teacher,

Before you hang that stoplight up for the new school year, please put yourself on red for a minute or two.  Rethink the idea that hanging a large paper traffic light in the front of the room, dotted with magnets or popsicle sticks displaying each student’s name is ok.  Rethink the concept that publicly tracking behavior and doling out consequences based on whose behavior moves them off of green each day is fair, kind, or appropriate.  Please rethink.

I recognize myself in you.  I once believed that giving students a “visual” for where their behavior stood in my class would enable them to control it, that all children could control their behavior, and that controlling behavior was one of the most important tasks on my teacher to do list.

As a first year teacher, I remember ‘writing names on the board.’  That’s what I was told to do, and that’s what my teachers did when I was in school.  But then I started paying attention to the hurt, the shame, the frustration, and even the apathy in the eyes of those students whose names appeared in chalk day after day.  They were six and seven years old, and I knew they deserved better.

I absolutely understand why you want it to work.  It’s a very big and very unwieldy job to be in charge of educating dozens of young children for six hours/day.  But we both have to admit that a major part of the stoplight equation, even if it works, is shaming.  And shaming children simply isn’t what we educators are supposed to do.

We also know the predictable pattern the stoplight creates.  Think about how it feels to see your name, day after day, moving towards that red circle, broadcast to your peers and anyone who walks into your classroom.  Those are the very children who struggle with “school behavior,” and they deserve our support, not embarrassment.

Or you could think about how it feels to be 5 or 6 or 7 years old and to worry daily about your name being moved from its perch on green.  I promise, there are more authentic ways to get children to think about their behavior and more compassionate ways to help children to develop those executive functioning skills.  There really are.

I know you can put a halt to it because I did, and it wasn’t even that difficult.  We simply started talking things out.  I know you can do it because my current work takes me into so many wonderful classrooms of K-3rd grade children, both public and private, urban and suburban, with amazing teachers in each of those categories who don’t use the stoplight or anything like it.

What they use, and you certainly have this too, it’s just not as visible as the stoplight is right now… is respect.  They teach and practice and brainstorm and model and discuss and live respect.  Respect for the teacher, yes.  But respect for children, too.  The stoplight used this way does not respect children, their feelings, or their struggles.

So please leave that stoplight in the supply box.  Don’t use your crisp new class list to construct more names to move from green to yellow to red. Your students are so much more than popsicle sticks or magnets, and these events in your classroom are learning opportunities for all of you.

The school year is fresh and new.  Ditch the stoplight and adopt an approach that helps every child in your classroom feel supported, not just the ones who are most able to control their behavior.  All of you will feel better at the end of the school day.  I know my students and I did.

Thank you,
Jen Bradley, Ph.D./mom to four/former chalkboard shamer

P.S. Here are three resources that can help you make the switch and stop the stoplight.  There are many more, but these can get you started:

For a list of ten alternatives to the stoplight, click here.





This is a copy of an article originally posted on Germantown Avenue Parents. To read the rich debate in the more than 200 comments that followed, please click here.

Are you a parent?  Check out our stoplight post for parents.

28 responses to “a letter to teachers on the use of stoplights in the classroom

  1. Thank you.
    You put into words my thoughts about the system used in my daughter’s classroom. As a former teacher I tried names on the board very briefly. I found just talking to the student quietly for a minute and having other consequences worked so much better, and there was a lot less stress in the classroom for everyone.

    Definitely sharing this!

  2. I agree totally! You mentioned one important thing…you did what you were told to do. In most schools, teachers are expected to implement new ideas administrators present. If not they have their own consequences to pay. Many times the only way to get rid of these practices is to discuss the problems with the principals and hope they will convey this to their boss that had the idea in the first place. In my school the teachers hated both of the behavior controls you mentioned but they had ways to appear to follow policy when they were not. There are so many programs in use today that administrators force on teachers. There is no easy answer for maintaining behavior in the classroom of today. Students at all levels know exactly what teachers can and cannot do to discipline students. I do know one thing. Ask any teacher that has taught at least five years if they would still go into teaching knowing what they know now. I ask them all the time and I have yet to find one that said yes. Instead, they say, “NO” but I am stuck or they say they are trying to find something else. The teachers that have taught many years constantly talk about retirement.

  3. Hi Sharon,
    You bring up a great point… that the top-down mandate to use systems like the stoplight can be systemic, rather than a teacher’s decision. This is something I plan to explore in a subsequent post. Thanks!

  4. Pingback: What’s wrong with classroom behavior charts? | My Family Blog·

  5. It sounds to me that you have identified what you see as a “problem” but not given very many alternatives. Where is the great letter telling teachers the awesome new ideas that you have tried? I agree that “talking” it out is good and can be effective…but what happens when you have to spend a large amount of time talking to each child and then have to talk to all the parents after school. The stop light/color chart is not the problem in our classrooms.

  6. Love the article, I am currently going through dealing with a similar behavior management system in my 5 year old son’s school. It is basically the same thing but with more levels. I had not put much thought into at first when he started school this year, but recently he has come with 6 “negative colors” in a row, and it really had me lost. Mostly because my son is not a trouble maker, he is a very caring young boy that loves to help people and make them happy. I will agree that he does his fair share of talking or playing when he isn’t really supposed to, however I view this as normal behavior for a young boy and to be honest would be more worried if he wasn’t playful or talkative. I decided to place a black star through the boxes on my son’s behavior calendar and write a note to the teacher explaining that I no longer want my son to participate in the rainbow behavior chart. She responded by letting me know that he would continue to participate in the chart in class (which is one of my main gripes with it, considering its at the front of the class) but she would not send the calendar home anymore. That is completely backwards in my opinion on how to rectify the situation and to be honest was disgusted by the matter of fact nature in which she told me that he would still participate in the chart. I am currently writing to the Principal and Superintendent. If that goes unheard I will write to the School Board, State Offices, etc. Whatever it takes. A Kindergarten teacher spends 180 days or so in the state of New York with my son, and I refuse to allow these methods to leave a life long effect.

    • Hi Concerned Dad,
      I was wondering if there was any update to this? You make so many excellent points, and I agree that the teacher’s response was not helpful.

  7. I feel that any behavioural (Aussie) system must be educative and assist a child to understand the complex social environment of the classroom. Traffic lights for kindergarten aged students sends a message that the staff will give conditional approval to students based around how the student is behaving from the viewpoint of the staff member without regard of function or needs of the student.- geez what a message that is and rest assured children will figure that out real quick. Assuming that a 48 month old child has any form of meta cognition re a choice of behaviours at such a young age is developmentally unsound- children require teaching yes even behavioural teaching. Behavioural systems need to be educative and supportive- traffic light labelling is convenient for adults , looks attractive and works for some children who don’t require it in the first place and stigmatises children who do need teaching and support but does it really promote positive behavioural learning or could it teach students that in certain situations adults will withdraw support of the child publicly and utilize negative peer reinforcement to extinguish behaviour which is in my view counter to what an educator is aiming to achieve in the first place. Too hard is it ? too many children to help one child? The journey starts with one child and the world changes for the better.
    Levels of Behaviour is the educative approach to teaching behaviour- email me if you want a copy Leith.Tarling1@education.wa.edu.au

    • HI Leith,
      You make EXCELLENT points, and I appreciate your input. I’d be very interested in seeing any resources you have to share along those lines. Is the Levels of Behavior document free?

      • Hi Jen
        Thank you for your reply :) I’m very happy to share for free through this forum. Once I have an email address I’ll send through ‘ Levels of B has US copyright but that is to protect the IP LOB for individual use plz contact for wider use :)

  8. I have been a very successful kindergarten teacher for 7 years. I have found that a behavior chart is the most effective way for students to monitor their own behavior. Along with the behavior chart, a behavior log goes home each night with each student, and a private conversation with each student as to why their color was changed has been highly effective. The student must tell their parent why their color was changed. I promote using this for young children.

    Does this work for everyone? Of course not! A behavior chart will stigmatize a child if you treat a behavior chart as a personal failure chart. In my classroom color changes are not a big deal. I tell the class: “Everyone has to change their color, even the teacher. This doesn not mean you are bad this only is something to help you remember to make a different choice next time.” I tell parents “If your child is truly having a behavior problem you will know because I will be calling or emailing you. The color chart is just a tool to help kids remember to make different choices.”

    I do believe that every teacher should use what works best with his or her population of students and differentiate the behavior modification strategies to obtain the best learning environment for the whole group. This definetely varies from class to class and teacher to teacher.

    • Hi Amy,
      I appreciate you sharing your experience. I know many teachers look at this similarly. Obviously, I have a different perspective, particularly about the information being posted publicly. But I also question the notion that children are always making choices about their behavior. I often think we talk about behavioral events as choices when in reality, they’re not. And teachers do not have to move their color in any public way, so while I think the message you’re offering (that we all have things to work on), is wonderful… with the stoplight, I argue that the delivery system is problematic.

  9. I wholeheartedly agree with all of this article and also want to add the reason I chose to discontinue the “stop light” (other than it really didn’t work!). At pick up time, parents weren’t asking “How was your day?” but instead, “Did you stay on green?”. That shouldn’t be the focus of a young child’s (or any child’s) day.
    Keeping children engaged, redirecting when needed, and teaching kindness and self control are the tools I choose to use. It works.

    • I agree Heather… so many parents have shared how much the “goal” of the day has shifted in their conversations. It sounds like you have great tools in your toolbox.

  10. I don’t agree. When I was in school spanking was allowed. So was humiliation and shaming. We were well behaved students, because these things worked. Todays students are out of control due to the parental insisstance that there angel is never wrong–no matter what they do. There was a teacher I had requested for my daughter. Other parents said, but she is a yeller and is mean. My daughter cried about it. I told her if she did what she was asked and behaved well that she would get along fine. Guess what? My daughter is 21 now and says that mean yelling woman was her favorite teacher.

    • Well Karen, recalling the days of spanking and shaming are simply not something I’m going to agree with. But I will point out a big error in your assessment of what I’m arguing… that children are never wrong no matter what they do. ALL of the approaches advocated on this site absolutely work to teach children to differentiate between right and wrong and the treys in between. They are simply longer more meaningful lessons than shaming or spanking provides.

  11. I love this article. I see this in the schools where I work. You have to teach children how to act. Simply telling them they are doing something wrong is not teaching them how to act. And…Research indicates that positive rewards work better than punishments. Thank you for putting this out there.

    • Hi Katie,
      I agree that children need guidance and support to learn these skills.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  12. I use The Responsive Classroom and also have a clip chart. I feel strongly that today’s kids are not held responsible for their own behavior in too many ways. Why can they not control it? I feel that they can and should be taught self control and do not feel that the clip chart is humiliating. I have never had other students say anything about someone being on red and actually since it means they make a phone call home themselves in my class there really aren’t too many times when a kiddo makes it past yellow (think about it). How can teaching kids self control be a bad thing?

    • Hi Sandy,
      I totally agreed that children need to learn self-control and that those skills need to be both taught and practiced, but I do think the clip chart is a negative visual if it’s publicly posted.
      Thanks for commenting,

  13. When I teach pre-service courses, I love to hand out Carol Dweck’s article, The Secret to Raising Smart Kids (Scientific American, December 2007). Every teacher and parent should read it.

  14. Have you ever heard of the apple tree? My daughter (who is now in college with kindergarten well behind her) had a kindergarten teacher who used an apple tree for classroom behavior. All the students started off the day with nice, bright red apples which were near the top of this very large, 10 ft. high tree. As a student’s behavior was identified as unacceptable, the apple was replaced with a green apple near the middle of the tree. Upon the second misstep, the apple became yellow and was located near the bottom of the tree. If a student was at the 4th level of unacceptable behavior, their apple was brown with a worm in it and it was on the ground below the tree. Imagine the impact on a 5-year-old child who received the repeated message that not only were they not acceptable, they were rotten apples with worms. My daughter never had such an apple, but my heart broke for the students who were frequent offenders. One little boy whose apple frequently landed on the ground, rotten, was usually seated by my daughter because she could concentrate despite of his lack of focus. Over the years, they continued to end up assigned to the same elementary classes and she continued to be assigned to sit next to him. She was nice to him and didn’t shun him the way other kids had done since kindergarten. I think it was because she knew how much it hurt me to see his name on that rotten apple; so, she tried to help him with his work when she was allowed to.

  15. Pingback: Public School and The Unconventional Parent; How I Made the Choice - RESPECTFUL PARENT | RESPECTFUL PARENT·

  16. Pingback: stoplight spotlight: one teacher shares how she moved beyond the stoplight | beyond the stoplight·

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