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.

12 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 :)

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