ten stoplight alternatives

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Neither the original post nor any of the material that follows it is meant to blame or shame teachers.  In fact, quite the opposite.  I’ve spent my entire career working to be a teacher and support teachers.  Teachers enter the field because they care deeply about children and want to make a difference. It’s a wonderfully noble profession and one for which I have enormous respect.

But that doesn’t mean that every practice being used in classrooms is good for children.  Teachers are human. We make mistakes, and if we’re reflective, we work hard to do better the next time around.  This site is designed to help teachers and parents rethink a questionable practice, explore alternatives, and work to support and nurture all children in a classroom.

In the comments at the end of my original post discussing why the stoplight is problematic, many people asked about alternatives to the stoplight and similar systems.  Each idea on this list will eventually be turned into a full piece elaborating on the concept, but for now, we’ll start with an annotated/hyperlinked list.   Here are ten alternatives to the stoplight:

1. Make it private.  If you absolutely feel as though you must use a stoplight, the very best piece of advice for eliminating the public shame it can unleash is to make the stoplight private.  Instead of having one chart in the front of the room for all to see, share results with children privately on an individual basis.  It isn’t anyone else’s business what color a child is on.  Making feedback private helps eliminate embarrassment and avoids the constant comparison against peers.  This doesn’t address all of the issues with the stoplight by any means, but it’s a good place to start.

2. Talk with students.  Ask your students (both present and former) about their views on the stoplight system.  Talk with students whose names hang out on green and the ones whose popsicle stick often moves away from it.  Listen to children talk about what they learn from the stoplight, how it makes them feel, and what ideas they have for alternatives.

3. Talk with parents.  Because sometimes the fallout from school is felt more deeply at home, ask parents how the stoplight affects and works for their child.  What messages do children carry home about your classroom?  Does talk of the stoplight dominate their reports?  How are stoplight results handled at home?

4. Talk with educators who do things differently.  What do they use instead of a stoplight?  Do they have resources to share? Would that work in your room?  How might you tweak their idea?  Did they ditch the stoplight?  If so, what effect did it have on their class?  On their relationship with students?

5. Build a Responsive Classroom.  This approach helps teachers and students form nurturing and engaging classrooms for elementary children.  Because so much work is done up front building classroom community through practices like Morning Meeting, Shared Rule Creation, and Guided Discovery, there are fewer events that call for Collaborative Problem Solving and Logical Consequences.

6. Adopt Positive Discipline.  Positive Discipline is designed to help children feel connected, construct mutually respectful and encouraging solutions, be effective long-term,  teach important social (and life) skills, and empower children.  One of the most tangible components from Positive Discipline (handy for teachers who are required to use a visual system like the stoplight) is the Wheel of Choice.

7. Implement Restorative Justice.  Restorative Justice is effective in so many different fields because the concept behind it is so essential. Using restorative practices, students work to repair hurt or harm caused.  Circles, routines, peer mediation, check-ins and conferencing allow the school community to build lifelong skills and work through issues in a positive, relational way.

8. Build a Democratic Classroom.  We live in a democracy.  Allowing children from a young age to negotiate, share power, make decisions and solve problems will prepare them well for society beyond the playground.

9. Establish a Social Skills Curriculum.  For children, the social curriculum is every bit as essential as the academic curriculum.  Children who struggle with empathy, impulse control, and aggression benefit enormously from reading about, brainstorming, problem-solving, and role-playing situational issues.  Social skills curricula like Second Step not only help children who struggle; it benefits the entire classroom community.

10. Explore Positive Psychology.  Rather than focusing on the maladaptive behaviors, Positive Psychology focuses on how people thrive.    Emotions, individual traits, and institutions are all examined as lenses into understanding ways in which we can create healthier outcomes, spaces, and communities.

While this list is far from exhaustive, it will hopefully serve as a useful starting place.  Please share your thoughts below or visit us on Facebook.

23 thoughts

  1. This is still not a list of alternatives for dealing with inappropriate behavior on the spot. What teachers need are ideas that work while they are having circle time, while they are lining up, while they are listening to a story. These are are all background for building a positive environment, a very important concept, but it takes a lot of time to get there. Teachers need ideas of what to do the first quarter when 1 child is disrupting the class. What do the other 19 do while you are constantly stopping to have a private discussion?

    1. Edna,
      Thanks for your comment. I totally agree that teachers need on-the-spot strategies and that setting up a positive environment takes time. I know from experience that taking the time to do that work means less of a need for on-the-spot strategies, but I will work on assembling some concrete on-the-spot ideas that teachers use in situations like the ones you propose. However, I would argue the very same points about the stoplight… it doesn’t solve the issues on the rug or private conversations in and of itself either. Either way, children will need to be taught and guided towards more appropriate ways of classroom membership.

      1. Hi, I just came across this post as I am dealing with this issue in my classroom and would love to see if you have created a list of on-the-spot strategies by now (or if you know or some other resources to find these kinds of strategies without using a behavior chart). If so I would be delighted to take a look at it. Thanks!

  2. A stoplight or other public system is a visual reminder that choices have consequences. Shame only becomes a factor when the intent of the teacher is not to train, but to humiliate or punish. Discipline should be motivated by the desire to train, not punish or humiliate. Much of this is determined by the character of the teacher who is using the stoplight. We use a clipboard with five levels. Students who have difficulty have an opportunity to move their clip to a more positive location that same day. We find it works well and motivates them to improve their behavior very quickly.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I too agree that choices have consequences, but I don’t believe that children should be publicly shamed. I believe that whether a child is unable to meet expectations due to choices, being overwhelmed, or lacking those skills, that child should be supported in developing those skills. I do agree that the character of the teacher influences how the chart is used… yet at the core, it still remains a public shaming system. I would argue that Teachers can provide children with feedback about their choices and behavior without making it into a public display that remains at the front of the room well past the incident.

  3. Are you from Iowa? I understand they did away with the stop sign years ago, and are required to keep discipline logs private. I totally agree with you on this! It actually works the opposite for the ‘high-flyers’ in many cases, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e. if I’m always going to be on red, then I might as well act like a ‘red’).

  4. I don’t see it as inherently “shaming,” and I think it speaks volumes about how fragile and narcissistic we assume children are and then because of that assumption, raise them to be. The “shame” it’s assumed children feel when they are held publicly accountable for their actions, chosen or not, is taught, not inborn. When we make everything secret we are teaching them that they are to be ashamed of poor actions and we are removing them from the real consequences of their actions and the reasons correct behavior is necessary: its effect on others. Instead of hiding the fact that we all do not behave perfectly all the time and thus creating shame, why not let kids be publicly, positively exposed to the real consequences? Why do we assume that all children are so fragile that they will be destroyed when faced with consequences for their actions? Why do we assume that they are so narcissistic, so certain of their own perfection, that they will crumble when confronted with their flaws, those consequences, and the fact that we all need to grow and change (we are *not*, as the element arise love to ridiculously, destructively teach children, “perfect the way we are”)? I am not at all suggesting that at every error the whole class points and laughs while the teacher sings out “Timmy spoke out of turn! Haha what a fool!” Absolutely not. But if we shamefully hide all our imperfections, we will never learn from each other, we will never grow, and our children will continue down the horrendous path of being certain of their own perfection and not connecting actions with consequences.

  5. Why don’t we simply rub their little backs and tell them how wonderful they are. Then we can have more generations of narcissistic young adults who have no coping skills and think they are great and entitled because they were born. Self esteem comes from accomplishments not words of praise for doing nothing. Consequences are part of life! Get over the red light losers!

  6. I think this is a quick fix for teachers. My son has had “Yellow” 3 days in a row, on the third day I asked him, “What happened?” he told me he’s just a LOSER! That’s where I draw the line! I’m the one who now has to consul a child who thinks he’s bad, worthless and can’t do anything right. All within the first week of Kindergarten! Is a straight line worth a child thinking they are a LOSER?

  7. This reminds me of giving participation awards, oohhh do everything in private..next thing I know I’m going to be getting sued if a kids on red. No, that is extreme, but please take these “loser” colors (which they’re not) as a teachable moment with your child. If my child is disrupting the class after many reminders then yes, she deserves to be called out on it! If there is a reason that’s not her fault (someone’s tapping on her etc.) The she’ll tell the teacher!! No offense and total respect, but as a 12 year educator this article thoroughly confuses me. If a teacher uses a behavior system you as a parent don’t like, talk to them. Don’t knock excellent teachers who have a plan that works well for them. Nothing is 100%. The suggestions in this article are common sense and we all do them, or most of them!

  8. After 20 years in the teaching field, teaching every grade from K through 8th, inner city NY/Atlanta/S Florida and now Seattle, I’ve been told to retire my “traffic light” classroom management system. I’m a 6’2″, 220lb bald former recon Marine who now teaches Kindergarten, and each year the kids (and parents) are getting worse. Helicopter/Lawnmower parents who don’t want their children “publicly shamed” by being held accountable for their actions are setting their children -and themselves- up for failure. There are consequences for the choices we make in life-to shield a child from that is doing them a grave disservice.

    1. There is a big difference in shaming children and holding them accountable for their actions. The aim in removing shame from schools is to find a way that helps children focus on the action and how to make it right rather than focus on their on depleting self worth.
      Shaming is a quick, clear way to deal with immediate behaviours but it doesn’t have a positive effect on anything in the long run, including repeating negative behaviours.
      Through positive relationships and mutual respect, teachers and children can focus on the action and the guilt it may bring. Guilt brings a want or need to make things better and the opportunity to make it better builds a more together community.

      I agree that society today is far more sensitive than it was 20 years ago but we have to change with it. You don’t make it 20 years as a teacher without being great at it. But the traffic light system isn’t the reason you’ve been great at it.

  9. I want to thank you for number 3 above.
    My oldest daughter was so stressed out trying to be perfect at school that she was completely exhausted by the time she got home. High stakes tests and assignments, shaming classroom management techniques, teachers who didn’t listen to the needs of the students made her so anxious. She’s an excellent student and a good human but she would act out at home as a result of the tension she felt in the classroom.

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