DisCrit & the Stoplight

The “stoplight,” (and similar versions of public behavior management systems such as Class Dojo, the color chart, or clipchart) are often thought of as neutral devices ‘helping’ students and teachers monitor classroom behavior. Under the stoplight system, everyone starts out on the color green. Green is the happy place where everyone is listening and behaving according to class norms and rules. Each child has an item with their name on it, often magnets or clothespins. Their “name” at the front of the room is moved (or not) from color to color throughout the day according to the child’s behavior. Good behavior all day long means your name can stay on green. Minor infractions get you moved to yellow, which may have minor consequences. Larger infractions or ignoring repeated warnings get you moved to red, with more serious consequences (call home, detention, missed recess, etc.)

Image Description: a construction paper version of a traffic light hangs on the wall of a classroom
with student’s names printed on 18 school buses all hanging near the green circle.

While the stoplight system is a cousin of the individual behavior monitoring tools drawn from Special Education, it is neither used individually, nor is it supportive of children with IEPs and 504 plans. It is most often used as a one size fits all, zero-tolerance (but creatively decorated) classroom artifact. I’ve even seen some teachers use Star Wars and Harry Potter and Marvel themes to get students excited about the chart. I grew up with the nuns’ bare-bones version of this. We had our names written on the board if we were being kept inside for recess due to behavior, and as a young teacher, that was all I knew.

Img Description: a child with long black hair in a ponytail sits alone in an empty elementary school desk on the right/front side,
with an empty teacher’s desk in the background on the left side.

But I saw how poorly it worked- how my same first graders were able to “stay on green,” and how there were very familiar faces on yellow and red most days. I noticed how the system did nothing to offer them help or guidance to adjusting to classroom norms; it merely held them accountable when they didn’t. I saw that it was based on shame (and at home, often used as a rationale for physical punishment). And I also noticed that although all of my students were Black, those with (both diagnosed and undiagnosed) learning and behavior “issues” created my entire frequent flyer group.

I’ve seen a version of this system used across the vast majority of PreK-3rd grade classrooms I’ve visited. While many of these visits have been in schools with predominantly Black and Brown students, some have been in predominantly White suburban and independent schools as well. Similar to my own first grade class, children (diagnosed and undiagnosed) who struggle with learning and behavioral expectations populate the yellow and red lights in classroom after classroom I’ve visited. And in the predominantly White schools, I have observed that a disproportionate number of those children are also children of the global majority, both with and without “special needs.” 

DisCrit Tenet One is useful in examining this practice: “DisCrit focuses on ways that the forces of racism and ableism circulate interdependently, often in neutralized and invisible ways, to uphold notions of normalcy” (Annamma, Connor & Ferri, 2013). In the stoplight system, ‘appropriate’ behavior is presented as a neutral construct, with agreed upon and shared expectations. The relationship of this practice and these expectations to White and able-bodied norms is rarely, if ever called into question. The system is presented as race-neutral. In fact, it’s seen and presented as identity-neutral; all children simply can and should conform to these behavioral expectations. But intersectionality (Crenshaw 1989) reminds us that there is no such thing as identity-neutral. In fact, the ways in which being, for example, a Black male student with ADHD within this system differs from being a White male, female, or non-binary student with the same diagnosis, without this reality being acknowledged or addressed. As commonly practiced, many of the behaviors being tracked by the system uphold Eurocentric, gendered, and ableist notions of teaching and learning, and it fails to address the wider range of capabilities and challenges a disabled student faces in conforming to the expectations.

Img Description: Text reads “The School to Prison Pipeline” written in a yellow undergound pipe connecting a school on the left and a prison on the right in simple black, white, and yellow cartoon style on a grey background.

DisCrit Tenet Five is also relevant in thinking about the stoplight practice: “DisCrit considers legal and historical aspects of dis/ability and race and how both have been used separately and together to deny the rights of some citizens” (Annamma, Connor & Ferri, 2013). Although the stakes may seem emotionally high to the individual student, the lessons of the stoplight are typically presented in a relatively low stakes way. Although the kindergartner who comes home with a report that they were “on red” that day may face some consequences at school or at home, these types of consequences are believed to be within the normal range of school disciplinary practices. However, Tenet Five encourages us to dig more deeply and examine the ways in which practices may be connected to the legal and historical denial of rights. The ‘school to prison’ and ‘special education to prison’ pipeline/nexus often begins as early as preschool. In fact, Black preschool boys are the most frequently expelled students of any population, and their ‘behaviors’ serve as their grounds for expulsion. School expulsions are directly tied to dropout rates, and the youngest Black students, and especially boys, are disproportionately disciplined in schools. Similarly, students in special education, particularly those with behavioral, emotional and learning issues, are often harshly punished within the educational system, leading to overrepresentation in incarceration. It is not a stretch then, to see how these seemingly neutral early disciplinary and exclusion practices both mimic and create the conditions that have historically led to disproportionately pushing Black and Brown students with special needs out of school and towards the prison industrial complex. 


Annamma, Subini Ancy, David Connor, and Beth Ferri, 2013, “Dis/Ability Critical Race Studies (DisCrit): Theorizing at the Intersections of Race and Dis/Ability”, Race Ethnicity and Education, 16(1): 1–31. doi:10.1080/13613324.2012.730511

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. U.Chi.Legal F., 1989 – HeinOnline.

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