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

    "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." (Photo courtesy of Jen Bradley)

    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 a 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 five or six or seven 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:

    Responsive Classroom
    Positive Psychology in the Classroom, Psychology Today
    Conflict Resolution Programs, National Education Association


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