Schools, Stickers and Shame

I was recently left a comment on a previous post about home educating my son which contained such an excellent question that I felt it deserved a whole post of its own in response!

I have a question, if that's ok. My daughter is about to start school and they have a typical system for behaviour - your name tag is in this place if your behaviour is ok, up here if your behaviour has been good, and down here if it's not acceptable. In Sally Donovan's book she talks about hating this system and how it shames children. Our children are not adopted, but I relate to what Sally says...although I don't fully understand it. Why doesn't Sally like this system? And what alternative system would you suggest for helping children understand what behaviour is acceptable (or not)? Many thanks.

I did reply in the comments, but I think the use of behaviour charts in all their variations is so widespread and such an accepted part of behaviour management both in homes and in schools, that the issue merits a more detailed response (although I must make it clear that I am not claiming to speak for Sally Donovan!!).

Let me start by saying that I personally don't believe sticker chart systems to be wrong or bad in all circumstances or for all children all of the time. I have friends who use them in effective and imaginative ways in their homes, and when I was teaching I used a system where each child kept their own log of reward marks which was private and designed to recognise positive achievements in work or behaviour - these achievements were according to each child's own personal goals. Were I to go back to teaching now, though, I'm not sure if I would use that system again without many revisions.

My own issues with behaviour charts are twofold:

1. They assume that the child is able to perform the required behaviour but requires external motivation to do so. I'll say more about this in a moment.

2. In a classroom, they are often displayed in a public place, shaming the child who is always under the raincloud or in the red zone or whatever in front of their peers. Imagine if your workplace posted your performance indicators on the wall for everybody to see? As an adult, finding your name at the bottom of the achievement list may motivate you to some extent. If you are a strong and confident person you might take bold steps to make sure that never happened again.  But it might also cause you embarrassment or shame. How would you deal with that embarrassment? Would you hide away? Become defensive? Make light of it by joking around? Become angry and feel resentful? What if your work suffered that quarter because of circumstances beyond your control? Would you feel unfairly singled out? For a child who is already struggling, public humiliation is unlikely to achieve the desired improvement in attitude.

Let's return to the problem of motivation versus ability. In the home, potty training is often accompanied by sticker charts. These can be fun for some children and are designed to reinforce the desired behaviour in a gentle and positive way. We wouldn't use a green zone / yellow zone / red zone or sunshine / raincloud approach to potty training because we know that our little ones are only just learning how to understand their body's urges and accidents will happen. It would be cruel and arbitrary to punish them or humiliate them for that.

Birdy is just about 18 months old. She is not ready for potty training. She shows no signs of readiness. So obviously it wouldn't be fair to suddenly remove her nappies and expect her to use the potty or toilet. There would be a lot of weeing on the floor and the promise of a shiny sticker would not help. It isn't her motivation that's the problem, it's her ability. She is not developmentally ready.

Before we attempt to motivate a child, we must first assess their ability to do what we are expecting of them. If they are unable, then our best efforts to motivate them will have the opposite effect. Whether by lack of understanding or lack of ability, they will fail to achieve the reward over and over again. And it's even worse if we then assign them a place of shame on the behaviour chart, under the raincloud for all to see their failure.

In my experience, most young children are not lacking in internal motivation to connect, to fit in, to 'please'. For those who succeed, the external motivating reward is simply icing on the cake, confirming their positive view of themselves. For those who fail, the reinforcement of their failure damages their positive view of themselves, creates doubt about their worth and quenches their internal motivation. What's the point of trying? I'm useless and everyone knows it.

For some children, "I'm useless" is already their internal story, woven into their worldviews very early on by trauma, neglect, abuse, abandonment, rejection and loss. We need to be very careful about how we handle these children so as not to compound their already very negative view of themselves.

Always, the answer to the question about how we teach children what is acceptable behaviour is to focus on the individual children, not general ideas about behaviour. The same behaviour might be exhibited by different children for completely different reasons, and the solutions will be different depending on the 'why'.

Let's take a child who is always distracted, not focusing on the teacher, looking around the room, disrupting others and not getting on with their own work. Tasks are always unfinished or rushed and betray a lack of attention and focus. Does this child need moving to the front of the class away from distractions? Maybe this child has ADHD and needs the work broken down into more manageable chunks to account for a shorter attention span. Or maybe this child is hyper-vigilant as a result of early abuse or neglect. They can't focus on their work because they are always concerned about preserving their own safety and so must check out every sound, every movement around them, craning their necks to see the potential threat. Moving such a child to the front of the class to avoid distractions simply moves all the potential threats to the worst possible place - behind them where they can't see! Better to move that child to the back of the room in full view of the classroom door so they can quickly assess any threat with a glance, reassure themselves of their own safety and return to the task more quickly.

What will not help either of these children is to put their name under a raincloud. It's not their motivation that is lacking, but their capacity to produce the desired behaviour. Understanding the 'why' helps us to make changes to create an environment in which they can show us what they can do instead of highlighting what they can't.

Do we stop teaching children positive behaviour and reinforcing that? No. Do we remove all consequences? In my view, no. In life, there are consequences and our children do need to know that. But before we teach we need to make sure that the child is in a position to learn, and that what we are teaching them and expecting of them is in line with their development and ability. And when we decide to apply consequences they need to be proportionate, natural (i.e. you drew on the desk so you need to help me clean the desk), appropriately timed, privately administered and non-shaming.

In the classroom, with 30 children, this is a tall order, but a good start would be to ensure that expectations in are clearly-framed and positive, i.e. a list of what we DO rather than focus on what we do not do. We do respect others, we do act kindly, we do value learning. This can be accompanied by ongoing classroom discussion about what these mean to everyone day to day. Dealing with problem behaviour can then be moved quickly to talking about positive changes that can be made with the classroom expectations as a guide. Fifteen years ago I would have thought of these approaches as namby pamby touchy feely. After five years of parenting a child affected by influences outside his control, I've completely changed my views.

(Disclaimer: I am not a world expert on this subject or a child psychologist, just an ex-teacher with my own views based on my experiences of parenting a child who has experienced trauma. If you really want to know more about this topic and get a proper professional's word on it then I encourage you to read anything by Nicola Marshall, founder of Braveheart Education, or Dr Louise Bomber who has written extensively on the subject.)


  1. For a great covering the topic but not related to adopted children, I recommend "The Explosive Child" (for parents) and/or "Lost at School" (for teachers) - both explain Dr Greene's Collaborative approach to problem solving with kids (ie. collaboration with kids). His main mantra "kids do well if they can" is echoed in the blog post above.

    1. Thanks Charlotte - I don't know those books, but I'll check them out.

  2. I've found both books very helpful. I am not an adopter, but first started reading adoption blogs about 2 years ago when preparing to write a reference for my friends to adopt their son (now my godson). I was struck by the similarities in the behaviour of my eldest son (now 6) to many adopted children, and whilst reassured that others' faced similar struggles, confused as to why a non-adopted child would be exhibiting attachment/trauma-style issues. Fast forward 2 years and we're looking at an ASD diagnosis. I stumbled on the 'explosive child' book after trying to find something, irrespective of a diagnosis, that would help me not only to better understand my son, but actually offer realistic practical strategies to help him (and me) cope with the world. It has been a huge help (not a panacea), and I must have now re-read it about 4 times. The school one is also great, and whilst I haven't had the courage to give a copy to his teacher, I make suggestions to her that have come from the book! Have also been seriously considering HE (currently deterred by the fact that his school are great with him and I work full-time), so find your blog really helpful. Anyway, that's enough. I don't have twitter or a blog, but faithfully read, digest and learn from you (and other adopter blogs) on a regular basis. Thank you!

    1. That's interesting - there is a lot of overlap between attachment/trauma issues and ASD. Someone published a handy chart to show the similarities and differences somewhere, which I found useful at the time. Anyway, thank you for reading, I really appreciate it! :)

  3. Its strange you should post this today. I have been musing on the fact there is a public display like the ones you talk about above (the raincloud and red zone etc) where I work. The public shaming aspect of it makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. So far, I have not come up against anything like this in my eldest's school setting but then, again he hasn't been there that long! I am dreading how I go about addressing something like this if I do come up against it! Your post has been very helpful and I think I will be saving it in case I ever do have to have this discussion.

    1. I'm so glad you found it helpful Alice. They are in quite widespread use, and really I don't want to blame schools for using them as they have been the accepted wisdom for a while, and aim to reduce the amount of 'telling off' a teacher does - it's a simple, visual display which avoids disrupting the lesson. But I do think it's not the best approach for some (many? all?) children.

    2. "aim to reduce the amount of 'telling off' a teacher does - it's a simple, visual display which avoids disrupting the lesson."
      Ok, but it relies on my looking at the cloud (and being able to both see and understand the meaning of the cloud, let's assume I have my glasses with me and don't have an educational delay or similar which would impair either of these). I know teachers have hundreds of things to do. I know I am probably expecting too much. But which of the twenty things I did in the last 5 minutes has made me end up under the cloud? It's creating a guessing game. Surely the teacher can come and speak to me quietly about something I've done s/he doesn't like, or indicate for her TA to do that, or SOMETHING which doesn't tell the whole world 'Judy is a bad little girl!'.

      Oh dear! I am definitely not on the side of the sticker chart!

  4. Can't believe you wrote a whole blog post on my question! Thank you for a full, useful, response.

    I think it's the shame thing that doesn't sit well with me personally. I don't tell my children off loudly or in public, and I generally avoid smacking. Why should the whole class be sat there looking at a list of who's managed to keep their hands to themselves, and who is over excited because they are going on holiday tomorrow/they ate the chocolate pudding at lunch time/is exhausted because their baby brother kept them awake all night crying/has an undiagnosed learning difficulty... the list goes on! I don't shout it about when my child has missed my behaviour standards for that day. A teacher definitely shouldn't, surely?

    And, even more so, you have to do very little to get back in my good books. To get off the step (our current place to sit for thinking about our unacceptable behaviour) you wait, you think, you apologise, I forgive you, you get a cuddle. Maybe schools can't go as far as the cuddles, but is it unrealistic for them to forgive and forget behaviour as quickly as possible, to move on from what I did an hour ago and can barely remember doing, and focus on the great painting I'm doing NOW, or the kind sharing I'm doing NOW, or the great Lego tower I've made NOW...etc. etc. Surely leaving my name with a literal black cloud hanging over it as I leave your classroom at the end of the day cannot inspire me to return to school the next day, let alone behave well when I get there?

    Yes, I think once I know my child's class teacher better, I might have to debate this one! Even if I don't win (it is a school wide policy), at least I can sow the seed of doubt.

    Thanks again, Suddenly Mummy.

    1. Thanks Judy - both your replies raise additional, excellent points, particularly about the timescales involved and the 'hangover' for the child. I hope you manage to engage in really helpful dialogue with your child's class teacher :)

    2. Update : arrived at school the other day and two children were on the cloud. Like, left there from yesterday because the teacher forgot to move them back. I'm afraid I moved them back for her! Yes I was probably out of line. What would you have done?

    3. I love that! Ah well, yes, probably a bit close to the line, but a point well made nonetheless :) How did the teacher react? I'd hate to go out of my way to make a teacher's life more difficult that it undoubtedly already is, but what can seem like little things can be really big things for our children.


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