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My Classroom Management Must-Haves: Color Charts

By Alycia Zimmerman on August 10, 2011
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

At the beginning of each school year, I revisit the question that is central to my beliefs about classroom management. How do I structure a classroom environment where my students actively nurture the community because they believe in the importance of co-creating the world in which they want to work and play? Over the years I have experimented with several systems, and I continue to grow and refine my management style. However, I’ve stumbled upon some keepers that I use from year to year. This week I am going to share one of my go-to management strategies, The Color Chart.

The Prequel: Establishing Classroom Rules

Rule Brainstorming During the first week of school, my students choose the classroom values that they agree to uphold for the entire year. This is a collaborative process. My students brainstorm every possible rule they can think up, and I chart their ideas. They really get into this activity, with ideas ranging from “Don’t spill juice on your homework,” to “Compliment others.” 

As I record their ideas, I keep a running list in my head of a couple of core values that can serve as an umbrella for all of their ideas. Last year, I realized that I could condense my students’ list to five core values. I congratulate my students on their exhaustive list, and then I share my guiding observation: “As you were sharing all of your rules, I noticed that many of your ideas fit into certain categories. For example, I noticed that a lot of your rules fall under the value 'work hard.' How many of you can find a rule that goes along with this value?” 

I check off the rules that my students feel fall under that heading, and then we go through the process again, color coding for another core value. By the end, the students realize that all of their rules are covered in our core community values – and I emphasize that these are values that they created. This comes from the students, not from me!

I copy our community values onto a new chart, and the students copy the five values onto a contract. (See the PDF below.) The contract not only includes the five values, it also explains our classroom consequences and how we use a "color chart" to keep track of student behavior. The students sign their contract, and then bring it home to have it signed by their families. 

Values Contract Thumbnail
  Class Values Chart

Download Class Values Contract

The Color Chart

Now that we have established our community values, I need to provide a structure to reinforce those expectations throughout the year. After struggling with several other management systems, my friend Lindsay introduced me to the color chart, and I have never looked back. Yes, you can buy premade behavior management pocket charts, but since I had an unused pocket chart in my closet, I decided to make my own. 

I bought a pack of colored index cards, and trimmed the cards into squares. For each of my students, I wrote their names onto four cards, one of each color. I slipped the cards into the pocket chart, wrote up a chart explaining the consequences, and I was set!

When I introduce the color chart rules, I have students practice changing their colors independently without disrupting the class. This is essential – if I ask a student to change her color, I expect the student to do so quietly without a verbal response. In turn, I make sure to keep my voice level and dispassionate when asking a student to change her color. This is not a punishment, simply a reminder to adhere to our classroom values.

ColorChart   ColorChartRules
 

Think Sheets

If a student changes to "orange" on our class color chart (after two poor decisions,) they need to fill out a "think sheet" to reflect upon their decisions and how they can improve their behavior. I review the think sheet afterwards, and the student takes the form home to be signed by a parent or guardian. I keep a supply of think sheets in a manila envelope attached to the wall under the color chart, so that a student can take a think sheet and work on it without disrupting a lesson or getting any extra attention from me. 

Download Think Sheet

Friday Reward

Students who earn four or five stars throughout the week get to participate in the “Friday Reward." "Friday Reward" is intentionally vague. At the beginning of the year, it is usually a teacher-directed game that we play as a class at the end of the day on Friday. Later during the year, I sometimes give them a half hour of "free choice," with several options of activities, (e.g. art projects, chess, Legos, computer games, etc.) Other weeks, we spend extra time on the playground. I've even led short yoga classes for my students when we all needed a calm yet physical way to end the week.  I like how "Friday Reward" is open-ended, so that I can adjust for the time at hand and the mood of my students.

Comments (17)

With special needs students there can sometimes be issues as students see that everyone was is not treated the "same", they have difficulty with the fact that equalness is not always sameness.

I'm still rather new to elementary teaching, and trying to find a classroom management system that will work for me. I love your idea of having kids list all the rules they can think of, and then creating your class/community values from that.

On the other hand, I struggle with the color-card system. I've used this type of system as well as the clothespin system and several other varieties on the theme, in student teaching and in many, many classrooms as a substitute. I find I have a hard time being consistent in telling kids to flip their cards/move their pins. Part of my concern is what to do when a child reaches red early in the day... If the child continues to misbehave beyond that time (which is likely to happen in the case of children who get to red that quickly), what do I do next?

Hi Stacy, I'm sorry to hear that the Think Sheet link isn't working. Perhaps you have a pop-up blocker turned on, or the file is downloading to some unspecified location. Regardless, if you can't get the link to work on this webpage, I've also posted my Think Sheet on my class website at www.alyciazimmerman.com/management-tools.html. Perhaps you'll have more luck if you try to download the file from there.

Enjoy the new school year! Alycia

I would love to use your think sheet, but when I click on the link it doesn't open into a program. I tried opening it at school and at home and something is not working. Would you be able to take a look at it? I had a great first day of school and I'm hoping your system will work for my class! :)

Katy, thanks for the compliment! As far as whole-group Friday reward activities, I try to keep it varied. Pictionary and charades are always favorites. Telephone Pictionary works particularly well, because everyone is drawing/writing at the same time. For a more active game, we've played mega pick-up sticks. (Same idea as pick-up sticks, but big enough for everyone to join in by using the cardboard tubes from wrapping paper rolls.) If the weather is nice outside, we use colored chalk to create a class sidewalk mural. These are just some of the things I've tried in the past.

All the best, Alycia

Great ideas, Alycia! I love the reflection students must participate in when they've been making unsavory choices.

What type of teacher-directed activities do you lead your students in for Friday Reward (at first)?

Hi Stacy, I'm also a third grade teacher, so yes, I definitely think this works well with third graders! :) I've actually known teachers from first through fifth grade who have also used color chart management systems.

Regards from a fellow third grade teacher - Alycia

Hi Gina, thank you for your comments! In my classroom, I don't let students "earn back" their color cards during the day, but every student starts each day on green every morning, regardless of their behavior the prior day. That said, I totally understand your point of view. By letting a student earn back a card, you are certainly driving home an important message about learning from their mistakes and reforming their behavior accordingly.

For my third graders, I personally want them to learn to live with their consequences for an entire day. I certainly expect them to correct their behavior after changing their color - in fact, if they don't, I will ask them to change their color again. (Yes, there is double jeopardy in my color system.) I've always been concerned that if I let my students earn back their color cards, this will result in an unhealthy spiral of rule-breaking followed by concessionary behavior. I want my students to realize that their negative actions hurt others, and this hurt doesn't go away easily.

Gina, I am so glad you've shared your spin on the color system. It's such a great example of how we teachers adapt our management systems to fit our students and our values. Management is certainly not a one-size-fits-all topic! (Come to think of it, is anything related to education one-size-fits-all? Probably not.)

Warm regards - Alycia

Rebecca, thank you for sharing your strategy about the clothespins! I've seen many teachers use that management strategy with great results, particularly with younger students. It's really amazing how powerful a visual behavior cue is for our students, isn't it? My students are always really proud to report to their families that they made excellent choices throughout the school day, and had another "green day." Our systems help our students learn to manage their own behavior and feel successful doing so. Best of luck with your class this year!

Cheers - Alycia

Hi Sam, thanks for writing! You raise some very interesting points with your comment. Classroom management is certainly a personal topic, and I have yet to meet two teachers who manage their classrooms exactly the same way. In this post, I have shared a strategy that I have used successfully for several years. I also know many other teachers who use their own adaptation of a color chart system, and it has worked with many populations of students. However, this is not say that this is the end-all solution for classroom management, or necessarily the best. Given the philosophical and sociological implications inherent in a classroom management system, I fully agree that every educator should view her practices with a reflective and critical eye.

As I said, every educator needs to find a balance that works for him/her. I personally choose not to use tangible rewards or incentives in my classroom, however I am comfortable awarding privilege time, such as our free choice activities. Of course, other educators are not comfortable with that, and I certainly understand their point of view as well. In my opinion, there is a difference between earning prizes and earning a privilege, but I guess you could argue that it's just semantics.

In my classroom, the color chart becomes fairly irrelevant after the first month or two of school. It provides a visual symbol to remind my students of our co-created social norms, but it is not an active part of our daily classroom life. Basically, at the beginning of the school year, I feel my students need a scaffold to help them with the transition back into a classroom setting. It helps my students feel safe, and that creates an environment where they are willing to take academic and interpersonal risks. As the school year progresses and the relationships grow stronger in our community, I lead frequent discussions about moral topics, community values, and social responsibility. Sam, if you could hear my students discussions and thinking, you would realize how much further my students are in terms of Kohlberg's stages than level two! My students share my ethic of "working hard and playing hard," and this is what the Friday Reward system reinforces in my classroom, not self-interested compliance. Phew, that's certainly more than my two-cents, but I appreciate the soap box to explore these important issues!

Regards, Alycia

I love the idea of a color chart. Do you think it would be appropriate for a third grade classroom?

Hi there! I appreciate how you have involved the students in setting the rules for the classroom. This is valuable for students to take ownership! One question I have: Do you allow students to earn back a card? I have used a chart that allows students to go forward and backward. When a student earns back their card I usually state what behavior they have chosen to earn back the card. It is my belief that the student can recognize their mistake and then improve their behavior. Thanks!

I use a chart with clothespins because I teach a younger group of kids. I like the color chart for older students. The more my students can see their clothespin move, the more they realize the expectations.

This is confusing to me. How do you tell a child that they can't do something, and that they have to do something else that isn't their first, second, third option and not have it be a punishment, regardless of how you frame it? What else would it be? Anyway, this TED talk seems to suggest you are on the wrong track: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html Looking at Lawrence Kohlberg's 6 levels of moral development, this system seems to get the children to think all the way up to level 2.

Thank you, Alycia, for answering my question in such detail and for visiting my blog. Yes, wikki stix are great!

Jeremy, thanks for your excellent question. I don't have a straightforward answer about what students do during Friday reward if they haven't earned four or five stars. It really depends on the student and the situation. In my opinion, missing out on Friday reward shouldn't feel punitive or demeaning. Yes, consequences are necessary, but just the fact that they are missing out on an activity with their friends is enough to drive home the message. The "what" of the alternate activity during the Friday reward time is less important.

Usually, a student who does not participate in Friday reward will do some classwork of his or her choosing. I am very deliberate in making it clear that the school work is NOT the punishment! (This would obviously send the wrong message.) Instead, I present it as a productive option for filling their time while the rest of the class is otherwise engaged. So, a student may choose to work on math problems, reading, write a story, or one of our unit anchor activities. Sometimes, a student will ask to help with a classroom job such as sharpening pencils, organizing library books, or tidying our supply bins. If this is what the child prefers, and he can complete the task independently, I allow this as an option as well. To my thinking, missing out on Friday reward is the consequence in and of itself. I don't believe that I need to make the alternate activity feel like a punishment, too.

Fortunately, I rarely have to deal with students missing Friday reward. In my experience, the color chart system works so well in helping my students monitor their behavior, students hardly ever end up missing Friday reward.

Jeremy, I was browsing your wonderful blog, and I was excited to see that you wrote about using wikki stix in the classroom! I always have piles of wikki stix sitting on my students' tables when they arrive during the first two days of school. I find that it is an excellent ice breaker, and it immediately helps to set a creative and collaborative tone.

All the best, Alycia

Interesting idea. If students get fewer than four stars, what do they do during the Friday reward time?

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