Question: I am a preschool teacher of 18 three and four year olds.  My question concerns the use of behavior charts. Our Curriculum Specialist wants us to implement them to control behavior, which is sometimes an issue; but I am hesitant.

At the start of each week, the behavior chart has 5 smiley faces next to each child’s name. When a child breaks a rule or misbehaves, a teacher or assistant teacher takes one away. Likewise, if they show good behavior, they can earn back a smiley face. Depending on how many smiley faces a child has earned at the end of the month (teacher keeps track), he/she can choose a “prize”.

I already have a couple of issues with the chart. I don’t think any teacher in the room being able to remove a smiley face for whatever reason they see fit is wise. Also, I don’t like how children seem to become preoccupied with losing or gaining smiley faces - this seems to negate the whole purpose of the chart. I prefer to teach my children that we have “rules” for a reason and that everyone is expected to follow them because they are part of being members of our class. What are the pros/cons of the recommended chart?

Adele Brodkin: There are times when reward charts are very useful. The problem with them in this instance is that kids this young are mistakenly using them as punishment as well as reward – the punishment being the removal of the smiley face. We know, as a result of extensive research, that reward is much more effective than punishment or the threat of punishment is in teaching kids. And the interpersonal, rather than purely mechanical, touch is more likely to be effective.  So your conveying that there are certain rules (not too many) that all members of your class share as a community, makes following those rules inherently rewarding.  Virtually every child wants to feel (s)he fits in, belongs, is safe and secure in this home away from home. If that is not inherently rewarding for a rare rebellious child, expert intervention is indicated. For most children, "catching them being 'good'" is the sure-fire method. So, your readiness to offer verbal reward and recognition whenever a child is clearly following a rule reinforces that desirable behavior. With your method, there are no useless punishments or embarrassments, just positive consequences for playing according to the community rules.  Early in the term, you can relate the rules and explain their purpose very simply and concretely. (eg. If everyone shouts out at once at circle time, I can't hear any one of your very fine ideas. If we take turns, everyone will be heard and all your ideas shared.)

For more advice by Adele, check out the Between Teacher and Parent column.