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How Clip Charts Are Harming the Emotional Health of Our Children

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

Teachers of young children everywhere, we need to talk about clip charts. 

I recently received this email from a parent: My son is “scared to go to school because he’s afraid he’ll have his name moved down. I’m just not sure how to handle it. He’s also telling me he’s sad but he doesn’t know why. I’m really starting to worry it’s depression because of school.” This child is in Kindergarten. 

As a child psychologist, I am ethically bound to “do no harm” when working with my clients. So, I must speak up. I believe clip charts, and other public behavioral systems, are harming the emotional health of our young children. 

I understand the need for classroom management systems to maintain order and expectations. However, setting classroom expectations begins with strong relationships, especially for young children. I am hearing stories about clip charts being used publicly, and further, children are getting “clipped down” for skills they are not even capable of yet. This formula leads to embarrassment, sadness, shame, and anxiety which then breaks down the trust that is essential for the student-teacher relationship. 

I recently came across a tweet from @JonLeFevreSISD, an educator sharing a picture of a clip chart exercise for adults at a professional development training. He commented that this exercise left him and his colleagues feeling anxiety, shame, resentment, and embarrassment. He wanted to share the genuine feeling the clip chart elicits to make the point that some students might also feel that way. The post was retweeted and shared; screenshots were made and reposted. I saw the post of Facebook and noticed my own circle of child therapists agreeing that these charts needed to stop. Clearly, this is something we need to be talking about.

A visual behavioral system is only successful if (1) there is a foundation of a strong student-teacher relationship, (2) the system is private and not available for others to see, and (3) the skills expected are attainable for the student. 

1. Relationships Must Always Come First

Can you imagine starting a new job and one of the first things explained to you is that your boss will be tracking your on-task behavior and your colleagues will receive notifications to show who has the best on-task behavior? This would raise your anxiety and likely distract you from actually staying on-task! Yet, if your boss said that they were collecting data behind the scenes to increase work productivity and the two of you would review results together for a performance review, this would seem much more reasonable, and much less anxiety-provoking.

Even if teachers begin the school year with strong student relationships, for many children, the clip chart drives a wedge of fear and self-doubt into that relationship, which undermines all that the teacher is wanting to achieve. Clip charts don’t build connections, teachers do. Children cannot learn if they are overwhelmed by fear of embarrassment and shame. A trusting and safe connection is the basis of all learning. Sadly, for many young children, we lose their trust via the clip chart and, therefore, risk losing their love of learning. 

Instead: Build a connection of loving support and firm limits with human connection and not happy faces and sad faces on a chart. Portray that you are there to keep everyone safe and help them learn and they will trust you to do just that.

2. Make Feedback Private

If I had to guess, whoever came up with the clip chart likely thought there would be a “peer pressure” mentality to improve a student's behavior if they could see the success of those around them. However, this framework is fundamentally flawed. Public negative feedback is embarrassing and humiliating. Now imagine that you are five years old, are getting "clipped down" for something you haven’t learned how to control yet, and add on the fact that you are not yet emotionally mature enough to handle this disappointment. But what about those who get “clipped up,” you might ask? Even though it might feel good to get “clipped up,” this sends the message to everyone else in the class that they are not “good enough" and could create backlash for the "good student."

Instead: Privately track triggers for a child’s behavior, conference with the parent on strategies that have been effective in the past, and figure out how to teach the lagging skill. 

3. Teach the Skills

Clip charts don’t teach skills, teachers do. What clip charts do teach is an awareness that you are not as good at a skill as the peer next to you. Not only are you not as good as others, but a clip chart will remind you of this intermittently throughout the day, in case you forget, which you won't, because negative feelings are much more memorable than day to day events. A child begins to feel negative and worries about making mistakes, which leads to poor concentration, and ultimately this child’s potential crumbles. 

Furthermore, for young children, we may not know yet which skills are within their control to change and which ones are not. A child may be “clipping down” for something that is out of their control, which will absolutely lead to sadness. It’s akin to clipping a child down for not participating in recess when they have a broken leg. When the behavior feels out of their control to change, yet they still feel the consequence, they will become sad and anxious. Wouldn’t you? 

All behavior is communication. Something is hard for the child. They don’t need a clip chart to tell them this. They are already experiencing negative emotions around this moment. Instead, they need their teacher to observe what is happening, strategize a solution, and teach them a better way.

Stay Connected!

~Dr. Emily

**All content provided is protected under applicable copyright, patent, trademark, and other proprietary rights. All content is provided for informational and education purposes only. No content is intended to be a substitute for professional medical or psychological diagnosis, advice or treatment. Information provided does not create an agreement for service between Dr. Emily W. King and the recipient. Consult your physician regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to you or your child's symptoms or medical condition. Children or adults who show signs of dangerous behavior toward themselves and/or others, should be placed immediately under the care of a qualified professional.**

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