For Shame: Behavior Charts in Classrooms

512px-Museum_of_Lincolnshire_Life,_Lincoln,_England_-_DSCF1726Managing a classroom of young children is a monumental task. Anyone might be tempted to use a chart, a visual, to help the children see the consequences of their behavior, but these tools have become the center of a debate among many parents, educators and psychologists.

In Waldorf schools, reverence for the child’s individuality applies as much to their personality as it does to their learning style. Teachers work to build social cohesion and empathy among students. The consistency of the one classroom, one teacher model in Waldorf is key to the success of our students learning to behave within a community of peers.  Parents will be hard pressed to find a behavior chart in a Waldorf school. Which, according to recent research on the topic, is a good thing.

We all know stress has long term negative effects on health. So, in an age where younger and younger children report feeling increasingly stressed, adding shame to the mix is ill advised. As it turns out, the stress hormone, Cortisol, spikes in children as young as four when they experience embarrassment or shame.

In this recent article in Psychology Today, Understanding Children’s Emotions: Pride and Shame, author Ken Barish, Ph.D. (Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems) states the importance of the issue at hand.

“A child’s need to feel proud, and to avoid feelings of shame, is a fundamental motivation, and remains fundamental, throughout her life. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these emotions in the psychological development – and emotional health – of our children.”


But if teachers don’t use shame, then how can they let children know that what they’ve done is wrong? Aren’t guilt and shame an essential part of learning right from wrong? Dr. Gwen Dewar sees a difference, and speaks to it in her recent article at Parenting Science Correcting behavior: The magic words that help kids cope with mistakes.

“Psychologists make a distinction between feelings of guilt and feelings of shame. Feelings of guilt are linked with a desire to make amends. Feelings of shame tend to make people angry—and not necessarily repentant. In fact, people who feel shamed may be less likely to take responsibility for their transgressions (Tangney et al 1992).


Also in Dewar’s article, she cites a study that observed how children reacted to different types of correction and then measured the effectiveness of three different types, the first of which, called “Personal,” resembles the behavior-chart method of correction.

The study, Correcting behavior: The magic words that help kids cope with mistakes (Kamins M and Dweck C. 1999. Person versus process praise and criticism:Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology 30(3): 835-847.) defined three types of correction, summarized here as:

  • Personal – You failed.
  • Outcome based – This is incorrect.
  • Process Based – This is incorrect, can you think of another way?

As one might expect, process-based criticism is the most effective for inciting change and continued trial and learning. Most children experiencing the Personal Criticism model said they would not repeat the task at hand. And while this study did not directly deal with moral-based behavior mistakes, some experts infer that a similar approach to ethical behavior modification would be more beneficial than a “you failed” chart system.

So, shame is not only detrimental to health and self esteem, but is also the least motivating form of criticism and zaps kid’s resilience and desire to learn by trial and error. While most wouldn’t blame teachers for using stoplight-type charts to help control a mob of misbehaving kids, experts are beginning to agree that it’s not the most effective means of modifying behavior in the classroom.

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