26 Years Later, Behavior-Chart Memories Still Sting

Submitted by a follower of the WFT Facebook page who prefers to remain anonymous.

I was scrolling through social media one day when I came across a Facebook post by Wisconsin Family Ties about the effects of behavioral charts on students. I’ve subscribed to Wisconsin Family Ties’ Facebook page for years but let me clarify that I am not a parent, I’m not an educator…in fact I’m just an average childless adult in her 30’s. I have yet to experience all the ups and downs of parenthood or live through the struggles that involve navigating complex health, education and social systems. So why would a post about behavioral charts resonate with me?

The fact is that I was that student. Growing up in the early 90’s, I was subjected to many behavior modification methods from grade school well into high school. It’s been 26 years since I stepped out of my first grade classroom but I’m still triggered by the memory. My teacher had implemented a “Three Ribbon System.” The concept was simple: everyone started the week fresh with three bright red ribbons hung beneath our names at the front of the classroom. Bad behavior resulted in the humiliating act of going up in front of your peers and removing one of those precious ribbons. Students who made it to the end of the week and still had all three ribbons were rewarded by picking out a prize from the school bookstore.

As the week progressed, we all tried to be on our best behavior. It was supposed to be easy: pay attention when the teacher was talking, raise your hands, sit still, walk in a straight line in the hallway and avoid talking to your neighbor. But if it was such a fool-proof and equal system, why was it always the same students who reached their goal by the time the school bell rang on Friday afternoon? The answer was that it was not an equitable system. Not all students were given the tools or resources needed to be successful in keeping their three ribbons, which meant we didn’t start on such an equal playing field after all.

In first grade, i was confident, outgoing, silly and sometimes loud… qualities that weren’t necessarily seen as ideal by my teachers. Despite my best efforts, I always seemed to be slipping up and losing yet another ribbon. I just didn’t understand my quiet, well-mannered peers who made “perfect behavior” look so effortless.

I accepted early on that I might never achieve this impossible goal. The “fresh start” that came each Monday morning was not a motivating factor. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Decades later, I still feel that little girl inside me. I felt hurt, shame, jealousy, embarrassment and resentment for both my teacher and my peers. My six year old under-developed brain very much saw the world through a black and white lens. There were good kids and bad kids. I would cry in bed at night because I felt like my teacher and my parents hated me. Why was my “best” never good enough? And if one couldn’t ever measure up, what was the point of trying? I put ribbons and prizes out of my mind very quickly and that’s when my behavior got worse.

The first parent-teacher conference my mother ever attended resulted in a trip to the pediatrician. I didn’t know why I was there or why they were talking past me but I caught on pretty quickly that it was a result of my bad behavior. There must be something wrong with me after all. My mom left the doctor’s office with a prescription of Ritalin, the go-to ADHD medication of the early 90s. I don’t recall if there was ever any follow-up care or changes made in the classroom but this magic pill helped me zone out and stare at the blackboard, which was good enough to keep all three ribbons I suppose. It did more than help me zone out though. It soon gave me a series of side effects that concerned my mother even more. I “ticked” constantly by blinking my eyes as tight and as often as I could. I gasped for air because I felt I couldn’t breathe. I licked my lips until they were cracked and bloody. 

Dumbfounded at what to do and receiving little help from my teacher or doctor, my mom turned to other parents in my class. One phone call at a time, she slowly learned that almost 2/3 of the class had been prescribed Ritalin at the advice of our teacher at parent-teacher conferences. Could it be that this problem was really this severe or did the issue lie elsewhere? My mom took me off the medication and put a pointed call in to my principal. To this day she feels shame and anger at the situation. She wishes she had known better but admits that the trust she put in our education system meant that “teachers know best.” Besides, as a first-time parent, she had no prior experience with this or reason to question. 

I wish I could finish this story by saying how relieved I am that these faulty behavior modification methods are no longer practiced. Sadly, that’s not the case. Thousands of children are subjected to methods that might mean well but research has shown they have the opposite effect on the health and behavior of children and their developing brains. I’m a case example…one of many. Now it’s my turn to be an advocate. I wish someone would have taken the time to explore with me what unmet need in the classroom was causing me to act out. Would my teacher have been more understanding and empathetic of me instead of deeming me “the naughty one” week after week? As an adult, my confidence, sense of humor and voice (which is sometimes still very loud) are qualities I like in myself. I was never silenced but I came very close. We owe it to the next generation to give students every individualized tool and resource necessary to thrive.

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