Behaviour: why the 'traffic light' system doesn't work

Methods of behaviour management that involve publicly displaying students' names are counterproductive, argues Jarlath O'Brien

Jarlath O'Brien

Behaviour management traffic lights

When my children were younger, I always enjoyed helping run a stall at their school’s Christmas Fayre. My wife taught there, so I had the added privilege, as the partner of one of the staff, of arriving early to set up and then returning the school to normal ready for Monday morning, ensuring no stray bottles of Lambrini from the tipsy tombola were left lying around ready for a Year 1 child to find after the weekend.

As I was setting up in a classroom one year, my eye was drawn to the whiteboard, specifically to the side of it where a traffic light behaviour chart was stuck. Almost all of the laminated names of the children in the class were in the green circle, but a couple of them were on the orange traffic light, presumably remaining there from Friday afternoon. 

Behaviour management: traffic lights

I swiftly moved them to the green light in order to avoid a potentially awkward situation where a parent saw their child’s name there and felt compelled to speak to the teacher about it there and then. 

In addition, other visitors to the classroom might have seen those children’s names sitting on the orange disc and I didn’t feel that was right either.

This concern for the privacy and dignity of the children in the class is in direct contrast to how traffic light behaviour charts are supposed to work. Indeed, their design requires the pressure and shame created by public admonishment to work, and that is why I don’t like them. 

I accept that classrooms are very difficult places in which to have private conversations in the middle of a lesson, but systems or strategies that have public shaming built into them are a glass hammer in your behaviour toolkit.

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The act of placing a child’s name into the orange or red is designed to invoke strong feelings in the child that will incentivise them to improve their behaviour and move back down to green. I am concerned that the public demotion to orange or red, though, has the potential to escalate situations. 

Even if a teacher is not setting out to publicly shame a child – and the overwhelming majority won’t be – it is still a foreseeable risk in this case and therefore best avoided. 

It is true that some children won’t blow up, and will instead sit there and take it on the chin, seething at the embarrassment. Irrespective of whether this results in a swift improvement in behaviour – is embarrassing a child in this way really desirable?    

How many children in any one class remain permanently on green anyway? Do we really think they’re on green because of the deterrent effect of the chart? Surely not. All the children know it, too. And they also know who the chart is really for – the ones who are constantly up and down the traffic light elevator.

Some teachers may argue that traffic light charts are effective for certain individuals. I would ask those teachers to consider whether a similar chart could be used with that particular child in a private way. If they like the scaling element of the chart, then that can be built into something supportive. It can also be used by the child (and members of support staff) which, of course, the whole-class traffic light cannot. In this way, privacy and dignity are maintained. 

What about the justification that we need to be able to set an example for the other children? I have never found the argument that we need to make an example of one to educate the others to be a persuasive one.

Names on the board

Even if you don’t use a traffic light system, there are other behaviour approaches that are similar. Writing the names of children on the board is an obvious one, which is much more common in secondary schools. When I first started teaching, I was a big user of names on the board myself. 

If you use a system like this, take a moment to ask yourself: are you relying on the public nature of the process to do the work? If so, is there an alternative that could give you the same results or better, without embarrassing pupils in front of their peers?

Jarlath O’Brien is a local authority advisor and the author of Better Behaviour – A Guide for Teachers and Leading Better Behaviour - A Guide for School Leaders

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Jarlath O'Brien

Jarlath O'Brien

Jarlath O'Brien is a local authority advisor and the author of 'Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers'.

Find me on Twitter @JarlathOBrien

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