What’s wrong with classroom behavior charts: Why shaming backfires

mock classroom behavior chart by Parenting Science

Imagine you’re at work when you see it: Your name on the wall, with a note from the boss that everyone can see. Your behavior is “unsatisfactory.”

We can think up different versions of this scenario. Maybe it’s a simple visual message – your name pinned to a red traffic light. Maybe your deficiencies are communicated with a more positive spin — “We want to see you improve!”

But either way, I’m betting you feel bad. Your perceived shortcomings are being broadcast to the world, presumably to embarrass or shame you into changing your ways. Does it actually work like that – make you feel inspired to do better?

Or does the experience damage morale? Undermine your workplace relationships? Spark anger? Make you question whether you belong in this workplace at all?

Intuitively, it doesn’t seem like a good approach to management, and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates appears to agree. As he wrote in a recent editorial, “we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people…” And yet this is precisely what’s happening to many children in school.

Jennifer Bradley writes about it on her education website, Beyond the stoplight. To encourage better behavior, teachers are making public examples of the kids who don’t measure up, posting their names on blackboards or posters for all to see.

Bradley understands how this happens. In her first year of teaching, she tried it herself. “That’s what I was told to do, and that’s what my teachers did when I was in school,” she writes.

“But then I started paying attention to the hurt, the shame, the frustration, and even the apathy in the eyes of those students whose names appeared in chalk day after day. They were six and seven years old, and I knew they deserved better.”

Now she’s on a crusade to raise awareness and stop the practice. But is she overreacting? Is my workplace thought experiment misleading? Are blackboard announcements and behavior charts really such a bad idea?

Consider what happens when you are singled out for disapproval or rejection. As you become conscious of the fact, your heart rate and blood pressure rise. Your body produces a surge of the stress hormone cortisol and your immune system responds by increasing activity that causes inflammation.

Do children experience similar effects? Experiments demonstrate that they do. Consider this simple procedure.

An adult asks a 4-year-old to work on a puzzle.

It won’t be too hard, the adult explains. “Most children your age can finish this task in 3 minutes.” 

The adult shows the child a timer, and tells the child it will ring after 3 minutes has passed. Ready, get set, go! 

The child works on the task, but the adult has a secret: She makes sure that the timer will ring before the child has finished. It’s a test rigged to ensure that the child will fail.

Once the timer rings, the adult tells the child, “Time is up, you did not finish before the bell,” and then the adult remains silent and still for 30 seconds afterward.

That’s the procedure. There is no behavior chart, no embarrassing news broadcast to a child’s peers. Just simple failure in front of an impassive stranger.

But that’s enough. Many kids in this situation experience immediate feelings of shame, and these feelings are accompanied by a spike in cortisol. The more intense the shame, the bigger the spike. And these kids also experience slow cortisol regulation: Cortisol levels are still elevated 40 minutes later (Lewis and Ramsay; Mills et al 2008).

That slow recovery time is worrying, because it’s slow recovery from cortisol spikes that can cause health problems over the long term. Chronic feelings of shame may contribute to chronic disease (Mills et al 2008; Dolezal and Lyons 2017).

So frequent shaming is bad for a child’s health. What about behavior? Isn’t the idea that shame is supposed to motivate improvements, so the kids stop doing the things that get them into trouble?

Why shaming doesn’t work

angry girl sits at desk, resentful about what she sees on her computer screen

Researchers like June Tangney have devoted their careers to understanding the effects of shame, and they see consistent evidence that shame, as opposed to guilt, has anti-social effects.

When we feel guilty, we regret the effects our behavior has had on other people. We are motivated to make amends.

But when we feel shame, we feel very threatened. We become desperate and defensive. Our primary concern is to hide or deflect the blame.

For some personality types, this leads to aggression. For example, take an experiment conducted by Sander Thomaes and his colleagues on 160 school kids between the ages of 10 and 13. The researchers screened the kids for narcissistic tendencies, asking them if they agreed with statements like

  • “Without me, our class would be much less fun,” and
  • “Kids like me deserve something extra.”

Then each child was told a lie: They would compete in a contest of reaction time against another, unseen child working remotely on another computer.

In reality, there was no second child; the “opponent” was automated. But some kids – those randomly assigned to the shame-inducing condition – were tricked further: They were told that their reaction times would be ranked and posted on a public website.

Before beginning to play, there were also shown that their opponent currently ranked at the bottom of the list. Take notice, said the experimenter. This means you should win easily!”

After this preparation, the kids played a round of the game, and then they were given the bad news: They had lost! They were shown their name on the web page – ranked dead last.

But on a second round, the kids were allowed to win, and offered the opportunity to be mean. They were told they could push a button and blast their defeated opponent with a very loud noise.

Who punished the opponent with this aggressive blast? It was the kids who showed narcissistic tendencies and high self-esteem. But only if they had been subjecting to the shaming condition (Thomaes et al 2008).

Kids who had been shamed by having their names posted at that bottom of the rankings actually behaved worse, not better. When kids were simply informed (privately) that they’d lost the game, they behaved less aggressively.

Can we conclude that this happens in everyday life?

This is just one study, so we should be cautious. But there is corroborating evidence that links shaming with a pattern of increased misbehavior. For instance, in one study, researchers followed 380 kids for a period of 8 years, starting when the children were between 10 and 12 years old. At three time points, the researchers tested children on their tendencies to experience guilt or shame: Kids were asked to anticipate how they would feel in response to various, everyday situations.

The researchers also measured behavior outcomes, and they found a connection with guilt and shame. Kids who anticipated they’d feel guilty in response to wrongdoing were less likely, as young adults, to use illegal drugs. They were also less likely to get arrested or serve time in jail.

By contrast, kids prone to feelings of shame were more likely to use illegal drugs, and more likely to report driving under the influence. And these links remained statistically significant after controlling for aggression levels and parents’ socioeconomic status (Stuewig et al 2015).

So there’s good reason to think that shaming can make some kids behave in ways that are more aggressive or detrimental to others. 

Studies also suggest that frequent feelings of shame predict adverse developmental changes – like a less mature pattern of brain growth, and decreases in kind, helpful, “prosocial” behavior over time (Whittle et al 2016; Roos et al 2014).

And what about the kids who don’t act out, or behave aggressively? Shame can also make kids feel despondent or helpless.

Instead of believing they can change for the better, children may conclude that they are too incompetent, weak, or stupid to behave differently.

The idea is supported by experiments on preschoolers, where kids were asked to imagine themselves attempting a task and then being told by an adult, “I’m disappointed in you.”

Instead of being motivated to improve their performance, these children were more inclined to view themselves negatively and to give up. And this was without an audience of peers (Kamins and Dweck 1999). What might have happened if the children had been chastised in front of a class? We can’t be sure, but observational studies are suggestive.

Kids who are perceived to be “in trouble” with the teacher are more likely to get rejected by their peers. There’s the potential for a downward spiral, here. Kids feel shamed, get angry or demoralized, lose standing among their peers, and act worse.

So I think we should abandon the classroom behavior charts. I’m not claiming that children will be irreparably harmed by them. Or that every child will dislike them. Nor am I claiming that behavior charts will turn kids into aggressive jailbirds.

But it’s obvious that classroom behavior charts can create feelings of shame, and the research on shame is clear.

Shaming induces toxic stress. It serves as a marker for suboptimal brain development and social development. It prompts some kids to behave more aggressively, and makes other kids feel defeated and helpless.

And we’re not left without options. 

On the contrary, decades of research suggest that the most effective approach to behavior emphasizes warmth, sensitivity, and positive encouragement.

This was evident in the “I’m disappointed in you” experiments on preschoolers. Kids were more likely to bounce back from failure when adults said instead, “How can you do it better?” And studies show that sensitive, constructive behavioral coaching, and strong personal teacher-student relationships, are the most powerful ways to steer kids toward better outcomes.

There are good alternatives to public shaming. Let’s use them, and help kids recover gracefully from their mistakes.

For ideas, see these evidence-based tips for positive parenting, as well as these tactics for handling disruptive and aggressive behavior. In addition, for teachers seeking help in the classroom, see these tips from Jeniffer Bradley.

Special thanks to David Martin for introducing me to Jennifer Bradley’s essays and for gathering information about the prevalence of classroom behavior charts in some parts of the United States. David Martin has written about his family’s negative experiences with classroom behavior charts. You can read his account here.

Portions of this text appeared previously in a blog post entitled “What’s wrong with behavior charts?” for BabyCenter.com.

References: What’s wrong with classroom behavior charts?

Dickerson SS, Gruenewald TL, Kemeny ME. 2004. When the social self is threatened: shame, physiology, and health. J Pers. 72(6):1191-216.

Dolezal L and Lyons B. 2017. Health-related shame: an affective determinant of health? Med Humanit. 43(4):257-263.

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.

Lewis M and Ramsay D. 2002. Cortisol response to embarrassment and shame. Child Dev. 73(4):1034-45.

Mills RS, Imm GP, Walling BR, Weiler HA. 2008. Cortisol reactivity and regulation associated with shame responding in early childhood. Dev Psychol. 44(5):1369-80.

Roos S, Hodges EV, Salmivalli C. 2014. Do guilt- and shame-proneness differentially predict prosocial, aggressive, and withdrawn behaviors during early adolescence? Dev Psychol. 50(3):941-6.

Stuewig J, Tangney JP, Kendall S, Folk JB, Meyer CR, Dearing RL. 2015. Children’s proneness to shame and guilt predict risky and illegal behaviors in young adulthood. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev. 46(2):217-27.

Tangney JP, Stuewig J, Martinez AG. 2014. Two faces of shame: the roles of shame and guilt in predicting recidivism. Psychol Sci. 25(3):799-805.

Tangney JP, Stuewig J, Mashek D, Hastings M. 2011. Assessing Jail Inmates’ Proneness to Shame and Guilt: Feeling Bad About the Behavior or the Self? Crim Justice Behav. 38(7):710-734.

Thomaes S, Bushman BJ, Stegge H, Olthof T. 2008.Trumping shame by blasts of noise: narcissism, self-esteem, shame, and aggression in young adolescents. Child Dev 79(6):1792-801

VanDerhei S,Rojahn J, Stuewig J, McKnight PE. 2014. The effect of shame-proneness, guilt-proneness, and internalizing tendencies on nonsuicidal self-injury. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 44(3):317-30.

Whittle S, Liu K, Bastin C, Harrison BJ, Davey CG. 2016. Neurodevelopmental correlates of proneness to guilt and shame in adolescence and early adulthood. Dev Cogn Neurosci. 19:51-7.

Content of “What’s wrong with behavior charts: Why shame backfires” last modified 1/19

Image of silly behavior chart by Parenting Science