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Why 'Traffic Light Systems' Don't Work

Methods of behaviour management that publicly name students are counterproductive and ableist. That statement may ruffle some feathers but here's why...

What is the Traffic Light System?

Many classrooms will have a class behaviour chart or public display of children's names, aimed to show them how their behaviour is currently being perceived. A common example, is using a traffic light system.

Students names are written on pegs or on laminated card and moved up or down the traffic light, depending on how they are behaving and whether it is 'in line' with the class rules.

The act of placing a child on red or orange is meant to invoke strong feelings within the child that will then incentivise them to reassess their behaviour and move back to green.

The traffic light system can be found in various different forms. I've seen examples of children being on a rain cloud and promoted to a rainbow and writing names on the board of children who are 'misbehaving'.

Why is this approach damaging?

Although this is not the teacher's intention, publicly moving and displaying children on a red or orange could escalate situations rather than resolve them. Seeing their name moved on to a less desirable spot can invoke feelings of shame and embarrassment. Whilst some children may be able to take it on the chin and attempt to rectify their behaviour, others may externalise these negative feelings into even more challenging behaviour.

We also have to ask ourselves why children are displaying certain behaviours. We know that behaviour is a form of communication and there could be a whole host of reasons that a child is 'acting out'. Perhaps they witnessed a fight at home that morning, perhaps they feel unwell, perhaps they are experiencing sensory overload, or maybe they are struggling with the work and don't want to ask for help for fear of feeling stupid. If a child has ADHD, they may need to fidget around in order to concentrate, or if a child has ASD they may need to stim in order to feel at ease.

Are we then going to publicly shame these children for behaving in a way that was driven by other factors? What message does that send to a child?

Names on the board, more often used in senior schools, is also damaging. We are relying on public shame to rectify behaviour - is there not a better way to achieve the same outcome without embarrassing students in front of their peers?

The key to great behaviour management lies in relationships with students. They need to feel like you are a safe person that they can trust and respect and if you, even unintentionally, shame them, you are risking any chance of a positive relationship.

Is there ever a use for traffic light systems?

I'm not saying there is never a use for traffic light systems. Even from early years, children have a great understanding of the green, yellow, red system and what each section represents. They can be used for classroom noise level, for example, or if you have a child who responds particularly well to this system, you can create a private chart just for them.

Check out this blog for my top 10 tips on behaviour management and how you can create a happy, ready-to-learn classroom.

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