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With the increased focus on socio-emotional learning and trauma-informed practices, many of us are changing some of our strategies in the classroom. The problem some teachers are having, though, is the inability to trade one strategy in for an equally workable strategy when transitioning. 

This all-or-nothing attitude makes it difficult to commit to making a change to a more intrinsic program that’s based on the executive functioning of the students since young children need a lot of modeling and scaffolding to reach many of the social-emotional goals schools are now employing. 

Here are some tips that may help to make that transition smoother.

Instead of a Classroom Clip Chart, Try Individual Behavior Tracking and Goal Setting

The arguments for using the old clip chart are fairly good ones: it’s quick, it’s relatively easy, and many now have positive as well as negative behavioral tracking.

The problems are that clip charts are not private, personalized, or necessarily helping with the individuals who actually need behavioral help. In fact, most children who need the behavioral help the most wouldn’t even bat an eye if they had to move their clip to “the red zone”, or whatever the most serious consequence may be for any particular chart. 

Most (if not all) social-emotional programs discourage using a clip-chart or any other reward/consequence system as a whole group intervention for the reasons listed above. It creates an opportunity for children to avoid having to control their own behavior. Extrinsic motivation hijacks the goal of behavioral management, which should be good behavior. Instead, the motivation becomes the actual behavior chart (or treasure box, or avoiding a time out). 

Extrinsic motivations to behave are rewards and consequences offered to the student from the outside. The goal is always intrinsic motivation - pride in oneself for making the right decisions, doing the right things, and being a productive member of the society to which they belong.

Students don’t need prizes from a treasure box to be their goal. Instead, they need to learn how to be successful at managing their own behavior.

Individualizing behavior tracking and goals may sound overwhelming initially, but it doesn’t have to be. Most students are able to be fairly responsible for their behaviors a majority of the time and may be able to set character-building goals like looking for opportunities to help others, being brave, being loyal, etc…

Those working toward mutual goals can be grouped together. This is especially true for those students who are already able to feel that intrinsic motivation - for whom behaving and truly participating IS the reward. 

Students who really need the intervention because they struggle with executive functioning skills and can’t access that intrinsic motivation may respond better to a personalized clip chart or something similar. Make a small version to keep with you or for the student to keep with them (not recommended unless they are very honest). Some teachers keep this personalized behavior tracker in a plastic folder with pockets. 

You may need to set, track, and assign extrinsic rewards/consequences every 15 minutes in the beginning, and lengthen that time as they grow. You may have to focus on one or two specific behaviors at a time.

Just as students vary in their abilities in reading or math, they vary in their abilities with executive function and behavior. Offer them the appropriate leveled practice and goals, and watch them move from struggle to success. 

Are clip charts ALWAYS wrong whole group? Not necessarily. There will be times when even your best behaved, most responsible students are having trouble keeping their behavior productive. In those situations, bring back the clip chart for a one or two-week revival of teaching, reinforcing, and applying external motivations to renew the focus on those things. Then phase it back out.

If you have to use things like behavior charts, use them to help the class get things under control, then go back to internal motivation. They can be effective and helpful when temporary, but you do have to intentionally phase them back out again before students become dependent on them. 

Instead of Constantly Repeating Yourself, Try Picture Routines and Schedules

It’s a tale as old as time: teacher gives thorough instructions, students ask teacher to repeat, teacher repeats, students forget again. Save yourself the time and trouble and add some pictures.

One of our writers taught for 12 years before seeing a visual schedule put into proper use. It’s probably fairly safe to assume her experience was not an isolated event, despite the many suggestions to put such tools to use.

Many people assume “picture schedule” means picture direction cards like this free one we found on Teacher’s Pay Teachers, if any. And these are good! If you aren’t using anything, this is a good direction to go to start out (there were 67,000+ choices when we typed in “picture directions” in the TPT search bar, so chances are good that you’ll be able to find what you like best). 

To use these well, keep them close to a whiteboard or other display surface, and as you give directions for completing independent work or an activity, display the appropriate card while you speak. 

For elementary students, an even better strategy is to have students create the instructions by doing what will be on the card so you can take a picture. Print out the pictures, and make those your direction cards.

For example, if you’re making a “glue” direction card, take a picture of a student gluing. Sometimes when you just display a picture of colors, scissors, and glue, kids will literally get those things out and just sit and look at you. If you display a child doing the activity and have the word written under it, it gives a better reminder for what the student needs to be doing.

The same goes for schedules and routines. The more personalized you make it, the more students feel included and the more likely they are to recognize the message.

You don’t have to have a picture for every routine and detailed part of your schedule, though! Start with the things that your students have trouble with. 

For example, students may have a difficult time remembering to write their names on their papers. Take a photo of a student willing to be famous for writing their name (for older kids, the cheesier and goofier, the better), then when you’re reminding students to write their names on their papers, display the picture as a cue to remember to do that. 

Don’t take premade photos or pictures and just display them all the time or all at once. Only use them when you are actually doing the action in order to use them as a cue. For a schedule, you may want to have the thing before the current activity displayed, the current thing, and then the next activity or two displayed nearby. This really helps students who are always asking “What’s next?” and “When’s lunch?” during every lesson.

Some teachers display their whole routine or schedule but have three little “windows” cut out of cardboard to show what they just finished, what they are working on now, and what will happen next. 

All of these ideas help with behavior because students who don’t know what’s going on are students who are likely to be off-task and getting into some sort of trouble. If it isn’t 100% clear what the next step is, they’re off wandering into all sorts of behaviors and activities that they haven’t been invited into. 

Many IEPs have strategies like “use a visual schedule”. This is a different thing altogether.  

Visual schedules for individual students are personal schedules with movable parts that help students organize exactly what they need to be doing. You can see samples of these by searching for “visual schedule special ed”. They are very effective for all students, although they are labeled for special education because those teachers have been making use of these things for years. 

Students respond well to having their own small personal schedule and marking it “done” or moving the appropriate card to a different area. You can even take the same cards or pictures you use for cues with the class, print mini versions, place velcro on the back and the opposite side of velcro across the student’s desk, and let them track their day, activity, or schedule. 

Moving those pictures and words for themselves is very empowering.

Instead of Assuming Students “Know How to Behave,” Try Teaching the Behaviors You Want to See

Students won’t know what you want unless you tell them.

We can all agree that students need manners and perhaps should have picked up some “school survival skills” along the way unless they’re brand new to the environment. 

And it’s frustrating to have to repeat ourselves over and over again.

However, remember that it takes the average child about 6 times to experience information and retain it. Some children learn the very first time you say something. Some children will still be struggling to remember the information after the 52nd time you share it with them. 

We have to view behavior as any other skill. You don’t expect students to come into your classroom ready to take end-of-the-year tests, so why would you assume they also should know how you want them to behave.

All teachers have little irritations with behaviors. We all also feel we’re being driven absolutely mad by a few specific behaviors. But every classroom - and every teacher - presents a new learning experience for each student. It’s only fair that you tell them what you want. 

And when they forget? 

Tell them again.

It takes less time to say “Sit down,” than it does to say, “For the thousandth time and the love of all that is good, George, SIT DOWN! Will you ever learn?” Sure, it may feel good to let that steam off for a minute, but it really isn’t getting the job done.

If you say, “Sit down,” the first time George gets up out of his seat to wander around while your giving instructions, it’s ok to say “Sit down,” the 3,457th time as well. 

That being said, if you see behaviors beginning that students need further instruction on, take a note. Place it to the side (sticky notes on your desk or a table can work really well), and when you get a moment, plan a quick five-minute lesson so students can hear you address the issue, possibly help brainstorm solutions, and maybe even have a little practice doing things the proper, correct way. 


Transitioning to social-emotionally based learning and classroom management can be tough, especially if you’ve had a lot of experience in education for years before it came into existence. 

But science does back up this kind of teaching.

When we know better, we can do better.

No one says it will be easier, but the world we live in now is a pretty stressful place. We recognize that gun violence, increased security, and all the traumas childhood has always held for some are affecting the ability of our students to learn and learn well.

It’s not always easy to change, but there are benefits for our students if we do.

Many of us say we’ll take a bullet for our students. We can definitely handle this! 

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