Why I Had to Undo the Damage Done by My Son’s Classroom Sticker Chart

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“I feel sad, because I’m not nice enough,” was how my son greeted me when I picked him up from school earlier this week.

It turns out that his kindergarten class had started using a sticker chart for niceness that day.  This may sound innocent and sweet in theory, but I cringed at the very mention of it.  Don’t get me wrong, I think there can be a time and a place for sticker and visual charts, but I don’t think they belong with a group of highly suggestible 4 and 5-year-olds who are learning how to get along with their peers.

According to my son, every time someone is nice to one of their classmates, that child will receive a sticker. After three stickers there will be some kind of reward.

“I wonder if I’ll get a toy,” my son mused after he finished explaining the process to me. My heart dropped.

You see, kindness should not be something we do in hopes of receiving a reward. Kindness is its own reward, and that is what my husband and I have been working hard to teach all three of our children.

We teach our children to hold doors open for the people behind them in order to help make someone else’s day a little easier. We encourage them to ask their friends if they are feeling okay when they look sad, so that their friends know that someone cares. These are some of the small acts of kindness that lay the foundation for the larger ones. These are the steps we take toward understanding compassion, and knowing that the world revolves around all of us equally, and at the same time.

My son’s educators had the very best of intentions when they introduced their sticker chart, and I applaud their efforts to promote kindness in the classroom, but I wonder if they thought through the possible outcomes of this reward system:

-Focusing on getting a reward, rather than on the act of kindness itself

-Seeing a visual comparison among all the children

-Feelings of failure for not earning very many stickers

-Feelings of superiority for having more stickers than someone else

On that first day of the sticker chart, my son explained more about why he felt he wasn’t nice enough.  “Mom, I’m kind and nice every day. I always help people, and I always say and do nice things, but it’s not good enough, because some kids got more stickers than me today.  It’s not fair.”

He’s not wrong.  My son is a very thoughtful, kind and considerate person, and it’s not fair to measure those types of traits in a way that could make him feel as though he is less than someone else.

“You don’t need stickers to prove that you are kind,” I explained.  “Tell me, how does your heart feel when you do something nice for someone?”

“It feels good,” he replied.  “It feels full.  I like it.”

“And what do you like more?” I asked.  “Having a full heart, or seeing a sticker on a chart?”

“My heart,” he said immediately. “I like how I feel when I make people happy.”  

“Then that’s your reward, and it’s the kind of reward that will stay with you forever.  It’s the reward that you should be proud of the most.”

Perhaps for some of the kids, this system will encourage them to think more about kindness, and maybe it will make the classroom a nicer place overall.  For my son though, I will continue to work on teaching kindness as a way of life, and maybe those stickers can serve as something pretty to look at, but his heart is far more beautiful than any sticker will ever be.

 

 

 

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23 thoughts on “Why I Had to Undo the Damage Done by My Son’s Classroom Sticker Chart

  1. Totally agree, kindness should get no brownie points or sticker as in this case. It is something that must come from within and grow into becoming something that you feel compelled to do. I am sure that with your encouragement he can get through this ‘sticker’ phase of his schooling!

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  2. There are some very real points here. I headed up Human Resources and was forced to implement a monthly employee recognition program. I hate those. People who don’t get recognized feel marginalized and people who do are embarrassed. You have some workers whose jobs don’t give them visibility so it’s unlikely they would get the opportunity to be recognized. After a few months I was able to get it axed. We replaced it with a financial incentive program that rewarded employee ideas that were implemented and saved money. There were only 2 or 3 a year but it was perceived as more “fair” and less political. I applaud the teachers for trying to encourage kindness but there must be better ways.

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  3. I understand. While I am older than you, this process began when my own sons were in school and One of the four was deeply affected by it. Theirs was the color system. Green for good, yellow for watch out and red for having a bad day. AND they used bear shapes for the cards. When I greeted him every afternoon, even by phine from work, his first words would be about what color his bear was. He was a social guy, often got red bears for being too “chatty” when the teacher wanted folded hands and quiet feet. I always felt it was a gross injustice to bears, a poor way to initiate color association and a cowardly way for the teacher not to have to deal directly with students or parents. Just let the bears do it…..😔

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    1. I have seen the colour stickers being used for some of the children in some of the kindergarten classes at the school. The only kids who get these coloured stickers are the ones who tend to be more vocal or restless in class. I have never been comfortable with this, as it really singles them out, and it can put a huge negative label on whatever emotions the child was experiencing that day.

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      1. I had a really bad behavior chart experience in first grade that was actually the basis for the role my family has me cast in to this day, crazy as that sounds to say. I was a “red bear” kid and my parents were so upset they brought the system home. The thing was, it was only for me. My sisters were already good, but I had a chart that yielded physical punishments for too many “red bears,” and stickers if I made it through a week being as good as my sisters, who never got a thing. This planted a deep seed of resentment that made them a team and me the enemy. Forever.
        My sisters’ disappointment at never being recognized motivated me to put my kids on sticker charts in general, not as a way to fix bad behavior. It’s what worked when we potty trained so now they get stickers for all kinds of stuff, and different stuff from one another. There’s no punishment for no stickers, stickers aren’t a given for things they’re expected to do anyway, and they’re closed up in notebooks, not hung on display. We pick out stickers together when we go to the store and they get to choose special one on one with the parents rewards for full charts. We also put emphasis on stickers when I realized I was rewarding my kids with sweets, which is NOT the direction we wanted to go!

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      2. Wow! I am so sorry that that was your experience with sticker charts when you were a child. That sticker chart had no place in your classroom, or in your home. I feel so sad for the consequences that had on you. 😦

        It sounds like the sticker system you have in place for your own children is being done in a healthy, mindful way. That’s really refreshing to see.

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  4. I’m rather appalled at the idea of the stickers! There are countless ways to recognize kindness but teaching little kids to be kind for stickers and rewards can’t really be teaching them the true reasons to be kind. Your son strikes me as being wiser than his teacher.

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  5. It’s difficult at your son’s age to teach the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. And much of the time, because school is filled with group-teach methods, it’s about extrinsic rewards with the hope the intrinsic will follow. I know; I was an elementary school teacher for over 20 years who did my level best to teach to individual students in an atmosphere of 25 students in my classroom.

    Fortunately, it sounds as though he has a smart mom who has taught him well from birth, and will continue to teach him by living out intrinsic rewards by experience and example. You’re giving him the right foundation – and hugs and kisses from mom are the best extrinsic reward ever. 😉

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  6. “Nice” article 🙂

    My mom told me she attended a Catholic boarding school for part of her upbringing, and one of the criteria the students were judged on, in their report cards, was piety. I can imagine a similar scenario in which students self-compared based on the number of piety points, etc.

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