Red Cards: Not just for soccer anymore?

September 13, 2009

A little aside to start: What I’ve learned from polling you, dear readers, is that you are either a) my mother, b) a close friend, or c) very shy! That’s ok! I know my mother is going to be disappointed that I’m not translating The Cat in the Hat into Portuguese on the blog – and if the rest of you are disappointed, well, you should tell me so I can get on that! Anyhow, it’s also come to my attention that  via Matt Moore, my blog has been shared with sports bloggers worldwide. So, here’s a sports analogy for you guys! This is the closest that I will ever get to actually writing about sports, so I hope you enjoy it!

Anyhow. The actual subject I’m writing about is behavioral reinforcement with children. You gotta write what you know! You guys know actual red cards, I know the red-light/green-light system.

This is a cute little behavior chart that Thing 1 got from his preschool. This is the system that they use in school to keep track of positive/negative behaviors, and so the teachers made them for the students to take home. Hooray for consistency! Consistency, of course, is the absolute biggest necessity to make sure a behavior modification regime actually works.  I’m glad to see that his teachers are keeping that in mind and giving the parents the tools to continue the classroom routine at home, if they so choose.

I’ve never used this specific system before, though I know the idea very well. It’s very much like the yellow card/red card dynamic in soccer: minor infractions will land you in the yellow. A minor infraction when you’re already in the yellow: in the red. A major infraction: in the red. When you are in the red, your privileges are restricted and you may need to relocate to a quieter area, such as in soccer when you are restricted to the bench.

Unlike in soccer, you can move back up. Because, unlike soccer, the childcare game does not end! Oh no, this particular game does not even have half time, though occasional substitutions are made in terms of us, the adult “referees.”  It would be ridiculous for a child to stay “in the red” all day long for one infraction. Of course, it’s entirely feasible that multiple infractions could lead to a prolonged inhabitation of the red zone, but it needs to be possible to get back in the game.

So, then, the idea is that there are restitutions that can be made. A child can do something positive to get back into the yellow, or then the green. This is where I become hazy. What exactly qualifies here? I know it’s for me, the caretaker, to decide, but I’m a bit lost. I guess on a situation by situation basis, it would make sense. Apologizing to a wronged party, cleaning up a mess – these are obvious. If the issue is needing alone time – do I allow the child to move back up into the yellow or green after a set amount of time? That feels quite a lot like “time out” to me, yet potentially more effective since it’s a sort of case by case thing and not a specific “naughty step.”

The yellow zone also feels a little odd to me – what exactly are the restrictions here? You can clearly only have a popsicle for snack if you’re in the green, but can you have a pop tart if you’re in the yellow? I’m not entirely sure. These things need to be defined by the caretakers up front so they can be applied consistently, otherwise the whole thing becomes meaningless. If a child is “in the yellow” one day and gets a pop tart, he’s going to keep expecting that pop tart when he’s in the yellow again the following week. And he’s right – if you withhold the pop tart the second time, you are simply being unfair.

I really like the idea of this system. It’s very clear to the child where s/he stands, and the language involved is simple and not coded with pejorative terms like “time out” or “warning” or “naughty step.” Sure, being “in the red” could elicit a tantrum, but nothing is worse than seeing a child who needs to chill out getting even *more* upset when told that s/he’s going to “time out.” Whatever language is used needs to be neutral, and the stoplight system works well on that level.

We’ll see if it works as well in practice as it does in theory! So far, Thing 1 is pretty indifferent to it, but I’ll keep trying to see if we can develop a routine at home that’s similar to the one he’s using in class.

Note: I think using actual yellow/red cards would be pretty badass. Especially if I also got to have a whistle. This system, however, is completely impractical as it requires keeping track of actual cards. And introduces a whistle, which would inevitably be stolen from me by the very children whom the whistle was supposed to alert.

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4 Responses to “Red Cards: Not just for soccer anymore?”


  1. I was astounded by the effectiveness of stickers when I was in Korea. I gave the kids pieces of paper divided into squares – 5 squares across on a page, with rows all the way to the bottom. When the kids filled up a row (5 stickers), they got a candy from the jar I carried around with me.

    To get a sticker (or multiple, depending on the action), they could do one of many things: volunteer a correct answer (volunteering was the key – if I had to cold call you, you didn’t get a sticker), help a fellow student, do more than was required in the activity (say, writing 5 sentences instead of 3), etc. If they behaved poorly, spoke out of turn, or were disruptive, I would peel off a sticker. If I was asking a question and a student blurted out the answer, nobody could get a sticker – it nullified the prize, even if the answer was right.

    There was a huge shift in classroom behavior after I instituted this policy. For one, they policed eachother – since everyone wanted a chance to get a sticker, they would stop eachother from blurting out the answers – some kids even would clap their hands over the mouths of kids they thought might shout out the answer. The behaved better and were less disruptive, and when I asked for answers or gave them a task, they generally were pretty enthusiastic, instead of acting like I was pulling teeth.

    It’s amazing how such simple systems can really work wonders with kids.

    • Sonja Says:

      Oh, definitely. I’ve used sticker systems before with great success. The problem there is that there’s no negative re-inforcement besides *not* getting a sticker. It’s great as a classroom tool, but in terms of tracking behavior around the house, there are times – and I’ve found that this is way more true nannying than teaching – where there has to be a straightforward negative consequence to a certain behavior. (Such as, you can not put your hand in your brother’s mouth. *Something* has to happen after that!) This system seems like it’s definitely been well thought out and I have no doubt that it could work. The question is whether it will work for these specific kids!

      We tried a stamp chart, much like the stickers but with rubber stamps (because Thing 1 already *has* stickers, so they’re not special) and that worked well for four days, but by day 5, it just didn’t matter to him whether or not he got a stamp and even though he earned stamps for the day, he had no interest in putting them up on the chart. So, great system in theory, but didn’t work out so well in practice.

  2. Karen Says:

    As for “restitution” when it looks like the naughty step–

    How about a moment or two in Child’s Pose or several cleansing breaths (“peaceful breathing” maybe?)…some kind of self-soothing strategy that isn’t very complicated. As to the pop tart worthiness scale, I have less insight.

    Spit Spot!

    Mum

    • Sonja Says:

      So far for the “naughty step” it’s “alone time.” Just simply playing somewhere where trouble can not be gotten into. I don’t think child’s pose would really do much good at this point since a) I would have to explain it, which would require the child listening to the explanation, and b) I can seriously see this just leading to the child screaming into the floor. Perhaps with my own future hippie children we can try it, but for the moment, we’ve got “alone time.” It works.


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