There are a wide variety of behavior management systems used by schools today. Levels, colors, clips, stickers, and tickets are variations of the many popular ways to motivate students to demonstrate appropriate behavior in the classroom. However, what we know about behavior charts is that they usually work really well for children who already demonstrate pro-social behavior, but trigger the fight-or-flight response in individuals who struggle to pay attention, learn, and interact positively with their peers. Children of trauma are already in a heightened state of stimulation, and can easily activate their fight-or-flight response when behavior systems are used. This trigger can result when a child them self, or even another student, lose a level, don’t earn a sticker, or earn a reward for their behavior.
Children who have developed a private logic that says, “I can’t trust others” or “I am not valued,” will believe that they are “BAD” when they don’t earn a sticker, clip, or star – or when their color is “moved”. Shame is an intolerable state for children of trauma. Shame reinforces the distorted self-identity they have formed and triggers a response that can lead to additional behavior challenges. Simply put, behavior charts do not help teachers understand the underlying causes of their student’s behavior, and true healing cannot happen unless we know what is influencing a child to behave a certain way.
Any school staff, regardless of their own background or role in the school setting, can help these students thrive academically, behaviorally, socially, and emotionally. We believe we can help when we view behavior not as a problem but as the clue to what the child needs the most. Behavior is the language children use to convey messages to adults, and brain science supports the difficulty children have accessing words when they are overwhelmed. While a child may want to say they are worried, hurt, angry, or scared, when words fail them, behavior often wins. Therefore, their messages may be communicated with defiance, withdrawal, or fighting. Understanding these reactions help us identify when a child is in need, and then how we can begin to help them heal.