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Why It’s Time To Rethink ‘Traffic Lights’ And ‘Pots Of Gold’…

It’s not an opinion that everyone shares, but I have pretty strong feelings about the value of strengths-based approaches, and shared a post this week about ‘traffic light systems’, which evoked a lot of responses in favour of ditching them.

While I can see that, for a very small minority of children who might do better with a tightly structured and visual approach to ‘behaviour management’, I, like an increasing number of practitioners it would seem, would like to see the back of them.

I know many settings use them and feel they work, but here’s a perspective to challenge that…
As an adult, how would we feel if it was standard practice for your employer to to display their interpretation of your ‘poor performance’, or details of disciplinaries on the staff noticeboard?
Humiliated? Embarrassed? Ashamed? Ridiculed? Demoralised? Dehumanised?

As an adult, we can reason 100% that that’s neither ethical, or likely to lead to a more motivated workforce. And while I totally appreciate that it’s seldom the intention, why would anyone; child or adult; feel inspired to work hard and achieve in an environment which ultimately promotes ‘naming and shaming‘?

Not only will shame kill the belief that the settings is a place of acceptance and belonging, but it kills learning, too. It generates the most toxic composition of biochemicals in the brain, which will knock neural connectivity on the head in a heartbeat, regardless of whether you have an counter-offer of gold stars or certificates.

I’ve worked with children for nearly 20 years, and more recently with parents, and have met or heard about too many anxiety-ridden children; even while they’re still in Early Years settings’; who can’t enjoy learning because, despite them already being compliant and well-behaved, they’re still crippled by the fear of ‘going on red’.

Another very valid reason why ‘traffic lights’ and other behaviour management methods just aren’t effective in the long run. That kind of worry saturates young brains with stressor hormones, inhibiting the formation of new synapses. In other words, those kids also won’t learn as well as they could, either. It’s counter-productivity at its finest…

Someone responded to my post and asked ‘Well, what would you do instead then?’ And this is what I said… I’d treat children as we’d like to be treated in the same situation;

1) I’d discipline in private

2) I’d try to find out what the problem is, because ‘behaviour’ is just the end-product of a child’s experience. It’s a symptom of a problem, rather than ‘the problem’

3) I’d provide support around that to help the child do better

Personally, I don’t really advocate a positive-only ‘rainbow’ or ‘pot of gold’ alternative either; you’re still going to end up with children excluded from that, because they can’t manage to meet those expectations either. Expectations, we ought to remember, most haven’t actually agreed to in the first place.
One-size-fits-all models; making the same demands on every child, regardless of the many factors that can determine whether that’s realistic, fair, or even possible’; don’t serve anyone.

Thankfully, as we’re becoming more trauma-informed, mental health and ACE’s aware, we’re seeing less and less of this, but we’ve still got a way to go.
IMO, creating strength-based cultures and value systems, rather than deficit-based one – which is ultimately what traffic light systems etc., are – has to be the way forward.

We can still focus on the characteristics and qualities that are healthy and helpful in the setting. We absolutely should. But we can promote, observe and share those, without attaching them to rewards or sanctions. I’d personally invite children to participate in that process too.

‘Appreciations’ is a technique I’ve always used with children of all ages, and it’s gold. You can name it what you want, but it’s simply a ritual-sessional or weekly-where you end time together by sharing attributes you noticed; about yourself, as well as another person/s, in whatever way that best suits your group.

Whatever might have gone badly, ‘appreciations’ communicate that everyone is valued for whatever they bring, regardless. It builds self-awareness and self-esteem, promotes individual strengths, and sets a positive tone for the next time.
TRY IT, or if you can’t, share it with someone who can (or share it anyway!)!

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