Free Printable Behavior Charts We Use Every Day
Less talking + more action = happier parent-child relationships
It’s that moment when you realize that you’ve given the same kid the same instruction five times and he’s still immersed in his Lego construction. You’re trying to decide, “Is this spanking worthy? Or is it a time out? Maybe I’ll just confiscate his Legos for a week.” You hear yourself speak, and realize that you’re probably being over-the-top and are going to need to apologize for this later, but oh well. The constant decision-making of disciplining children can be so exhausting, not to mention the escalating level of frustration with the child who’s ignoring you. This is not what I want for my relationships with my kiddos.
A couple of years ago, we decided we needed some form of discipline that wasn’t spanking, time out, or me just yelling the same instructions repeatedly. Experience has taught me that kids need clear expectations and consistent responses to their behavior. This system is very similar to the one that I used for classroom management when I taught kindergarten, and I find it just as effective at home as I did in the classroom. Rewards and consequences are predictably administered for behaviors we’ve discussed, and the visual of the chart keeps kids accountable for their attitudes and choices even in the crazy times.
Here’s what the chart in our house looks like:
Setting it up
You can print one out using the link at the end of this post, or you can easily make your own at home. We printed ours on heavy cardstock and laminated it for durability. We use small, colored clothespins that have the kids’ initials on them. And we use a magnetic clip at the top so we can hang it on the magnet board in the playroom, on the fridge, or wherever else will be a central location that everyone can see.
How the clips move
The kids start the day on green. All day, they have regular opportunities to “clip up” to the next color. Some of these are parts of their routine that need to be completed in a set amount of time, such as finishing all of their morning chores before breakfast time. There are other tasks that are a guaranteed clip up, such as unloading the dishwasher. Other times, kids clip up by being the first to obey, being a great example, or being kind or helpful to their siblings.
Clipping down is the consequence for most infractions in our house. Kids can clip down for disobeying or ignoring instructions, having a bad attitude, arguing or talking back, or speaking unkindly to one another.
The important thing here is that the behaviors associated with a clip up or down have been pre-determined by you and discussed with the kids, and that they are consistently responded to in the same way each time. Consider what the problem behaviors are in your household, the things that cause you the most parent-child struggle. Your list doesn’t have to look the same as ours. In fact, our list often changes to include new things. In the last week, I had a discussion with a few of my children about responding to instructions with “Why?” or “I don’t want to.” After a few days of practice, they now know that that kind of response will always result in a clip down.
Incentives and Consequences
Equally important as the consistent responses to behaviors is the consistent relationship of colors to incentives or consequences. Again, the way you set this up will be unique to your family. But here’s how we break down the colors for our kiddos:
- Purple (at the top of the chart, and can only be achieved by clipping up): special time with Papa (Jamin) after bed time…we call it “Purple Time”
- Green: use of their tablets or chromebooks for games
- Yellow: this is the “warning zone”; none of the above incentives, but no consequences yet either
- Blue: time out; I usually do timeout for the same number of minutes as the child’s age
- Orange: long time out (ie, a nap)
- Red: bedtime
I have found it helpful, especially with certain personalities, to jump straight to a timeout “to collect yourself” for kids who are spiraling. If they’ve just clipped down and are looking like they’re about to repeat the same behavior or lose their temper, they will generally be sent to a quiet spot to pull themselves together and decide what kind of choices they want to make so that they can be on the color they want to end on today. My goal here is to allow the kids to see a clear correlation between their choices and their consequences. A kid who is in bed for the night at 2:00 in the afternoon for throwing a tantrum is going to feel like she can’t win since she now has no way to redeem herself. If, however, I give her a few moments to pause and reflect, she can usually find ways to make better choices in her day in order to move her clip in a more positive direction.
It’s also important to note that I do not use this system with kids under 3. In fact, our three-year-old is still very much learning the system and practicing. Younger kids really need immediate responses to their behavior, and a system such as this one that delays consequences until a certain color is reached would be confusing for the little guys.
JAMIN RESPONDS: Thanks for bringing stuff like this into our lives. It’s adorable and cute. And it totally works. I think you and your classroom of kids is the best. I totally couldn’t treat it the same as you, but watching you with them makes my heart happy.
tldr: This little chart helps, but consistency is always the real magic.
I want to say that any system works as long as you work the system. I want to say our free printable behavior charts are dumb. That sounds like me. But this goofy little chart has been a life saver for us and the kids. I’m sure Wendy explained how it works, but basically, pre-determined behaviors trigger movement from one level to another, each level has its own rewards and punishments, and ending the day on a high color gets its own reward. So in some ways, it does the parenting for us: the kids decide what they want to get out of their day, and the chart determines the consequences and rewards. No more searching for a creative punishment to fit this particular behavior.
It’s a life saver for us parents because it helps what I’m going to call emotional individualization: the ability to feel toward each kid the way I should feel based on their behavior. This is especially important with multiple kids. When we had 2, it was easy to treat them individually, but every classroom has a card/color/reward system because at a certain number, the teacher just can’t be expected to keep track any more. The chart helps us know whether a particular kid has actually been acting up all day or if it just feels like they’ve been acting up.
It’s not uncommon that one kid will be in the middle of a string of terrible decisions, and a different kid will also make a bad choice. In the moment, I can’t always tell if kid #2 has been bad or if it just feels like it because I’ve been dealing with the first kid. When I check the chart and notice this is kid 2’s first mistake of the day, it’s easier to be more merciful in the moment. Or vice versa. Some kids are good at laying it on thick, but when I see they’ve already had 4 run-ins with mom so far today, it’s probably not a good time to let this one slide.
It’s great for the kids because they know exactly how to earn more rewards and exactly what punishments they will get if they make poor/selfish decisions. And I think that’s the foundation of good parenting: a few rules, strictly enforced; creating solid expectations; an ability for kids to predict the future.
That’s why the key to this system (and any system) is consistency. Granted, this is a better system than the others we’ve tried, but it won’t work if the kids don’t know what kinds of things get a “clip down” or if they get a “clip down”, or if they are only enforced when I’m in a bad mood, or after a random number of warnings. Zero warnings. This is the system. It works. If I’m giving warnings sometimes and not others, that’s an unfair move the times I don’t give warnings. The kids SHOULD think I’m a bad parent; they SHOULD be mad at me for giving out punishment, even if it’s punishment I promised, if I created the expectation that they would get more warnings before handing out what I promised. How would I feel if the rules for MY behavior changed from day to day? If I’m going 66 in a 65 zone and I get pulled over, I’m gonna be mad and even the judge probably isn’t going to enforce my punishment. The expectation is at least 5mph over the limit. That is the REAL speed limit. The real laws are the ones that are enforced, not the ones on the books, and it’s the same for parenting.
The other time this system doesn’t work is when a small kid is too tired or momentarily too self-destructive to get a hold of their choices. I used to believe that any sentient being, given the right incentives and punishments, could be persuaded to do almost anything. Kid’s not making a good choice? Better punishment and rewards can fix it. I still lean that way, but I’m WAY less confident than I used to be. Sometimes we primates are blinded by our fears/desires/emotions/exhaustion. Sometimes you can threaten a kid with death or promise Disney World and that still won’t help them reign in their pointless screaming. I still think that consistent bad behavior is an indication of a lack of parenting, but everyone has one of those days. And especially young kids, who haven’t had practice controlling their emotions, need repeated guidance to see that they can change their mental state instead of their mental state changing them.
When this is the case, the clip chart is off the table. It’s not helping anyone to clip down 4 times in 5 minutes, even if that’s what the rules say should happen. Something else is going on here. Am I miscommunicating? Are they emotionally impaired by some other event or lack of sleep? Are they sick or in pain? Am I emotionally impaired at the moment? As any good internet adviser will confirm, the kids still have to learn to be responsible for choices in such circumstances, but maybe in some cases, the best way to teach good decision-making isn’t the clip chart…maybe it’s just a nap or some Tylenol (which, by the way, works for sadness like it does for physical pain…not a recommendation, but it’s an interesting twist to the way emotional states and physical pain might both affect judgement and decision-making).
WENDY RESPONDS: Hmm…that Tylenol bit is interesting, I’ll have to hear more about that later. Sounds like we’re speaking the same language with the consistency thing, which you are so much better at than I am! I am reminded pretty much daily that that definitely is the most important factor.