Behavior Charts: When a Color Becomes Your Mood’s Compass

“Please be green, please be green, please be green,” I chant to myself on the way to school pickup. My heart beats quickly, I’m sweating a bit more than usual, and I grip the steering wheel tightly. Ever since the beginning of our public school journey, there has been one nemesis I still can’t seem to get over: the behavior chart. The anxiety that a color-coded world of children’s ups and downs brings me is ridiculous. We speak in colors due to this ladder-style behavior chart. What will the folder say today?

Red: The good news is that I will have already known that it’s a red day prior to pick-up, because this vibrant color—and my and favorite go-to polish for spring—also means you get a phone call from the school administration. The phone number shows up on my cell while I silently pray for a skinned knee, not a broken bone, and then get weirded out thinking maybe a skinned knee would have been easier to swallow than the awkward conversation that ensues. ME: “Oh no, is everything OK?” THEM: “Well, yes, he/she is safe, BUUUUUTTTT… ” I restrict sugar and food dyes and read parenting books daily, but I’m failing, That’s it—I am failing.

Orange: One-two punch to the gut. Happy faces are never orange. It’s a blob of color waiting to bait me. Once I see it, I immediately search for the Post-it® full of delicately written “your kid is being a jerk” reports followed by the “tomorrow will be better” encouragement, which entirely helps since I am nearly in tears thinking of the disruption this orange day must have had. Orange rolls down her window as she cuts me off in the car pool lane and smirks. “Lady, you need to get a handle on your kid.”

Yellow: Mediocrity at its best. The most ambiguous behavior chart color turns me into an investigative journalist: “I see you did something. What was it? Why did you stay on yellow? Were you on orange at some point? How do you feel about this yellow? Did you learn about what you should do next time? Did you try to improve to green?” I know how I feel about yellow! Do I ignore, take away screen time, or discuss it some more? Yellow oozes unattained potential and a fear of what the little mind grasps.

Green: This is it! Fist pump with forward lunge! I did it! I am raising kind little humans capable of following school rules who bring me no embarrassment. They will be presidential candidates at this rate. Green is successful, kind, and very obtainable. I sit up a little higher in my minivan’s driver seat and turn up that Taylor Swift real loud. Note to self: Reward music should change, as even the baby knows all the words.

Purple: Tearing up with pride, I morph into my past self, a teenage cheerleader, jumping up and down with such enthusiasm that I will most likely pull a muscle—OK, multiple muscles. Phone calls are made to share the good news with aunts, uncles, and grandparents around the U.S. I decipher all details of the past 24 hours to find out the cause for this purple day. What is the magic recipe to receive purple? Y’all, this calls for a treat…to Sonic for slushies? Target? Chuck E. Cheese’s? Oh no, did I really just offer a trip to Chuck E. Cheese’s?!

“Please choose Target, please choose Target, please choose Target,” I chant to myself as I feel high on life. My kiddo’s successful day clearly means I am winning at motherhood. Some seriously awesome learning took place, and the teacher knew mine deserved an all-star color that looks great on everyone. Purple also means I have the well-behaved kid, the one making the right choices, the one I always saw myself raising, not the one with varied days not unlike my own. Not the one that is just learning his/her way like the rest of us. Not the one who is testing limits and boundaries as he/she should.

As adults, our days are tie-dye-filled. I want to appreciate the glory of purples with the learning opportunities of reds, but the reality is that the behavior chart’s red, orange, yellow, green, and purple trigger me. What would our day look like if it was color-coded? As complex adults with varying characteristics, likes and dislikes, it simply wouldn’t work to reduce even an hour of our day to one color. But are our children so different? They have their likes, their strong suits, their own hardships. Throughout their day they most likely display a wide range of emotions just like the rest of us, possibly even more. They navigate social situations and academics while still developing who they are, while learning.

Behavior charts may be necessary as children develop their theory of mind and navigate a rule=based environment, but how we react to them is equally effective in my opinion. And for me, it is a work in progress.

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One Response to Behavior Charts: When a Color Becomes Your Mood’s Compass

  1. Ginny April 25, 2018 at 12:13 pm #

    Well stated particularly the parents anxiety. I muse how does this anxiety not transfer to children,as perceptive as they are? Was it a variation of things good until that last hour and last impression? Why should colors disrupt so much especially when the rainbow is happily what everyone loves, now these colors are not only ambiguous but not pretty anymore. Yes Danielle you have once again chosen an amazing subject that begs the conversation.
    Excellent.