Montessori: Rewards and Punishments

This is a big topic. Much bigger than can be covered in a blog post. It is definitely a book topic. But I am going to take a stab at it anyway because we've been going around to visit kindergartens for Coco for next fall, and something keeps coming up...

Clip charts.

Have you heard of them? They're a discipline management tool that involves clipping (with an actual clothespin with the child's name written on it) up and down a series of cards in different colors. Everyone starts the day on the green card, which typically says something like, "Ready to learn" and throughout the day, based on behavior and choices, students will be instructed to 'clip up' or 'clip down.' When I'm subbing, I have gotten used to a child telling me after lunch that their teacher normally has them clip up and clip down. "And if kids are extra good and do something nice, you can give us P.A.W.S" they'll tell me, which are school currency they can use to buy candy from the office once they've saved up enough. Good grief.

On a clip chart, up from green is a pink "Great job!" and up from that is a purple "Outstanding!" On the other hand, down from green is a yellow "Slow down..." and from there an orange, "Think about it" and finally a red "Parent contact." Whichever color the child is on at the end of the day goes home to mom and dad.

I cannot stand these clip charts, or the school currency-for-candy reward system.

Things like clip charts don't help children learn to self-regulate at all. Instead, they help them to fixate on rankings and labels, while engraining in their heads that we're only kind or helpful for personal gain rather than the desire to actually help others or be kind. I feel 100% confident that that is not the aim of any school when it comes to discipline. But there it is.

Many parents and teachers love clip charts, but when children remind me of their clip chart system when I'm subbing, I simply tell them I don't do that. Rather than clipping up and down and rewarding behavior with school currency, I'm a big fan of natural and logical consequences. For example, last week I subbed in a fourth grade class and two children had forgotten their recorders for music class and asked to call home. I asked if their teacher normally lets them call home and they said yes. I told them if it were my class, I would not let them call home. In that case, the natural consequence would follow - having forgotten their recorder, they'd have to go to music class without it and they probably would be more careful to remember it the next time. With a natural consequence in place, there would be no need to ask them to clip down either.

But as a sub, it wasn't my place, so I let them call home. And I suppose as a sub, I should really do the clipping as it's not my place to do away with that system while I'm there. To be perfectly honest, I don't even remember it's a thing until a child has reminded me, and then I'm not sure what constitutes a clip in either direction anyway. How wonderful a deed or terrible an offense warrants a clip? The fact is, responding genuinely case-by-case and discussing what's happened with lots of eye contact seems to work just fine.

A logical consequence is a consequence that is devised in the absence of a natural one. For example, say a child calls another child a name. Nothing happens naturally that will make an impression on the perpetrator. So, in that case, the name-caller might have to lose the first ten minutes of recess or write a letter to the teacher explaining why they made the choice to call someone else a name. I don't believe in forced apologies any more than clip charts, but giving a child some time and space to reflect can be productive. If a child just clips down for name-calling, they can earn it back later by doing something nice and take absolutely nothing formative away from the experience.

Perhaps even more than clipping down, clipping up really bugs me. When I drive the speed limit and use my blinker, the police don't stop me and tell me "Great job!" or "Outstanding!" I follow the rules because when we all follow the rules, we can all live more relaxed happy lives. That's participating in society and practicing social responsibility. It's focusing on the greater good and collective spirit. But children on clip charts seem determined to clip up for the sake of clipping up. It's not enough to stay at green for the day, and so they'll help another child tie their shoes, or pick some scraps of paper up off the floor - and then ask to clip up for being a helper. As far as I can tell, clip charts make children more self-centered and competitive than they do conscientious and empathic and I really don't like the idea of Coco using one every day.

How do you handle discipline - do you dangle carrots or impose time-outs? If you're looking for books on rewards and punishments and discipline, I can highly recommend "Children: The Challenge" by Rudolf Dreikurs, and today I'm heading to the library to pick up the seminal classic "Punished by Rewards" by Alfie Cohn. Another reliable standby is "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

How do you feel about clip charts? Does your child use one? What's the effect over time?

(Photo via Café Psychologique)


  1. What a horrible idea- and this is normal in school? I can see a reward chart working for something very specific- I had one for doing mental math exercises daily. But the minute I achieved the reward I wasn't interested in the maths anymore!!

    Natural consequences absolutely- and natural follow up- i.e. If you put the stickers in your mouth I will warn you not to and then take them away. You can have them back when you don't eat them (example from my day...)

    But also I love the Montessori message that children are born wanting to please and we can and should channel that desire positively. They aren't Machiavellian schemers out to manipulate. They want to be loved, and to know someone you love and respevt is hurt or upset by your behaviour is punishment enough and needs careful handling, let alone artificial add ons.

    My daughter is only 2 so I'm sure I will have many years refining and defining my approach to discipline, but I hope I always remember that maxim of love first.

  2. I think the scariest thing is that rewards based discipline is so pervasive in our culture. Because it's everywhere and so popular, many parents don't stop to think critically about the how's and whys of this kind of approach. I was lucky enough to stumble upon alfie Cohn and Janet Lansbury pretty early in my parenting journey, and we're surrounded by a lot of like minded folks at the school my kids attend (which isn't luck, but careful consideration of the environment). I just wish these "alternative" ways were way less niche and it was easier to find the language of gentle parenting (or teaching) in our everyday lives.

  3. Oh dear, I could not disagree with this more. I only have an 18 month old, but heck no! I would not want her being led this way in the classroom. Kudos to you for identifying that this is an issue. Do you have any local Montessori programs that go through kindergarten?

  4. The idea of those clip charts is horrifying. I can't even imagine how a teacher justifies that as helpful; what an old fashioned approach. Certainly not what I would want in my children's classrooms.

  5. In our family, we make a concerted effort to avoid rewards and punishments. I have read a lot by Dr. Laura Markham, and instead focus on "connection before correction" that said, I totally understand why so many teachers/schools use the clip system. It is so totally acceptable by mainstream ed that no one questions it, so no one thinks about doing it any other way. I also don't agree with it and was fortunate to have a principal who also despised it, so he helped us teachers find other ways to maintain discipline in our classrooms (back when I taught 3rd and 5th grades in traditional public school).

  6. Yeah, I am not a fan even though my Goody Goody Swiss Georgia has never moved down--ha. I can imagine with my hell on wheels son I will like it even less.

    I don't really know what the solution is, especially in public school where the range of behavior and home styles of discipline (or lack therof) are so broad.

    1. I will add too that its really confusing how within her classroom the worst kids are working on their own reward systems, so they go into the treasure box more often than the kids who behave well! What is that accomplishing except teaching the misbehaving ones that their set of rules in life will be different?! Ugh.

  7. Ugh. I am an occupational therapist and attended Montessori for early grades. The schools here (in Florida) use clip charts and I think they are emotionally and socially damaging for the reasons you listed. I see children who detest or are afraid of certain colors because of their clip charts! From a developmental standpoint, these charts do nothing to promote self-regulation, responsibility, or caring for others. Bleech.

  8. this is really nice to read..informative post is very good to read..thanks a lot! play free slots online


Post a Comment