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The Naughty and Nice List: What Was Santa Thinking???

Santa has made a lot of questionable decisions if you ask me.


Let’s begin with the surveillance - “he sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake.” Creepy. And don’t even get me started on his treatment of Rudolph. But perhaps the most questionable Santa practice is the “naughty and nice list.”


Of course everyone knows what I’m talking about - the list of children who represent the good kids (nice) and the bad kids (naughty). We have so widely accepted Santa’s method of shaming children into good behavior that this practice has spilled over into our classrooms.


We see these “naughty and nice” lists in many ways in schools. The oldest example involves writing the names of children who have misbehaved on the board. However, we’ve gotten more creative in recent years. Take, for instance, the clip chart - students clip clothespins up on a chart when they’re behaving and clip down when they’re not. The “red/yellow/green” stop light method is another favorite where students move from a green light down to yellow light or red light when they aren’t behaving.


Santa, (and teachers), it’s time to throw the naughty and nice lists into the fireplace.


First, let’s talk about the kids on the classroom naughty list. The students all know who they are…because they’re the same kids every day. And if the same kids are on the naughty list every day, then clearly this strategy is not working!


But it’s not only the students who know which children are on the naughty list…the families know too. Their little elves come home each night and report on who “clipped down” or “got put on red” or “went to the principal’s office.” Those children certainly aren’t being invited for playdates any time soon.


Furthermore, once a child is on the naughty list, why even bother trying to be nice? Presents are already out of the question so wouldn’t it be a lot more fun to really ramp things up and go all in on the misbehavior?!


“But wait,” kids might think, “presents aren’t really out of the question. Surely, Santa will give in at the last minute.” Yes, this is true. At some point, Santa gets tired of keeping score and realizes that all this hype is not sustainable for the eleven remaining months of the year. Consequently, kids learn quickly that the naughty list, clip chart, and red stoplight are really just empty threats which aren’t consistently implemented and don’t need to be taken seriously. (But they do make for interesting dinner conversation.)


The classroom naughty list is generally ineffective because it relies on punishment, rather than the explicit teaching of expected behaviors, to reduce misbehavior. A naughty list approach assumes that the fear of being caught and called out will be enough to change a behavior. For many, especially those who have not yet mastered impulse control, this simply doesn’t work.


What, then, is the solution if we can’t use a naughty list?


We can create a new list - one that assumes that children want to do well and can succeed with support and explicit instruction. Our teacher “nice list” looks something like this:

  • We directly teach our expectations and model the desired behaviors.

  • We provide positive reinforcement and incentives for engaging in the expected behaviors.

  • We create classroom routines and procedures to minimize off-task behaviors during transitions and downtime.

  • We design lessons that actively engage students so they don’t turn to other strategies to occupy themselves.

  • We praise publicly and correct privately.

  • We create an environment in which children can make mistakes and know that they will still be loved and cared for.


Now that I think of it, this is the list that Santa meant to create. Because if Santa really does see kids when they’re sleeping and when they’re awake, he sees not only their misbehavior, but all the really amazing things about them too.


I guess we could learn a thing or two from Santa, after all.


#inclusion #PBIS