Creating Classroom Behavior Charts that Actually Work!

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Classroom behavior charts, or daily report cards, are a common evidence-based intervention for kids with ADHD. When used correctly, they are an excellent tool that can help students with ADHD stay more focused, organized, and in control of their behavior. Too often classroom behavior charts aren’t designed or used correctly for students with ADHD, and as a result, the intervention leads to no improvement or very temporary improvement in the child’s attention or behavior. 

In my previous post I discussed guidelines for creating effective behavior charts at home for kids with ADHD. Many of these guidelines apply to classroom behavior charts as well, but there are important additional details to attend to when charts are used at school. The good news is that just like home behavior charts, when you follow these guidelines you’re setting a child up for success and are likely to see improvements in his or her ADHD symptoms and behaviors.

Classroom Behavior Chart Guidelines

  1. Write clear and positive behavior goals. Your chart should communicate to your student exactly what it is that he or she needs to do to succeed. Always write the goals in a way that tells your student what to do rather than what not to do. For example, “Raise a quiet hand and wait to be called on before you speak,” is a much more effective goal than, “Don’t shout out answers before you’ve been called on.” The first example communicates to your student exactly what it is you expect of him or her. Not only do you want him or her to stop shouting out answers before he or she has been called on, but you want him or her to sit quietly and raise his or her hand. It leaves very little room for misinterpretation!
  2. Focus on behaviors that occur frequently across activities and situations. The most successful behavior charts are those that focus on a few key problematic ADHD-related behaviors that occur throughout the day across many different classroom activities and situations. For example, “Keep your hands and feet to yourself,” is an effective goal that can be used all day in almost any situation. In contrast, “Don’t grab pencils from your neighbor during Writer’s Workshop,” only targets a behavior during one activity.
  3. Choose goals that are within reach. Create behavior goals that your student can achieve at least 80% of the time. Goals should aim to stretch your student beyond the point he or she is at right now, while still being within reach. This might mean that you focus on intermediate behavior goals that are a step in the right direction, rather than ultimate end goals. Using “reminders” can be an easy way to create intermediate goals. For example, if you add a goal called, “Get started right away,” when your student has never (or only rarely) ever done this in the past, then he or she will probably not be successful. Instead, you can set an intermediate goal of, “Get started right away with only 1 reminder.” You can drop the reminder once they have mastered this goal.
  4. Include no more than 4 behavior goals on the chart. Most kids with ADHD can handle only 3 or 4 behavior goals on a classroom behavior chart. If more goals are included, students and teachers quickly lose track of them. The easiest way to keep the number of goals small, is to follow guideline #2 above: Focus on behaviors that occur frequently throughout the day. In addition, start with the highest priority behaviors. Then, over time, once those behavior goals have been mastered, you can replace them with new targets.
  5. Provide feedback and ratings consistently at multiple time points throughout the day. The least effective classroom behavior charts are those that are rated by teachers only at the end of the school day. Students with ADHD need constant feedback about their behavior, in the form of verbal praise and physical ratings on their behavior charts. Behavior chart check-in times should occur at least twice a day, and ideally three times a day. To be consistent, link check-in times to regularly occurring daily activities, like “before lunch” or “after morning recess.” Always share the ratings with your student at each check-in period. Between check-ins, praise your student when you see him or her behaving in a way that is consistent with his or her goals. Some older students with milder ADHD symptoms can switch to a single check-in at the end of the day after they have had their behavior chart in place for at least a few weeks. In these cases, continue to provide praise throughout the day and switch back to a 3-times per day schedule if your student starts to slip on his or her behavior goals.
  6. Use a positive points-based rating system. All classroom behavior charts should include a point goal that the student should aim for each day. These types of systems reward the child with points when he or she does something well and move him or her closer to his or her goal. In contrast, negative points-based systems punish a child when he or she doesn’t do something well and move him or her further away from his or her daily goal. For example, if a child starts off the day with 10 points, and then loses a point every time they violate a classroom rule, then they are being punished rather than rewarded. Negative systems are less motivating and less effective for all kids, and especially kids with ADHD. systems should also be avoided because the sad faces act like a punishment and can be highly demotivating.
  7. Set daily point goal targets that don’t require perfection. When kids are learning new behaviors or improving behaviors that are difficult for them, they will make mistakes. If daily point goal targets require kids to achieve each of their behavior goals 100% of the time, then they will rarely reach their daily target and will quickly lose interest in their behavior chart. Instead, set daily point targets that are between 70% - 80% of the total number of possible points that the student could earn in a day.
  8. Provide consistent daily rewards at school or at home. Kids with ADHD need frequent rewards to stay motivated. Rewards should be provided every day that the daily point goal is achieved. School-based rewards can work well, but in cases where strong parent-teacher communication is feasible, rewards provided at home by parents who have reviewed the classroom chart are even more effective. For kids who prefer larger rewards, weekly rewards can be used in addition to daily rewards. What’s most important is that the rewards are highly motivating for the student. If you notice that the student has stopped putting effort into his or her behavior goals, then revisit the reward options and find out if the student is still motivated to earn them.

Classroom behavior charts that are designed specifically for students with ADHD can be highly effective when they are used consistently. Focus on setting clear, achievable goals and point targets, providing regular check-ins and feedback throughout the day, and providing rewards that your student is excited to earn. Your effort will pay off when you see big improvements in your student’s behavior!


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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