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Behavior tracking apps in the classroom: What do I need to know?

Behavior tracking apps like ClassDojo are seeking to improve the classroom experience by allowing teachers to monitor classroom behavior through a point-system. What are the benefits and drawbacks of this technology?

Technology in the classroom has long been an integral part of enhancing a child’s education. Now, a new app called ClassDojo is seeking to improve the classroom experience by allowing teachers to monitor classroom behavior through a point-system: students can earn or lose points based on their behavior, and the entire process can be viewed by everyone in the class.

A recent New York Times article raised some privacy concerns related to ClassDojo and other similar tracking apps, but I'd like to address the behavioral science behind the app. While I can see some potential benefits to this methodology, I also have some concerns as well.

Providing a systematic way to reward students for appropriate behavior in front of other students has long been shown to be effective in improving student behavior. One method in particular, the "fair pair" method, relies on pointing out the good behavior of one student to improve the behavior of others.

For example: If a teacher notices that his student is not doing her classwork, he can point out the student that is working on the assignment and acknowledge him. This helps the teacher draw attention to appropriate classroom behavior, and provide an explicit model for the student behaving inappropriately. This technique also allows for the teacher to provide limited attention to the inappropriate behavior while providing positive attention to the appropriate behavior. A wealth of research has shown that providing specific behavioral praise is an effective way to improve classroom conduct and reduce behavioral disruptions. (A fellow Healthy Kids blogger also recently wrote an excellent post on the power of effective praise.)

With all of that in mind, there are some potential risks when app is used inappropriately. For one, bringing attention to inappropriate conduct may serve to increase the negative behavior rather than reduce it. Additionally, kids who demonstrate consistently poor conduct are at risk of rejection from their peers; therefore, bringing attention to this behavior in front of other children may heighten that risk. The best way for a teacher to respond to negative behavior is privately and individually with the student, not in front of their peers.

Similarly, students who are consistently punished for their inappropriate behavior have decreased connection with the school and teachers. Students learn best when they feel empowered and supported to perform well. Consistently drawing attention to inappropriate behavior may be detrimental to this goal.

Finally, children can often act out in class due to factors outside the classroom, so it's important to look at a child's behavior through the lens of the social, emotional, and environmental influences at play, rather than simply reducing a child to his or her actions.  Effective behavior support should teach appropriate behavior, genuinely reinforce good character development and conduct, and encourage social and emotional development. ClassDojo has the potential to support this, but as part of a larger toolkit that also includes open and free-flowing communication between parents and teachers, to better understand the student's world and how he views himself in it.

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