“Go flip your card.”

As a particularly introverted seven-year-old, that sentence featured prominently in my worst nightmares. My elementary school (and many others along with it) used the Card System of red, yellow and green cards as visual indicators of whether a child followed the rules. It was a simple concept  - although everyone started the week on green, a first infraction meant a yellow card (no recess) and a second meant a red card (a phone call to parents at the end of the week.)

It’s long since been used across schools in the USA, but recently there have been wonderings about the ethicality of this system.

Conceptually, The Card System should work as an effective way to discipline younger students by leaving the choice in the child’s hands. They know the consequences for breaking a rule, and are able to make that choice as to whether that consequence is worth their actions. After all, the best way to not get a red card is to not get a yellow card in the first place.

It helps teachers as well - instead of authority figures stopping the whole class to deal with a disruptive person, they are able to simply tell them to flip their card and continue teaching with less lost instruction time. The Card System keeps disruptive behaviour from affecting other students’ learning, and there’s less overall time spent talking to school authority figures about the infraction in question.

Zero-tolerance policies such as this one help address bullying as well, because it cuts the problem off at the root and prevents similar issues arising. It’s good for children to have to face consequences once and then grow to prevent the same problems rising again. In the short-term, this behaviourist system of reward and punishment is effective.

However, the Card System does have many flaws, one of which is that it points the blame towards the child rather than their behaviour. It’s known as “Labeling theory,” the idea that the behaviour of people can be influenced by language used to classify them.

When an elementary schooler is told they’ve done something wrong, but not told what it was or how to fix it, they’re going to believe that they are the problem, rather than realizing that it was their specific action that was wrong and how not to repeat it. This is especially true for students who are neurodivergent, disabled, or even those who don’t speak English as a first language (many at AES), all of whom are heavily penalized by this inherently ableist system.

In Addition, Card Systems don’t recognize incremental progress. By working on a yes/no basis, there’s no case-by-case basis for the grey area. A child might disrupt a class by making a fuss because they feel separation anxiety from their guardians. Without the Card System, it’s likely that they would just be given a yellow card. However, in that case, the child needs a supportive teacher willing to work with them and their fears more than a reminder that they’re not following the rules. Getting to the root of an issue with a child is much more helpful in the long term than giving them a punishment and moving on.

It’s reliance on extrinsic motivation isn’t good for children’s mental development either. If the only reason they’re not acting out is to prevent being in trouble, what’s to stop them from disrupting others when a teacher’s back is turned? The purpose of elementary school is to teach children to be empathetic and care for others through an environment of mutual respect, and the card system fundamentally opposes that.

This subject remains a controversial topic, and the reality is that no discipline system will ever be perfect. However, it still remains to be seen whether the positives of the Card System outweigh its negatives, and if it as a system should remain in classrooms.

The Card System: Are Our Methods of Child Discipline Broken?

Aanya Bhola