Ideas for Learners Promoting Literacy, Inquiry, and Meaningful Learning Experiences

Behavior Over Time Graphs

Behavior Over Time Graphs (BOTGs) are a Systems Thinking tool. (See more about Systems Thinking tools and lesson ideas from the Waters Foundation, if you are curious.)

Initially, the construction of these graphs might seem like an end product, but their true value lies in the comparison, analysis, and discussion about completed graphs between students.

Behavior Over Time Graphs are great for most subject areas, as well as for personal goal tracking, but they are especially convenient to introduce through picture books.

Below, you will find a step-by-step lesson I have used with many fifth grade classes using The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss.

Step 1: Read and Discuss the Text

The Sneetches book cover

Feel free to pause to notice and wonder throughout the story. Students might make comparisons to world events or personal experiences, or they might stick to the story itself. You can certainly re-read and re-visit this text to push their thinking further, in addition to creating the BOTG from this lesson. If your whole group reading and discussion goes for about 30 minutes or more, you might want to stop for the day and continue with Step 2 the following day, reviewing key ideas from the book at the beginning of the discussion. Steps 2 - 5 take about 45 minutes, with lots of discussion and student involvement.


Step 2: Determine the Main Plot Points in the Story

Timeline of Events
BOTG Step 2

Choose between three and eight ideas for your plot points. You can model this for the whole group and have them watch, you can model it and have them create the same thing, or you can model it and have them create their own versions individually or in pairs.

You may find disagreement about what makes an important event in the story - that is a good thing. especially if students are offering reasons why something is or is not a separate event. The picture above shows one possible list of events over time in The Sneetches, but you and your students may make different decisions. (I'm not convinced, for example, that "Mass Chaos" - when the Sneetches are all changing stars - is appreciably different from the point when McBean shows he can removes stars, but the picture is so memorable that students often identify it as a turning point.)

Step 3: Determine the Quality to Graph, and what the scale will be

There are several things you could graph in The Sneetches. You could graph how power of the Star-Belly Sneetches changes over time. You could graph the degree of open-mindedness of the Star-Belly Sneetches over time. I often model  the happiness of the Plain-Belly Sneetches over time on the graph, and then give students a few other options to graph in partners, using the same story.

Setting the Scale
BOTG Step 3

Choose about 3 - 5 different gradients for your scale. Be sure the options go from least to most for one concept. For example, if you are graphing happiness, you want degrees of very happy to not at all happy, because when students start introducing words like angry or embarrassed, the scale doesn't function properly (you could be both embarrassed and miserable, for example).

I usually encourage students to use the same scale the first time we do this activity, because it makes it easier to compare graphs later.

Step 4: Plot Points on the Graph, and Discuss Reasoning

I usually call up individual students to place their marks according to their judgment about the story for each plot point on the whole-class model, while the other students place their own, or think about where their marks would go (if they aren't making their own versions).  We have  some good discussions and disagreement about how happy or unhappy the Sneetches actually are. I encourage students to reference other points in time on the graph: "Are they unhappier at this point than they were when they had stars? How much unhappier are they?" and of course, I encourage students to use text evidence to support their thinking. Since some judgments require inferencing, we see that it's possible to have reasonable disagreements, but we can also see that some answers are clearly inaccurate, based on the text. We make each plot point in the story before we connect all the dots with the line.

Plotting the Points
Plotting the Points
Connecting the Points
Connecting the Points

Step 4.5: Compare Individual Graphs

If students created their own graphs, give them time to share with other pairs or individuals and look for differences and defend their choices.

Step 5: Drawing Conclusions

With the whole group, emphasize the line you created together and ask students some questions about their thinking. For example:

  • What do you notice about how the Plain-Belly Sneetches' happiness changed over time in this story?
  • What do you notice about differences in the way other students chose to graph certain events? Can you see their point of view? What makes you think your choice is more accurate?
  • How does creating the graph help you understand the story in a deeper way?
  • What would happen to the graph if we graphed the happiness of the Star-Belly Sneetches?
  • What other concepts could we graph from this story?


  • Students can create graphs to describe other facets of the same story, or graph something else about a different story.
  • Students can graph their feelings about reading from grade level to grade level (this is a great way to have discussions about reading confidence during the first reading conferences of the year).
  • Students can use BOTGs for other content areas and for personal reflection (graph the change in temperature for a science experiment over time, graph math test scores over time, graph the number of times volunteering in class per day, the degree of confidence a group of people has in their government - the graphs do represent truth, but because they can represent perspectives, they do not have to illustrate precisely measurable qualities.
  • You can give students several different kinds of lines without any events, titles, or scales, and ask students to add those things to make each graph true. This is a great critical thinking exercise, but it can be challenging for some younger students.

If you are looking for more ways to stretch students' thinking skills, try Independent Study Projects or Book Projects.