alfie kohn, behavior, Classroom, punishment, Teacher

So I Gave Up Punishment and the Kids Still Behaved

This year I gave up my inane punishment plans.  Out went the sticks, the cups, the posters, the pointed fingers and definitely the lost recesses.  No more check-marks, or charts to explain what that check-mark meant, no more raised voice telling a child they better behave or else.  Some thought I was crazy, I thought I was crazy, and yet, here I am ready to do it again next year.  So what happened?

Well, a lot of conversations.  If just one child was off that day, disruptive, disrespectful and so on, it was usually handled through a quiet conversation off to the side or in their ear.  Sometimes we went in the hallway.  I tried to limit the times I called out their names and I spoke to them as human beings.  No more teacher from the top, I am going to get you if you don’t listen, but rather, “Do you see what your behavior is doing for your learning?”  Believe it or not, framed in a way where they understood what the loss was = the learning, there was better behavior or at least an attempt to behave.  And that was a central part of my plan; make the learning something they don’t want to miss.  Most kids do not want to miss recess because they have a lot of fun and hang out with their friends, which is why it is such a favored punishment.  Hit them where it hurst kind of thing.  So I decided to make my classroom fun, exciting, and collaborative.  That meant that students actually wanted to participate and not miss out.

Sometimes my whole class was off; jumpy, jiggly, or falling asleep.  In the past I would have yelled, droned on, and probably lectured about the importance of school.  No surprise there that usually didn’t work at all.  So then I would just get mad, tighten the reins and exert my control.  After all, I was the adult here and the one that should decide everything.  Yeah, didn’t work so well.  This year I instead changed my teaching and learning.  While we may have had certain activities planned for that day they would be modified to require movement and discussion or totally changed if I could.  The learning goals usually stayed the same, the method didn’t.  Often this took care of a lot of behavior that would have led to a check-mark before.  And I think that is central to this whole thing; bad behavior often comes from disengagement and boredom.  So when we change our classrooms to give students more outlet for their energy, bad behavior reduces.  My worst days were the days that I hadn’t considered my students needs enough, the days were there was too much sitting down and not enough choice.

In the beginning it was hard.  I so instinctually wanted to say “Move your stick!” that I actually had to grind my teeth.  With time it got easier.  The students knew when they were misbehaving because we discussed it.  If the whole class or a majority of students were off we had a class meeting.  Sounds like a lot of time spent on talking?  Yes, but I would have been spending the same time yelling at the kids and doling out punishment.  The kids got used to it and many of them relished the fact that they were given a voice in their behavior and how to fix it, rather than a dictation from me.  Kids started keeping each other in line as well, asking others to be quiet when need be or to work more focused.  They knew what the expectations were for the different learning settings because we had set them together.  This was our classroom, not mine.

So did it work?  Absolutely, I would never go back.  I didn’t take away recess but had it reserved to work with the kids that needed it, I made fewer phone calls home, and I sent a kid to the office twice the whole year for recess related stuff.  I am sure there are tougher classes out there than mine, but this was your every day average American elementary class.  We had the talkers, the interrupters, the disrespectful, the fighters, and the sleepers.  And it worked for them as well.  The kids felt part of something, something big, and they let me know on the last day of school just how much it meant to them.  They relished the voice they had, even when it came to their own consequences.  They relished that rewards were no longer personal but rather classroom-wide whenever I felt like it.  Kids were not singled out for horrible behavior and so I didn’t have “that kid” that everyone knew would get in trouble.  Instead we were all there as learners being rewarded through our community rather than punished.  Yesterday while preparing form y switch from 4th to 5th, I put my old punishment cups to move your stick in into the lounge.  I hope no one picks them up.

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12 thoughts on “So I Gave Up Punishment and the Kids Still Behaved”

  1. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this post. This is something that I have been thinking about, and it's nice to hear about your experience with it before jumping in. You have inspired me to give this a try next year. I'm sure it won't be easy at first, but I'm sure it will be worth it! Thanks again.@teachtoinspire

  2. I made this move a few years ago and loved it. However, I switched to a teaming situation where 2 of the 3 of us wanted to do a reward/punishment kind of thing. I found I couldn't switch back. It was still there, but I didn't make use of it. I can't tell you how excited I am to get rid of it for good in this coming year!

  3. I loved reading this, just like all your blog posts. You are remarkable and I have gleaned so much from following you the past few months!

  4. Thanks for this!A book recommendation, don't know if you know it already: "Learning to trust", Watson & Ecken. Two years in an inner-city classroom with 6 – 8 year olds, following a compassionate & practical philosophy that recognises children's need to learn the skills of cooperation etc. Alfie Kohn refers to this book in one of his, which is how I found it. Lovely inspiring book – I think a lot of readers of this blog would like it.

  5. I enjoyed reading your post. I've only been teaching for three years but it made me reflect on the change I've made as a teacher. My first year it was all about control and power and always looking to catch the "bad guy." I have removed punishment and rewards from my classroom and it has made a huge difference. I still battle with the everyday disruptions but I continually remind myself to approach them as a problem solver and not a fire extinguisher. As I continue to learn, I'm finding that timely, consistent, and relevant, feedback is important. When you mentioned having to "bite your tongue," it is so true. It's so easy to want to vomit those controlling one liners but if we can stop for a minute to think about the situation and approach it in a better way, everyone will benefit in the long run.

  6. Thank you all for reading this post. This journey was not easy, even making the decision was not easy, however, it has been life-changing for me. No longer can I blame the students for having a tough day but rather I must look within and see how I should change. We falsely assume that punishment and rewards leave us in control, but it doesn't. Rather we give our control to the system and then don't understand when the students lose respect for us. We have to establish learning communities based on respect and punishment and rewards just does not fit in there.

  7. In every learning situation, there will be kids who go off task or distract others or misbehave. Adults do it too! Punishment doesn't make them behave. Punishment doesn't make them learn. Conversations do. Engagement does. Respect does. Understanding does. Meaningful, challenging learning opportunities do. Nice post, Pernille!

  8. This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality. This is especially nice one and gives in-depth information. Thanks for this nice article.

  9. Wow, what a great post! It's nice to hear how well this worked for you; It gives me hope for next year. This year I had "that class" and despite being sucked into ever-increasing punishments the behaviours didn't change. I came to the realization that I needed to do things drastically different, but couldn't break the cycle. Next year a know where to start, and you've just given proof that it can work.

  10. This post is so inspiring!! That's so great to hear that you gave up on punishment, but you were still able to get your students to behave. I agree that a lot of misbehavior does come from boredom and when you make the lessons interesting and meaningful, students will want to participate! I would love it if you could post more about how this works in your classroom. I'm not a real big fan of those different systems of rewards and punishments in order to motivate the students to behave. In the past I've taken away recess from students, so I'm wondering what that would look like if I didn't have that as a consequence anymore. Thank you for making me reflect on how I discipline my students…–jee young

  11. I see this is an old post, but you just retweeted it, so I am just reading it. Great post! You may want to look at the Responsive Class- lots of similar ideas.

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