being a teacher, classroom expectations, punishment, rewards

How Do I Punish My Students? Umm, I Try Not To

Recently a comment on my post “If We Would Just Stop Talking, We Might Learn Something” has made me think quite a bit.  Short and simple, it asked, “Do you have your non-punishment strategies written down?  Could you please share it?”  And I went hmmm, non-punishment strategies sounds much more fancy than what I have.  The truth is, I don’t have any strategies; I simply do not punish kids.  In fact, even the word punish is such a heavily loaded word that I cringe at the sound of it.  It brings to mind canning or  publicly embarrassing children, simply not my thing.  So instead I handle situations as they arise, mostly with common sense.  Let me explain by taking some every day situations in a classroom…

  • A student keeps blurting out.  Sense of humor works for me here most of the time and I tend to look at it through a positive lens; wow, that kid can’t wait to share the answer because they are having so much fun!  Strategies used to curb or direct it has been to give them dry-erase boards to write down their answers and then flash them to me or have them tell it to a partner.  If the blurting is more like an epidemic I place a blank post-it on their desk and have them make a tally every time they blurt out.  This is used for self-awareness not as a way to reward or punish and I have seen it help kids realize the extent of their blurting who were otherwise unaware.
  • Homework is not handed in.  Even in a classroom where I try to stay homework-free, some students do not use their time as effectively as others and may have a page or two to do at the end of the day, mostly math.  So the first thing we speak about is time management; what could they be doing differently in class to curtail taking work home?  Then we also discuss taking responsibility for not having their work; if a child tells me in the morning that they did not do their homework and have a strategy for getting it done such as bringing it tomorrow or spending some time during recess, then I am fine with that plan.  The point to the conversation is; I don’t want to be the one that has to come up with the plan or have to find out that they didn’t do their work.  They need to come to me, take responsibility for it and then fix it.  Just like we do as adults.
  • And yet, the homework continues to not get done.  This does not happen a lot in my room because we just don’t have the homework.  And yet it does happen once in a blue moon. Besides a conversation with the student where we discuss things they have tried to fix it, we often do a quick phone call home to discuss strategy with parents.  This is not a punishing phone call but instead a “heads-up” we need to give a little more support here both at school and from home because the work is disappearing.  Often I find the root of this to be disorganization rather than laziness, so my number one point is; ask what happened!
  • Students goof off and generally not paying attention.  This is a huge flashing sign to me that what I am doing is not engaging and that the kids need a break.  So unless I for some extreme reason cannot stop what I am doing, I do just that; stop and switch gears.  Whether it just entails giving them a body break or asking them how they would like to learn about this concept something needs to change.  I have also had them do partner share, journaling, or whatever pops into my head to make sure they stay engaged.  Sometimes a lesson is continued but in a different format, sometimes we scrap it for the day.  
  • Students are staring into space, reading a book or doing other work.  For anyone who has ever been absorbed in a great book, we know how hard it is to stop reading, so I always smile a little when I see a student reading under the table.  And yet, students do need to be doing whatever it is we are doing at the moment.  Often a quick tap on the shoulder or even just silence and waiting for them to join the rest of us works.  It is not a big deal, nor do I make it into one.  

Yes, I have had students throw chairs and tables in my room, yes I have had students hit each other, and yes, I have had to send students to the office because they needed a cool down moment.  And still, even during those more extreme situations, I always try to keep in mind that there is a cause to this behavior and it is my job to figure it out.  So I do not punish my students.  I do not take away their privileges to coerce them to behave.  I do not threaten, I do not dangle things in front of their nose.  Instead I start out the year by inviting them to create the rules of the classroom and then asking them to responsibility for it.  We help each other out, we steer each other as we do, and we take the time to talk.

So although I may claim to not have any strategies, the one I might have is to listen with not just my ear,s but also my eyes.  Listen to what their behavior tells me, listen to what they tell me, and then listen to my own reflection on how to create better situations.  And that’s how I don’t punish my students.

2 thoughts on “How Do I Punish My Students? Umm, I Try Not To”

  1. We work hard to have natural consequences in our room and not punishments, combined with the poer of intrinsic motivation. I love how you handle the blurters with the whiteboards. Might have to try that! This is a post that I will save and share.

  2. Nice post. That describes the way I would probably deal with similar situations too. I had punishment strategies back when I started teaching because I was taught at teacher’s college that I would need them. The truth is that you get what you expect from children. If you expect the best you get it. If you expect the worst you get that too. It took me a couple of years to work that out but punishing students achieves almost nothing in the long term and just leads to resentment and resistance. Punishing students may get short term compliance but it’s not a good strategy for the long haul.
    I like your approach, and wish more teachers had such common sense.

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