classroom expectations, classroom management, community, discipline, punishment, student choice, student driven, Student-centered

Don’t Act Like An Idiot – My 5th Graders Make Our Rules

image from icanread

Silence…not something that happens in a room full of 27 students.

Then one hand cautiously rises, then another, but still mostly silence…

A minute ago I had asked my students, “What do we do in this classroom when you don’t behave well?”

This was now the reaction I faced; confused looks and silence.  4 years ago, my students would have prattled off a list: we write our name on the boards, you give us a checkmark, we lose recess, we lose free time, we call home, we go to the principal’s office.   All very common consequences in classrooms.  But now, 4 years later, I have unintentionally stumped my students.

One student finally says, “Well, you expect us to not act like idiots, so we don’t.”

Another student jumps in, “Yeah, and if we do something stupid then you tell us to fix it.”

And a third, “So we just talk about it and figure it out.”

Aha!  We discuss their behavior and then we fix it in whichever way it needs to be fixed.

I threw away punishment because I always punished the same students.  It also never solved the problem but just added a grudge between the student and myself.  Today, some question whether students can truly act well when you don’t punish.  When they don’t know the consequences of their behavior.  Some think that no punishment equals no rules, no perimeters, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

No punishment means no public shaming, no loss of privileges, no loss of recess unless we need private time to talk.  It doesn’t mean no structure, no expectations, or a free for all of student chosen behavior.  It means I expect my students to make the classroom rules.  I expect them to behave well.  I expect them to make good choices.  I don’t have a perfect classroom, but I have kids that try.  I have kids that know what the expectation is.  I have kids that make a choice everyday, whether to be active participants in our learning journey, or whether to act like idiots.  They don’t always make the right choice, but if they don’t, then we deal with it on a situational basis.

So no, I don’t need to punish my students into behaving, and not because they are all angels (ha, far from it) but because as a classroom we have decided to learn, to share, to behave like a typical 5th grader.

Don’t act like idiots, in true 5th grade language, and represent.  Those are some of the rules for our classroom.  I din’t make them but I do give them to grow and become part of our culture.  Most kids know how to act in school, it is time we gave them our trust and a chance to prove it.

Edit:  As you can see from a comment, the word idiot can be taken to something much deeper than is its intention here.  When my students and I use the word “idiot” it is meant to convey a 5th grader that deliberately chooses to do something they shouldn’t, not someone with an intellectual disability.  I never mean to offend but here I chose to let the word stand since it portrays the conversation we had. 

8 thoughts on “Don’t Act Like An Idiot – My 5th Graders Make Our Rules”

  1. Just something to think about… I totally get the message you are sending here. I abandoned punishment/reward systems many years ago. My students work together as a team to achieve communal goals, and support each other on the way. We support those goals with adjustments and interventions. We do celebrate achievements, but together as a class in ways that are chosen and prepared for as a class.

    However, some of your language here makes me feel really uncomfortable and it’s clouding the overall message for me… so I wanted to share.

    My problem is with the seemingly casual use of the word “idiot,” both in the title and throughout the post. When you look up the meaning of that word, one of the definitions is an “intellectually disabled person.” If you ask anyone who loves or cares about a person with a disability, words like “idiot” or “moron” or “retard” are offensive. They are labels put on people, meant to demean or insult. By your students using “idiot” in this way, they are showing that it something not to be. A bad thing, that doesn’t belong in the classroom. So, it follows that if you have a disability, you’re wrong and don’t belong … as a student, as a learner, as a classmate, a community member?

    Now, by reading all of your other posts and all the work your class did while reading the book “Out Of My Mind,” I know that your class discussed at length what Melody was going through and how it made her feel when people thought little of her. I am sure part of your discussions were you can’t judge others by their disabilities, by their appearance, etc. However, the student’s casual use of the word “idiot” shows they don’t know how harsh that word can be. Even your comment of that they need to behave “like normal people” makes it sound like there are normal people, and the “idiots” are the not normal people.

    You want them to grow and be apart of “the culture.” Well, the culture includes those with a wide range of strengths and abilities. No one, and I bet your students would agree with this, wants to be labeled for what they can’t do. No one wants to be labeled “idiot.” So let’s stop using that word.

    Thanks for listening….

    1. Thank you so much for giving me food for thought. You are right that the traditional definition does encompass this, here I meant to convey the actual conversation and this was the word used. In fact, my students (and myself) use the word as a way to convey when someone willfully does something they know they shouldn’t. I therefore chose to report the conversation as we had it. I think we can get caught up in broader terms of language easily and thus losing the meaning of what is being said. I don’t think there is anything wrong with using the term “normal people” here, I think we can read whatever we want into so many terms that we end up focusing more on semantics rather than message. I am going to change “normal people” here though in order to clarify my meaning but the word “idiot” will remain in the spirit f how it is meant. Thank you so much for your comment, I do appreciate it.

  2. I think having your kind of classroom management is ideal, but honestly I have no idea how to get there. How did you develop it? Obviously there was a discussion on respect and expectations. What do you do when kids don’t do their work? When they act out? Show disrespect?

  3. Great post, Pernille!

    Punishment, consequences, and “one-size-fits-all” rules are the norm in so many classrooms and schools, but in most cases, they do not foster improvement. Just as we differentiate for students coming to us at different levels of readiness, the same must be considered when it comes to discipline. Our students come from very unique families and the expectations (or lack thereof) set in the home require that same differentiation.

    I like how you mention that there will be “no loss of recess unless we need private time to talk” because this clearly indicates that you build trust with your students; something that is unlikely to result from scolding them.

    If I were a fly on the wall in your classroom, I predict the rapport you build with your students would translate into minimal disciplinary issues making the “lack” of punishment irrelevant.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Love it! It’s so true that when we trust that kids can make the right decisions and when they don’t- we help guide them to fit the problem- they always rise to the challenge. Just thinking about your post makes me think that with my own kids at home I don’t have a list of rules. I expect them to behave in a reasonable, responsible way and when they don’t we deal with it together. I think if more teachers recognized that the kids we teach are someone’s children they may change many things in their classroom. I want everyone to talk about their students like they would their own children. Might just change their attitude.


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