Be the change, discipline, punishment, students

So I Gave Up Punishment and My Students Still Behaved

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When I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress last summer I mistakenly assumed that all posts would seamlessly transfer.  I have since found the error in my thinking and have decided to re-post some of my more discussed posts.  This post first appeared in June of 2011  but still rings true to me.

Three years ago 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 now a complete convert.  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 didn’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.  Yeah, didn’t work so well.  Now I instead change my teaching and learning.  While we may have had certain activities planned for that day they are modified to require movement and discussion or totally changed if I can.  The learning goals usually stays the same, the method of delivering them doesn’t.  Often this takes 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 don’t take away recess but have it reserved to work with the kids that need it, I make fewer phone calls home, and I rarely send a kid to the office.  I am sure there are tougher classes out there than mine, but this is your every day average American elementary class.  We have the talkers, the interrupters, the disrespectful, the fighters, and the sleepers.  And it works for them as well.  The kids feel part of something big, and they let me know on  just how much it means to them.  They relish the voice they have, even when it comes to their own consequences.  They relish that rewards are no longer personal but rather classroom-wide whenever I feel like it.  Kids are not singled out for horrible behavior and so I don’t have “that kid” that everyone knows will get in trouble.  Instead we are all there as learners being rewarded through our community rather than punished.  I remember the relief I felt when I placed my old punishment cups in the staff lounge and finally let go of my old ways.  To this day I  hope no one picked them up.



20 thoughts on “So I Gave Up Punishment and My Students Still Behaved”

  1. There is sooooo much that rings true. This is the second year that I’ve kind of just gravitated to not using my consequences system. I use the same quiet approach to seeing why from time to time some students are off. On most days, all of my students are working hard and I’m sitting somewhere off to the side, on the floor with one or 2 kids, or walking around to offer whatever is needed. I love this way of “managing” a classroom because I’m doing very little managing. No power struggle, only a search for solutions when needed. Thank you for your post.

  2. This post is very inspiring. I’ve been trying to implement a system like this but it’s been a long road.

  3. This is about what I did when I taught. When there was a disruption I started with eye contact. I would also ask questions in a polite voice like “are you finished?” or “are you ok?” or “can I help you?” In private conversations I would ask if there was anything I could do to help. Always respect students even if respect isn’t returned at first. Build relationships and punishment won’t be necessary.

  4. I moved to a new school and a new grade and didn’t bring my clip chart. It has been liberating. There have been times when I also had to grit my teeth because I almost told a child to clip down. I have made mistakes. I have raised my voice and forgot to listen to what the students were really telling me with their behavior. As the students get older and they learn to play the game of school they become more ‘obiedent’. My students are 5 & 6 years old. They aren’t interested in sitting quietly at all. It’s my job to see that and adapt. It’s a process and I’m working hard to get there. I cringe when I see so many kids changing their color or moving their clip.
    My former second grader told me that I shouldn’t use a clip chart in kindergarten. I didn’t realize how wise he really was. Thank you, Philip. You were a challenge but you made me see what is possible.

  5. You are still using a “consequences plan” but it involves restorative practice and personal responsibility … this is something that my last school was very focussed on and also sits nicely with the kind of classroom I like to be in!
    I have been a high school teacher for 23 years and most ‘punishments’ that are traditionally dished out cost the teacher more time and effort than actual impact on the student. Building relationships where the behaviour expectations for all are clear (I hold myself to at least the same standards as my students) and that we are each responsible for our own actions and are aware about how they impact on not just ourselves but those around us means less ‘policing’ and more learning time!
    Thanks for the opportunity to reflect again on my classroom management plan … our school year starts next week 🙂

    1. Often I pull the kids into a circle and then start by asking them why they think we are meeting. Mince that has been established we discuss how the behavior(s) are affecting the classroom and the learning. Sometimes students lead the meeting as. We usually end with each kid saying what they are going to do to create a better learning environment that day.

  6. In teacher school, we are often taught that having a ‘behavior management’ system is very important. But as a teacher, I realized that, while some kids might need some kind of behavior support, the whole class really didn’t.

    Your post invites us to think about the reasons why students misbehave and reflect on how we can help students grow. It was easy to tell kids ‘to move their clip.’ You ask teachers to do the hard work.

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