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.