He was waiting for me to yell at him.
To unleash my words of destruction, let it fall over his deaf ears, while he would continue to stare defiantly at me.
His chin was ready to catch my words, deflect them even if need be. His shoulders back, proud of what he had done even if it had broken more than three school rules.
I cleared my throat. he stood up taller.
Then I asked, “Why?”
A look of uncertain flashed through his yes but then quickly disappeared.
“Because I could. because I wanted to. Why? What are you going to do about it?”
“This isn’t like you,” I said. “This isn’t the kid I know. This isn’t the kid that is proving everybody wrong.”
His shoulders slumped a tiny bit and I knew there was a chance we could talk.
I have yet to punish a child into behaving. Don’t get me wrong, I tried for several years to punish all of them into being good.
I punished them with grades. I punished them with referrals, with shouting, with lost recesses and lost privileges. I punished them with phone calls home, meetings, and stern look upon stern look. Sometimes they straightened out for a bit, if I yelled loud enough. Other times they just got more certain of their path of destruction, smarter about the damage they inflicted.
I stopped punishing four years ago and started asking “Why?” instead. It wasn’t a miracle word, nor did it fix everything, but it planted a seed. A seed that can grow into a conversation. A seed that can blossom into trust, into community, into a deeper understanding.
I grew weary of punishment because it didn’t change the kid. It just made them more stubborn in their ways, it made them hate school, it made them hate me. I became a part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Sometimes I was the problem and I was the reason they were behaving so destructively.
Now, when a child has rough day, a rough month, or even a rough year, I first look inward. What am I doing to add more to the problem? What am I doing that fuels it? Then I reach out to the child; how can this be solved, what is really going on? I keep asking why until I find something that we can use to move forward. I am not there to fix a kid, I can’t fix anyone, but I am there to help them help themselves. I am here to help them grow. Punishment will never do that.
PS: Today, Zach, one of my incredible students posted this on his blog, I swear he read my mind
In my opinion, a good teacher needs to have three very important qualities. First of all, a teacher needs to be able to put situations into a student’s perspective. A teacher should be able to think “How would a student react to kid/teacher points?” or “Would my class enjoy this project?” or think similar thoughts. Sometimes, just putting something into a student’s eyes is the best way to solve it. Second, a teacher should be able to think ahead. You can’t plan a project if you don’t have enough time to do the project! A teacher should be able to think ahead and make a plan about what they will do each day in advance. Lastly, but certainly not least, a teacher should always ask “Why?”. Sometimes, teachers just assume that a student is not behaving without thinking about the condition. What if the student is having troubles at home so the student can’t get that homework assignment done. Or, what if the student is having a headache, so he can’t focus on his book. My one piece of advice is “Never assume a student is willingly misbehaving.”
So there you have it
I am a passionate (female) 5th grade teacher in Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classroom Back to Our Students Starting Today” can be pre-bought now from Powerful Learning Press. Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.
16 thoughts on “Instead of Punishment”
Thank you for that. I couldn’t agree more. Punishment never works. Children can accept that restitution for words or actions that hurt others or themselves is necessary. Punishment, often so arbitrary, only breeds resentment and reinforces the use of power. Punishment never worked for me, either, with my students or my own children.
I really like the honesty and reflection in this piece! It is not easy to look inward and yet you do it so well and so often and I am glad I get to learn from your introspection.
I like your positive outlook. Do you ever get the answer after you ask “why” – “I don’t know”. I’m assuming that sometimes you do but you’ve created a safe environment for your students to speak freely. I wish more teachers felt the way you do.
Once again you are the voice of reason. Thank you for sharing this. I am definitely going to focus on doing this as the school year winds down.
I, too, have adopted a no punishment approach in my classroom. I talk with students, I ask for their point of view, I ask why. There are natural consequences to behaviour, but I (and hopefully my students) don’t view them as punishment. I always end a conversation with a focus on the positive the student has done and my assurance that I am not mad at them, they are not being punished, and that I want them to grow and improve. Some students take this to heart. Others seem to have an attitude of apathy if there is no punishment, but I refuse to let them set the negative expectations for behaviour. My bigger frustration, though, is not with students; it is with parents who come in yelling at me and at the principal, demanding for heads to roll. How do you address this? Do you have parents whop understand that you are trying to help young people grow, or do they just want 40 lashes dealt out swiftly?
I have never had parents come in and want a deeper punishment, maybe I am just lucky or I work with very understanding parents. I have always tried to front load too so that they know what can be expected as far as consequences in the room and I am very willing to have parent meetings which I think helps that as well.
Thank you for the post. I often struggle with some kids attitude towards homework (of which I give very little). I know if I were to ask them why, they would come up with many excuses(lol!!!) Any comments?
I try to figure out why their attitude is the way it is and then try to find time for them to do it with me.
Thank you for that tip