I’ve been receiving a bunch of questions about issuing consequences to kids, and this week I’ll try to (concisely) answer a few.
Q. What are some ways teachers can hold kids accountable without "punishing” them?
Realistically, most any means of accountability can plausibly be called “punishment” from the right perspective. I know a teacher who gave students extra credit if they raised their scores on a reading comprehension test. The parents of some of the students who didn’t earn the credit demanded to know why the teacher was “punishing” their child. The answer here isn’t to find consequences that aren’t “punishment,” but to find the best means of holding kids accountable regardless of what it’s called.
Q. What if a teacher is constantly punishing a student and the student doesn’t care? He likes missing out on recess and being out of the class.
My suspicion is that whatever the student is doing instead of recess or class is being poorly administered. Teachers and principals get lazy, too, and I’ve seen detention rooms that look like free-for-alls. The time I had to go to detention in high school, it was just a study hall. If I didn’t really care about school, it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least to go there every day. In today’s more “progressive” schools, detention rooms often have fun games and exercise equipment. So I would check into what’s going on during these missed recesses and class periods. In my world, detention students would be silently engaged in activities that they hate (reading, writing, or cleaning are some possibilities), with zero access to computers or fun. I consider this problem a “school” problem, not a “parent” problem.
Q. What do you do if a student shuts down every time he’s being redirected and refuses to do work for the rest of the day?
It’s called “sulking,” and you may even know some adults who haven’t yet grown out of it. Most students do it when they think teachers have singled them out unfairly for their mischievous behavior. I solve it by having a quick conversation with the student in the hallway, which usually goes something like this: “When you refuse to work, you are only punishing yourself because I’m paid the same whether you work or whether you don’t. If you really want to get back at me for redirecting you, then start behaving and doing all of your work. I believe you are better on the inside than the way you’ve been acting on the outside, and I’m not going to stop caring about your behavior. You should start caring more, too.” That basic speech, when given with sincerity by a teacher or a parent, can help stop the sulking. At least for a couple of weeks.
Q. Research has proven that punishment doesn’t work to change students’ bad behavior, so why do it?
Research has proven a number of things, and as a teacher, I always adhere to research. A study I particularly rely on (first reported in PLOS Medicine and later reinforced in The Lancet and Open Science) has scientifically concluded that “most current published research findings are false.”
Q. Positive reinforcement (PR) works better than consequences. It’s just that schools need more money to adequately reward their students.
I disagree that PR works better than consequences, but I do believe it has an important place in teaching. I just don’t happen to believe “positive reinforcement” means “tangible reinforcement.” In my experience, the best kinds of PR involve things like praising students for doing good work, telling students you believe in them, and giving troublemakers a pat on the back when they’ve gone a stretch without getting in trouble. The key with any PR isn’t that it’s tangible, but that it’s genuine. Imagine you are at the concert of a singer you really admire. Which would have a more meaningful impact on you? A) He points to your section and says, “You guys have been great” and throws out a bunch of T-shirts. B) You run into him after the concert, he stops you, shakes your hand, looks you in the eye, and says, “Thank you for being such a good fan tonight. It really made this concert a lot of fun for me.” I’m not equating teachers with pop stars (although I have been compared to Pitbull at times - I think it’s our hair), but the principle is the same. Positive reinforcement that is authentic, personal, and effective doesn’t cost a thing.
Q. Isn’t there a balance between "consequences" and "positive reinforcement?" Can’t teachers use both and still be successful?
Of course (see above). Life in general is about balance and moderation. The tragic mistake many schools make is weakening or even jettisoning consequences for the sake of positive reinforcement. Bad behavior is kind of like a cowlick. You can spend all day and all night praising and brushing the “good parts” of your hair, but until you get tough on the cowlick itself, none of that other stuff is going do anything but give you a false impression of your own majesty. Deal with the cowlick in a tough, reasonable way, and don’t ignore the rest of your mop top. One day, you’ll look good enough for your graduation picture.