Why I Don’t Punish My Students

PunishmentPosterWriting lines, missing recess, demerits, the Principal’s Office, forced apologies. None of this stuff teaches a kid how to do right. I may be a bit late in writing this. It seems most teachers have come around to this way of thinking already, but just in case a few were missed, I’ll share my thoughts on the topic.

I don’t punish my students.

Punishment is like whacking your car, because it won’t run, or kicking the tire, because it’s flat. It does nothing to solve the problem.

More than that, though, it’s usually an attempt at control after losing one’s self in a sea of frustration.

Here’s what I mean.

You’re with your student(s), it’s been a rotten day, there are thirty things on your to-do list and no time to do them. It’s hot (cold, humid, etc.), you’re tired, and somebody does something just outrageous. I know. I’ve been there. It’s not pretty. Some of the things we say and do in this state, we’d rather forget.

Then there’s the other day. The cold day. The day of righteous indignation. You know the one. You feel like you were calm and cool in meting out just desserts for misbehavior. After all, it’s your duty as their authority figure.

Maybe you went with some kind of level system. Pulling a card, moving down your clothes pin, getting a frowny face on the behavior chart. I’m not saying any of that stuff is inherently bad, but it’s like we think if we conceal our punishing in the clothes of calculated and scientific data analysis it lets us off the hook.

There is another way.

There’s a way to get to the source of the misbehavior. There’s a way you and your student can work together in harmony. There’s a way to prevent problems in the future. It’s gonna take some emotional work, and, most importantly…

You have to see your student as your equal, even though you are his or her leader.

Yes, you have years. Yes, you have experience. Yes, you have training. That doesn’t make you better than your student. You’ve got to listen to him with total faith and confidence that his insights are valuable. It’s like that saying of Goethe’s: “Treat a man as though he is already what he should be, and he will become what he ought to be”. Your student is a future something: a president, a scientist, a parent, doctor, tax attorney, or police officer. Give him or her a chance to be on your team, and win together!

Something we believe in my church is that we lived for time immemorial before we had physical bodies and were born into the world. During that time we did stuff, learned things, and had experiences. The essence of who we were during that time, even though we can’t remember it, is still with us, and comes through in spite of all kinds of adverse conditions: poverty, disability, abuse, addiction, illness, etc.

When I remember that my students (and I) have this glorious background, it’s easier for me to believe in their potential to help solve problems. I can visualize them drawing from that source of power that’s still in them, even though they can’t remember how they got it.

I’m less inclined to find fault with their misbehavior when I think of them as eternal beings of great worth and with a divine mission.

I’m less inclined to have a patronizing attitude toward them, or to dismiss their ideas and feelings.

What I’m saying is that it’s easier for me to have compassion, when I think of my students this way. Then, when it comes time for discipline, I can really hear them when they’re trying to tell me what the problem is, and how to fix it.

Seek to understand, then work together to solve problems.

And, for heaven’s sake, exercise some humility! If you go into the problem-solving situation with discipline as your goal, and you think you have all the answers, your student will write you off as just another adult who thinks kids are a problem to be fixed rather than partners in finding solutions.

Too often, a punishment seeks to stop a behavior in its tracks rather than working out a solution to really prevent it in the future. If that’s really all you want, read no further. If you want more and better for you and your students, read on.

Think of it this way. If your best friend came into your classroom and accidentally knocked over a shelf full of picture books during silent reading time, how would you react?

Now, what if a student did it?

There shouldn’t be a difference in the regard we have for students and other categories of people. They may be young and inexperienced, but they are still people. If you have trouble with that concept, check out this sweet TED Talk on ageism.

Here’s what that problem solving might look like:

Broken iPad:

Me: “I see there’s a broken iPad here.”

Carrie: “Yeah! Natalie pushed me, and my elbow knocked it off the table!”

Me: “I see.”

Carrie(s): “I know I should have pushed it more away from the edge, but I forgot. She pushed me!”

Natalie: “It was an accident!”

Me: “Oh.”

Student(s): “Yeah.”

Me: “This iPad needs to be repaired or replaced.”

Student(s): “We don’t have any money.”

Me: “Hm, we have a problem. iPad repairs cost money, but we don’t have any right now.”

Students come up with shockingly awesome solution.

I’ve dealt with an almost identical situation with real students, and, I kid you not, that’s what happened. They came up with an excellent solution all by themselves. Do you think they were more careful with iPads after the experience?

You bet.

Also, after that, they turned into problem-solving machines. Just pumping out solutions all over the place. A group of kids who could barely stand each other, at first, have become really close and very collaborative.

No punishment necessary.

I could have made them write lines, forced them to apologize to me or each other, or taken away gaming privileges. None of those would’ve taught accountability and problem-solving, though, which is ultimately what we want. That’s the thing about punishment. It always misses the target. If you need proof of that, just check out the recidivism rates in our country’s prisons.

What to do instead.

The real Yodas of the alternative approach are Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, who, you know by now, are my heroes. Also on the list of punishment-alternative experts are Jesus Christ, Viktor Frankl, and this guy, with whom I got to spend a week a few summers ago (he’s hilarious, by the way) during which time he told me about how he forgave the men who cut off his hands during the Rwandan genocide.

I know it’s hard to change, but I promise you this: learning how to problem-solve instead of punish, will only take you a couple of tries before you’re hooked. It helped me to believe again in the power we humans have to create peace together. It starts with baby steps between students and teachers, and can spread to entire nations. Just give it a shot!

Apply these principles:

-Just describe the problem without passing judgment or evaluating (name-calling) the students’ character.

-Reflect, restate, and clarify their position. Student: “I hate you, Mrs. Heaton”! Me: “Oh. I hear you’re not liking me right now”.

-Keep it simple. One- to two-word maximum responses. “Oh.” “I see.” “Mm.”, or just a nod will suffice.

-Solicit suggestions for solutions. “Hm, I’m not sure what to do. We have xyz problem, got any ideas?”

-Accept any and all serious suggestions, then be honest about which ones you can or can’t live with.

A word on the big things.

This post, indeed the blog setting, is probably grossly insufficient to really get to the heart of punishment in the context of really really bad things, i.e. rape, murder, abuse and neglect. If you need more help with that, I highly recommend the book The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute. Sometimes, in dire circumstances, a person will hurt others in spite of all attempts to reconcile, and then there’s a way to stop them that won’t cripple you emotionally. More on that in a later post.

For now, I’m anxious to hear how the application of punishment alternatives have worked with your students. Please message me or comment below and let me know how it’s going.

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When the Work Is Hard: How to Turn a Frustrated Student into a Hard-working Hero

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In an earlier post, I outlined my mission as a mentor. Part of it is to speak to the hero in my students.

This is how that looks in real life.

I’ll apply it to something kids say that makes teachers’ skin crawl: “This is too hard!”

My tired responses to this used to be to deny it: “No, it’s not.”, or “You just think it’s hard because you’ve never done it before. Really, though, it’s the simplest thing in the world”.

Both responses are problematic. Each is demeaning and implies the child is a liar or stupid. “But what else can I say?! If I admit that it’s hard then I’ve failed as a teacher!”, “I was supposed to make this plain and simple, but he’s still not getting it!”, “Kids are really suggestible. Isn’t it unethical to put the idea that something is hard into their heads?”

I know what you’re thinking, but let me show you a scenario that I deal with all the time, and then we’ll plumb the depths of your concerns.

Child: “This is too hard! I will never get this!”

Me: “Yeah, this is tough. You’re really close. Maybe you want to try again?”

Child: “Ugh! Okay. puh-luh-an. Plan! I did it!”

Me: “You did it! Even though it was hard, you did it!”

Sound like wishful thinking? I do this DAILY with my students, many of whom have disabilities. I get results. This, my friends, is speaking to the hero in a child.

The child who is spoken to as if he/she were Peter Parker or Harry Potter or Lucy Pevensie begins to build up a bank account of memories in which he or she did something really difficult in spite of the challenges. These memories come in handy when the child again faces the grindstone, academic or otherwise. It also makes it easier for the child to be forgiving of him or herself when the results of his efforts are less than perfect. Given his record of success, the present setback is probably temporary.

Now, let’s unpack an uncomfortable internal experience we have, as teachers, when a kid thinks something is hard.

1) We’re afraid that we’ve failed.

We give credence to that dirty liar inside of us that tells us we’re not good enough.

It’s okay to let the experience of the child make you question your approach to teaching. Sincere pondering over how to improve preserves your integrity for the parts of the teaching relationship you are accountable for. This is not a pass for using methods, styles, or programs that are found to be ineffective. 

BUT! Mentorship is not just about making things easy.

When we internalize their frustration as our failure, we eventually seek relief from our sense of failure by placing it back on the child. That’s how the demeaning rebuttals seep into the dialogue with our students. We have to deny that the work is hard in order to preserve our desperate need to be right about our own goodness/rightness. If the kid is right and the work is hard then we’re a waste of space. Or so we let ourselves think. More on that in an upcoming post.

This is where speaking to the hero in the child is so helpful. Your student is incredibly sensitive to whether or not you believe he is essentially good and capable, and he can tell when you have total compassion for him. You demonstrate this compassion by, first, listening to what he or she is saying, and then acknowledging that, to him or her, the difficulty is real.

Let your students know they can try again, as many times as they need. Relax, let them know there’s no rush.

This concept of making hard work acceptable matters, because, try as we might, we will never be perfect teachers. There’s no perfect curriculum, or time of day, or perfect kid, or style with which to teach. I don’t care who you are: Waldorf, Montessori, Public, Private, Charter, Challenger, homeschool, unschool, whatever. All have strengths and weaknesses. The most transferable and empowering thing you can do is to really listen when the kid says the work is hard. Let her know it’s okay for it to be hard. Give it a shot anyway! Amaze yourself!

In essence, you practice what you preach by showing up as a teacher, acknowledging that you won’t be able to make everything easy for everyone, but trying really hard anyway. Model this grace for yourself, and your students will learn to have grace for themselves, too.

2) We’re afraid that we’re committing the unpardonable sin of suggestion.

Remember the child psychologist from Law & Order? He was always warning the detectives against abusing the highly-suggestible child. He’s right, of course. You should never ask leading questions of a vulnerable person, or fill someone’s mouth with words.

We are deathly afraid of the “h” word (hard), and avoid saying it for fear of giving validation or justification for quitting. We want our students to love math and to love reading and to love history. “Won’t saying it’s hard make it hard”?

Yep.

But there is a very subtle and massively important difference between suggestion and reflection. If you March into the room and declare that what we’re learning today is hard, you may unfairly prejudice your students against the task. However, patiently working with a child and echoing her feelings when she expresses that something is difficult for her, helps her process from frustration to understanding rather than halting at the emotional push back from a teacher who just says “No.It’s not hard.”

Now, let’s recap what acknowledging the difficulty of a task IS and IS NOT.

What acknowledgment of difficulty IS NOT:

1) An excuse for the child to quit:

On the contrary, acknowledging that something is difficult for a student is simply accepting the reality of the situation for that child. It does NOT mean they give up. If necessary, be explicit in your expectation that hard things be done in spite of their difficulty. In most cases, they will take your belief in them as implicit. You didn’t deny their sense that the work is hard and you show confidence in their ability to do the hard thing. Of course they’ll keep trying when you show so much faith in them!

2) Proof you are a bad teacher:

I’m pretty sure Jesus is still a good teacher even though Peter messed up. He figured it out eventually, and he loved Jesus for continuing to work with him even after he made a mistake.

3) Approval of whining and bad behavior:

If your student is cussing, hurting someone, destroying property, or being generally unpleasant, your acknowledgment of the difficulty of the task is not approval of this mayhem. Be firm in stating your boundaries in regard to how frustration over a difficult task is expressed, but DO NOT demean or punish for having frustration.

What acknowledgment of difficulty IS:

1) A gateway to problem solving:

Your acknowledgement of the difficulty of the task leaves room for the child to tell you why it’s difficult. This is a boon to the teacher! Instant feedback on how we can improve! Denying the difficulty, on the other hand, shuts the child down. This creates distrust and no real solutions come out of distrust.

2) An invitation to reflection:

Ask yourself, “What can I do to ease some of the burden, but keep my and my student’s integrity intact?”, “Is this task worthy of the effort I’m asking of my student/expecting my student to ask of himself? If not, what can I replace it with that will be more valuable and meaningful to him?”

3) An opportunity to grow:

Acknowledging that something is hard to do, makes the completion of that thing all the sweeter. You get to be the lucky person in the child’s life that teaches him or her the awesome experience it is to finish something that wasn’t easy.

4) A strategy for dealing with frustration:

Think of how you feel when you’re frustrated by something. Wouldn’t you appreciate it if someone would just commiserate without judgment until the frustration peters out? By acknowledging, without judgment of his character, that something is difficult for your student, you help him build a little homunculus for himself. This guy is his cheerleader, his commiserator, the guy that says “I hear you, man. I have total faith in you”. It’s like, now that we’ve established that the task is hard, we can move on to seeking a solution. That’s a good strategy.

A note on disabilities:

Though I am currently developing programs for unimpaired students, my main gig is working with children who have disabilities.

I have a number of relatives with varying disabilities from mental illness to loss of limbs. I am closely acquainted with the pain these disabilities can cause as well as the pain caused by others who simply don’t understand, saying things like “Snap out of it!”, 0r “Just try harder”! That’s why I mentioned compassion earlier.

Not pity.

Not callousness either.

Compassion. Let your compassion inspire you to educate yourself about the nature of your student’s disability, and remember that while she has a disability, she’s also a person. One way you help your student and yourself remember this important fact, is by speaking to her as if she is as important as you are, as if her experience is just as real and valid as yours, and that it’s okay for things to be hard. Continue to have faith and confidence in her Abilities while keeping tabs on the difficulties presented by her disabilities. Remember, a child with a disability can do hard things, too.

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Peaches and apples and plums! Oh my!

I took a break from teachery things this morning and made jam. Because sometimes in life you just need to make jam. I can think of no other domestic activity that puts me in quite the same Cleaver Family mood. Granted, I wore jeans and a t-shirt rather than my Donna Reid outfit. I was barefoot, though, so people who were southern Judges in 1940 would’ve approved. All the same, makin’ jam just puts me in that seasonal/harvestal/homemaking mood.

But don’t let that fool ya. While I was making jam I was thinking, not about jam, but about teaching and leadership. I was actually thinking about these books I’m reading.

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Do Hard Things by Alex & Brett Harris, Entreleleaderahip by Dave Ramsey, and How To Talk So Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

While I was blanching the peaches and plums I was thinking about mentoring kids and how to be better at it.

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As I peeled them I decided I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life and I probably ought to start writing down what I learned from them.

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And as I mashed up the fruit flesh I started to get thirsty, so I took a break and had some peach juice

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Ah, the calories helped me push through to sterilizing the lids and jars, boiling down the fruit, and adding the sugar and pectin. At that point I’d begun wondering how my mistakes and what I’ve learned from them could bless the lives of my students.

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IMG_1294.JPGMy thoughts jumped around at this point, because I got distracted by my dad who came into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal, but I persevered, and concluded that great teachers are great because they learn from their mistakes and strive for personal integrity. That’s why kids like them. Then I removed the fruit/syrup mixture from the heat and started spooning it into jars with the aid of my handy funnel.

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Well, I want to be a great teacher, and I’m not one yet, so I thought that maybe there were some areas of my life I haven’t been living with integrity and that’s what was inhibiting my growth to greatness.

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Once I got the jars full and the lids/rings on it was time to move them into the boiling water bath. But then I recalled that I don’t have a rack that fits in the bottom of my pot, so I had to improvise with jar rings and cheese graters.

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It totally worked. And after twenty minutes of processing, the jam emerged by way of a trusty jar grabber thing. Pictured on the right.

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At this point, three and a half hours had gone by. I know, right? Three and a half hours for only five jars of jam?! Yeah. It took me FOUR hours to get a gallon of cider the other night.

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But here’s the thing. Building personal integrity, like canning, takes time and hard work. It would be easier to slack off in areas of personal integrity. Lie a little. Steal a little. Take advantage of my neighbor. And sometimes it’s just more practical to buy jam at the supermarket. But oh how different life tastes when you’ve got homemade jam, and good relationships built on trust. The hard work is so worth the result.

So, on this beautiful autumnal Saturday, I’m resolving to build my personal integrity, and maybe to make applesauce. I’m hopeful that, with time I can have both.

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About My Tutoring

My name is Christine, and I’m a private tutor and mentor for children and young adults. My teaching philosophy is that an inspired child will educate him or herself. I take great pains to speak respectfully to children, no matter their age, and listen with compassion. This helps create strong habits of good citizenship, compassionate service, and honest self-awareness along with critical thinking. A respected student is a respectful student.

I don’t ascribe to any one tutoring strategy, curriculum, or program. If it’s helpful and ennobling to the student, I employ it. There’s a world of excellent resources out there, and each has something to offer.

I have a BA in art history and curatorial studies from BYU, and now run my own mentoring service for young adults. I also work for a company that provides academic therapy to children with learning disabilities. I have eight siblings, and 29 nieces and nephews. I love family, and I love people.

My husband and I enjoy adventures, and try to have one as often as possible. Sometimes I cry, because my canoe won’t track straight, or because I hate the wind. But that’s all part of it.

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