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.