We Need To Talk About Punishment

Recently, after working with teachers on shifting our approach from punishing to teaching, a teacher in attendance emailed me saying, “At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to “buy in to it.”But the more I thought about it, the more compelled I felt.”  Such a powerful statement and one I’ve thought about since.  Let’s talk this through.

Everything we do has consequences.  Every decision we make has consequences.

Punishment, however, is not a natural consequence of an action or decision.  Punishment is enacted upon us “as retribution for an offense” (Merriam-Webster).

Kids make mistakes.  They do things that don’t make sense, that we don’t understand, that we can’t explain.  There are consequences for those mistakes.  If you forget your lunch, you eat whatever the cafeteria gives you.  That is a natural consequence for forgetting your lunch.  A punishment for forgetting your lunch would be a teacher taking away recess or imposing detention on you in addition to the natural consequence of a fruit cup and carrot sticks for lunch.  Is that necessary?  Does it teach?

The thing we’re selling – that the above mentioned teacher was unsure about buying, was the belief that, as teachers, we must teach.  Teach the behaviors we want to see.  Teach them again.  Reteach.  Reinforce.

Punishment doesn’t teach.

I have a tendency to drive too fast.  Rarely, I get speeding tickets.  It stings for a bit.  I pay the fine (punishment) but it does not have a lasting effect on my behavior.  I still speed.  I just hope I don’t get caught.

Our learners approach our punishments similarly.  Okay, think of the last kid from whom you took five minutes of recess.  Was it a one-time consequence?  Did the behavior you were modifying disappear?  Probably not.  Generally, kids who miss minutes of recess, miss those minutes of recess frequently.  Which is all the evidence we need that the punishment is not changing the behavior.

Maybe we are not intending for it to change the behavior?  Maybe we just want to show the learner who is boss.

Either way, the single most important factor in any teaching/learning dyad is the relationship between the teacher and the learner.  Kids do not learn from people they do not like or people whom they perceive do not like them.  We must like kids!  (I know you’re rolling your eyes at me right now but this is a critical characteristic of strong, persistent educators!).  Tell kids the things they do that you like!  Ask them questions about themselves and listen to their answers!  Be intentional about this.  Make note of the learners you’re most likely to miss and plan your connections with those students.  Document your connections each day to make your patterns visible and give yourself some insight into where you may need to put more effort.  Not every learner comes to us naturally so make it a priority to identify those on the fringes.  Build your community from the outside in.

As the teacher, you get to decide your role in your classroom.  You can be the police officer, the warden, the guide, the zookeeper, or the facilitator.  You can catch kids making mistakes, breaking rules, being noncompliant or you can gain their cooperation through intentional relationship building, empathy, and understanding.

How do you build community in your classroom?  What challenges do you face in gaining the cooperation of your learners and how we can help you solve them?

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

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