Three Little Words

In education, there are three words that come up a lot when people talk about behavior. Unfortunately, many don’t have a solid grasp on what these words actually mean, let alone what they look like in an educational environment. Some are hesitant to speak these words at all, afraid that they won’t be perceived as “positive” and facing some sort of backlash. Others throw them around interchangeably, like confetti, in the hopes that something will stick.

So, let’s talk about these three little words.

Punishment: (1) A penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.; (2) severe handling or treatment.

This one is the one that is said the least, but asked for the most. Usually, when you hear teachers say things like

“What’s his consequence going to be?”

“He needs a consequence.”

“Without a consequence, it’s just going to keep happening.”

What they are actually talking about is punishment.

What they mean is that, without punishment (or “negative reinforcement” if you want to use a more technical term) they do not feel that behavior will change. This was a common thought for a long time, and we still find that it’s very prevalent. There has to be a cost. A negative action deserves a negative response. Appropriately, this is referred to as “response cost” in some forms of behavior training and therapy.

I am not saying that this is a bad plan for every kid. Just like we say not every strategy works for every kid, we can’t say that a strategy never works for any kid. Personally, I don’t like it. But I understand that, for many kids, a simple “That’s two minutes off of your recess time,” is an effective way to stop a behavior. For many of our toughest kids, though, this only escalates the situation. It causes further agitation, makes your role confrontational, and does little to teach them the reasoning or coping skills.

And even for those students who aren’t our “tough kids,” there are some things to keep in mind. If you don’t keep your ratio of positive interactions high (at least 3 to 1) it becomes only punitive and your students may never get out of the hole. It also builds a dependence on punishment for making appropriate choices, which is counter-productive. You don’t want to get to a point where your relationship with the student is strictly based on punishment, which will inevitably build resentment.

You also need to make sure that there are clear guidelines for what warrants the cost. If you punish without informing, it can seem arbitrary and even targeted. Consider focusing on only a few things, and be consistent with every student, so they know exactly what has a cost, and what the cost is.

Again, I recommend this only if everything else has been exhausted. Not a fan.

Consequence: (1) The affect, result, or outcome of something occurring earlier; (2) an act or instance following something as an effect, result, or outcome; (3) the conclusion reached by a line of reasoning.

Now, consequence is the word misused most frequently. Consequence does not equal punishment. They are not the same, and we need to stop using them interchangeably. A consequence is a result—positive, negative, or neutral.

If I skip out of work for a week without contacting anyone, losing the trust of my employer and being replaced is a consequence.

If I show up on time and get the job done, keeping my job is a consequence.

If I am a model employee, who consistently goes above and beyond, getting a raise or a promotion is a consequence.

If I am unexpectedly out sick for the day and can’t get anyone to cover for me, my boss confiscating my personal car is not a consequence.

If I mess up some paperwork, my boss taking my lunch break away for the whole week is not a consequence.

In case you haven’t caught on, what I’m saying is that the consequence needs to fit the action. Not only is this how life works (which is what we’re always preaching that we’re trying to instill in students) but it also makes your school or classroom much more predictable and easier to navigate for your kids.

Taking away recess for not doing homework is a punishment.

Losing computer time for being disrespectful is a punishment.

Putting a kid at a desk by himself in a corner for not completing his assignment is a punishment.

A kid not being able to go out to recess because he has attempted to elope twice today is a consequence.

Having an alternative to computer time because he was unsafe with the computer yesterday is a consequence.

Separating a student from his seatmates because they were being disruptive together is a consequence (as long as it includes all of the students involved).

See the difference?

This way of looking at it makes sure that students know that their actions will have an impact, while removing the arbitrary nature of some previous methods. This makes the results predictable, consistent, and logical, which also makes kids much more likely to learn from them.

Discipline: (1) Training to act in accordance with rules; (2) to train by instruction and exercise.

Now, discipline is the one we need, but that no one ever talks about as such. Discipline is the training that results from the other two. Punishment trains kids to know that their negative actions will have negative repercussions, and consequence teaches kids that every action should be considered for its result; the goal of both, of course, is for our students to learn to adhere to school and social norms.

Discipline is the training we give our students. It is the direct teaching of skills, and the exercise they get in those skills. And it is important to remember that this doesn’t look the same for everyone.

I saw a situation one time where two boys (we’ll call them Larry and Ben) got in trouble just a few days apart, for very similar infractions. Ben was given a day of out-of-school suspension. Larry was given 3 days of in-school-suspension and the parent agreed for him to use part of that time helping make reparations to the bathroom that he had nearly destroyed. Teachers asked the principal over and over why they had gotten completely different consequences (or punishments).

Well, Larry had been in the office with referrals 19 times already that year. He had just started in a behavior/social skills group, and only 2 days prior had qualified for services with an emotional disturbance. He would be receiving counseling services, but they had not started yet. Larry hated school and wanted to be at home, making OSS a reinforcer for him, rather than a punishment. We felt that Larry would also benefit from some time working with the head custodian, who he already liked and would regret having made to work harder (a result Larry obviously hadn’t considered in his actions).

Ben was so mortified by receiving OSS and having to tell his mother what he had done that he was guaranteed never to do it again.

Of course, the principal didn’t go into this with everyone. She just said, “Ben needed it. Larry didn’t.”

He have to remember this. What is appropriate for one is not appropriate for all; we are not called to provide equal services, we are called to provide appropriate services, to gran our students what they need to access their education.

So next time you are considering a consequence, or punishment, or discipline, ask yourself this question:

Am I doing this because he deserves it, or because he needs it?

What experiences do you have with discipline and consequence? Do you have ideas or strategies you’ve found successful? Please share them in the comments!

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