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Classroom Management   |   Nov 11, 2013

Should teachers use collective punishment?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Should teachers use collective punishment?

By Angela Watson

Alright, that’s it. You guys can’t handle this activity, we’re shutting it down right now. Everybody, clean up. It’s over.”

Chances are, you’ve spoken words like that to your students at some point. You’ve given way too many warnings for the kids to get on task, quiet down, and/or get to work, and the classroom is still too chaotic. There are lots of students who aren’t following the rules, and rather than try to single out which 10 or 15 it is, you issue a consequence to the whole class. Everyone loses the privilege, and everyone suffers the consequences of the bad decisions made by part of the group.

Whole class or collective punishment is despised by students, who inevitably whine, “It’s not faaaaair!” Why should the students who were doing the right thing be punished because other students were not?

I used a lot of whole class consequences as a new teacher because they were the easiest way for me to handle misbehavior. When I was crunched for time and totally overwhelmed, it was so much simpler to just issue a mass consequence for everyone than to try to sort out who was actually in the wrong and address the root of the problem.

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Over the years, I started noticing just how devastating group punishments can be to the type of child who wants to please and is determined to follow the rules. I can think of at least one child in every class who cried when recess or a field trip or even just center time was taken away because his or her classmates were disruptive. At the time, I was so focused on stopping the misbehaviors that I just didn’t have the energy to give much thought to the kids who were doing the right thing. I felt bad for them, sure, but on a practical level, what exactly was I supposed to do when I had 10 minutes to ensure every student had mastered a skill and half the class seemed determined to thwart any type of learning?

It was the parent of a sweet little eight-year-old named Morgan who finally made me re-examine my practices. I adored both Morgan and her mother, and we had established a great rapport during the first few weeks of the school year. One morning in September, the mom called me and said Morgan couldn’t sleep the night before. I had taken away a privilege from the entire class (I wish I could remember now what it was) and Morgan was convinced I was mad at her. She was terrified to face me that day in school and couldn’t figure out what she had done wrong. Her mom told me, “I kept insisting to her that she must have broken a rule somehow, that she wouldn’t have lost the privilege if she’d done nothing wrong. I asked her over and over was she SURE she had done what you’d asked, and she was sobbing, saying she knew she had. She laid awake all night long trying to figure out what she’d done wrong.”

I was sitting at my desk during that phone call, totally stressed out and surrounded by stacks of papers that needed to be graded, lessons that needed to be written, and projects that needed to be organized. But everything fell away at that moment and my heart broke a little bit for Morgan. Clearly I hadn’t done a great job communicating to her and the rest of the class why the privilege was taken away. I hadn’t talked about how the whole class needs to work as a team, and when part of the group falters, sometimes they all have to suffer the consequences. Instead, I’d left Morgan–and undoubtedly a few others–wondering how they contributed to the problem and why they deserved to miss out on something fun.

I can’t say I completely stopped using whole class consequences after that day. But you better believe I thought twice before doing it again. I worked a lot harder at building a sense of classroom community and teaching students about the effects their choices had on their classmates. I also made sure I clearly spelled out consequences in advance (“If I have to stop the activity 3 times because it’s too noisy in here, we will all need to clean up early”) instead of blindsiding students by applying a consequence out of anger.

I never came up with an approach to collective punishment that I felt completely comfortable with. And so I thought I’d bring up the topic here. Do you use group punishments with your class? How do you apply consequences or take away privileges in a way that’s manageable for you but fair to all your students?

EDITED FEBRUARY 2020: This article is 7 years old and discussions are no longer being monitored. The comment section is closed.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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Discussion


  1. Great post! As a parent, I hated collective punishments and so did my kids. Most of the time they were the quiet, shy kids who hadn’t done anything wrong, and yet they were losing recess, etc. because of the group’s actions. As a teacher, I cringe every time I use a collective punishment. I try so hard to NOT do this, and yet every now and then, as you said, I just get so tired of the chaos that it slips out. What I have to remember, is that whenever this happens, it almost always is actually MY fault for not setting up the situation so the kids can be successful. For example, telling the kids before we start, “Voice level is going to be X” or “During this activity everyone is going to stay at their desks so we can stay safe” or simply doing what you suggested and reminding them that if X happens, then we will need to stop the activity.

    The truth is, usually it is just a few kids who are misbehaving but often those kids can get many more kids riled up. When I intervene quickly with those kids (for example, we have “observers” during science if certain kids can’t follow directions….they sit near their team and observe but don’t get to participate until they are confident they can do so appropriately) then the rest of the kids get to enjoy the activity, there is a lovely hum of on-task conversation, and we are all much calmer and happier.

    Thanks for the reminder since just last week I had one of those whole-class moments!

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. It’s interesting to hear the perspective of a person who is a teacher AND a parent of one of those quiet, well-behaved kids that usually gets the short end of the stick with collective punishment.

      I agree that almost always, when I used collective punishments, it was my own fault for not setting kids up for success. If I had been clearer in my expectations and more pro-active in managing the behavior of the kids who misbehaved, things probably wouldn’t have escalated that far.

      I like the idea of “observers” during science (or any subject, really)–talking with a child about why s/he needs to observe for awhile and determining together when participation is possible again feels a lot better to me than saying “You can’t participate.”

      1. For someone who’s 17 now, this is ridiculous. I still get punised because of someone else. Not to forget the bullying I received from pears ovet my weight, as well from teachers because I wasn’t a A-B student. I hated my life because of teachers.

        1. It sounds as though you’re going to be well prepared for the real world. Drop the victim mentality, realise it’s all just one big, ridiculous game and learn how to play it – you’ll be set.

          On a more personal note: Take it from me, the bullying will subside, for the most part, the moment you leave school. Don’t take it or yourself too seriously.

          Best of luck <3

    2. Actually, according to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, collective punishment is condemned as a war crime. So no, you should not.

      1. I LOVE when people bring up this argument. This applies to WAR and murder of a group or violent punishment of a group; not administering discipline. So, please, show EXACTLY where in the Geneva Convention where it speaks to disciplining students (which you will absolutely unable to do), or stop using an inane argument.

        While, as a parent, teacher/educator I abhor using collective punishment, sometimes the the imminent threat of it is fantastic to use as a Democlean sword. The students doing as they should exert peer pressure upon the child/ren acting-out to to get back on task.

        This is always a difficult razors edge to walk, since, sometimes, time being of the essence, we have to carry out these types of threats for the well being of all. Though the top post’s story is heart wrenching about little Morgan

        1. If the Geneva convention see’s it as unacceptable when war and murder is involved, how the hell does it then become acceptable to do it to children?

          It does not mention it in the Geneva convention in regards to children, however the reason it is in the Geneva convention is because it is CRUEL at ANY level of life or interaction NOT just in war.

          INDIVIDUALS should always be held accountable for any transgression. The only difference between you and those that do it in war is the environment, fundamentally and at the level of the mind you are the same.

          1. “Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, collective punishment is a war crime. By collective punishment, the drafters of the Geneva Conventions had in mind the reprisal killings of World War I and World War II.”

            The drafters beg to differ.

  2. You’re back with a great post, Angela! 🙂
    I, too, have reflected on collective punishment and it’s definitely something that I do NOT want to do in my class. I have done it in the past, years ago as a young teacher, but it really does not make sense to “punish” everyone when it’s usually only some students that may be having problems. It’s usually the result of being stressed out, or unprepared. I agree with the previous comment; if we specify our expectations beforehand it is much easier to manage the behavior of the whole class, simply by reminding them of what the expectations were in the first place!

    1. Thanks, Karli! You’re so right about issuing group punishments when feeling stressed out or unprepared. It can be tempting to blame the problem on students (“you chose to misbehave, you chose to have a consequence”) but a lot of classroom misbehavior can be prevented through carefully practiced routines and procedures. I feel that I have some ownership in the situation when it deteriorates to the point where I’m punishing the entire the class.

  3. I totally agree that whole class punishments are the wrong way to go. But whole class rewards, with a few kids pulled out of the rewards for their own misbehavior works quite well for me! For example, if the entire class is working towards an extra ten minutes of recess, and two children just keep spoiling it for everyone, I switch things around a bit by telling them, “Today, everyone that has made it through the day without having to move their name down to yellow will get ten minutes extra recess!” That way, those who will not cooperate or buy into the reward can be pulled out of the reward, and all the rest of the students can get it. And the other students can join them after they did their “time.” So if a child owes you five minutes in exchange for disrupting five minutes of a lesson, they lose five minutes of that extra recess, but could join the class for the last five minutes of it.
    Heidi Butkus

    1. This is a great angle to discuss, Heidi. I’m so glad you brought it up! I, too, am a lot more comfortable with whole class rewards. I think the situation you described keeps students on their toes at all times, because they never know when you might offer an extra privilege to them. That’s got to feel better to kids than not knowing when you might offer an extra punishment. 😉

  4. As a beginning teacher, I did my fair share of collective punishment. I was just trying to find my way in the world, and I looked for a way that could accomplish what I envisioned for my classroom. My naïve hope was that every student would be like I was–a student who was eager to please. I finally realized I had to look for positive behaviors and reinforce the students who were behaving. Most often, the unruly students would see that I was praising the good behavior, and they would want to be praised, too. That gave me the opportunity to identify the kids who were misbehaving more easily. Then, I could focus on going through disciplinary procedure with them alone. Experience is the best teacher!

    1. I think your last line is perfect, Rachel–experience IS the best teacher! I had such a vision of the type of teacher I would be when I was student teaching, and once I got my own classroom, I realized how naive I had been! The key for me was not to give up on my vision of a well-run classroom, but to change the vision I had for how I’d accomplish that. Over the years, I created higher standards for myself in terms of how I wanted the classroom to run and how I treated my students. I wouldn’t have been able to measure up to those expectations as a new teacher, and that’s okay. Over time, we learn what works and is sustainable, and we grow from there.

  5. Thank you for this post, I really enjoyed reading it! I am a brand new teacher, actually I am just doing my student teaching now. I have found that I am very bad at using collective punishment and I can tell you that it is just a few students that seem to ruin it for the entire group. My question is that if you have 1 or 2 students acting out how do you go about punishing them without taking the activity away from the whole group? Do you have them do an activity by themselves at their desk, worksheet on the activity at their desk, turn a card or do you just take it away from everyone?? I appreciate the post as it got my attention as it was me on days when things become overwhelming!

    1. Hi, Ashley! I know how hard it is to manage behavior when you’re new and feeling super overwhelmed. I definitely encourage you to continue addressing the misbehavior of the 1 or 2 kids who are acting out. You can have them sit alone while the rest of the group does the activity.

      You may also want to let them rejoin the activity after a short time so they can still get the educational benefits. Tell them they’re going to miss the first 5-10 minutes, and if they can sit quietly and listen or complete a separate assignment appropriately during that time, they’ll be able to rejoin the class. Give them a pep talk before you release them to join and go over the expectations again.

      1. Thank you so much! It is comforting to know that I am not the only one who feels overwhelmed at times. I watch my cooperating teacher and she makes it look so easy to nip little things in the butt, but I feel like when I try the students don’t always respond the same way. Everyone has said it will take time and experience but it is frustrating to have an idea of how an assignment or activity should go and then to have it not run smoothly.

        Thank you again for the reply. As a new reader I look forward to more of your post!

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