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Classroom Management, Equity Resources, Podcast Articles, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Apr 17, 2022

When student behavior is challenging, a blend of grace + consequences can help.

By Amy Stohs

2nd Grade

When student behavior is challenging, a blend of grace + consequences can help.

By Amy Stohs

I remember when my school stopped allowing teachers to take away recess time for misbehavior.

Some teachers lamented that they couldn’t give kids laps around the track anymore or have them sit out to finish missing work. This was never a classroom management tool I personally ascribed to, but I was tempted!

Some days I just couldn’t seem to think of the right response to a student’s misbehavior. When students make a poor choice, you want the outcome of changed (improved) behavior. Since recess, choice time in the classroom, and eating with friends tend to be desirable, teachers will reach to take away these positive experiences as a punishment hoping it will drive a student to do the right thing so they don’t miss out again.

I’ve heard some adults say things like, “You wasted my time, so I’m wasting yours.” While this may sound spiteful (and I believe some “classroom management” can fall into that trap) I understand the motivation on the part of the teacher. It’s frustrating to deal with undesirable behaviors.

If we do take away these desired activities for something unrelated, however, we are harming that relationship with the student. If we take away a pleasurable activity for goofing off on the computer in class, talking to a friend, passing notes, talking back rudely, destroying school supplies, making a mess and not cleaning it up, saying a curse word, or a host of other things, the punishment often feels disconnected from the loss.

The result is that students feel resentful of the teacher, and there’s rarely a sense of repentance.

Many responses are then focused on good behavior. Some teachers reward good behavior with weekly treasure chest trips or classroom economy systems. We know we should affirm positive choices directly to students.

I personally have struggled with systems where rewards are tied to nearly every behavior. I want students to work hard because they are empowered to learn not because they will earn popsicles or extra recess. I never liked the idea that I was constantly bargaining for time or attention with kids as if I had to prove that learning was “worth it” only because worksheet completion = toy chest. If every response is to give stickers or tickets or fuzzy balls for good behavior, the advice “Focus on the positive” may leave you exasperated, saying, “I know! But what about the bad behavior?”

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As a co-teacher of mine used to joke, “You never see a cop pull someone over and say, ‘Great job driving. Don’t be like that person speeding up there. You’re doing the right thing.’” That’s not to say positive praise and reinforcing language doesn’t go a long way. It absolutely does. Ignoring some behaviors also has its moments. At some point, though, there need to be consequences, right? 

Here’s my approach.

Choosing consequences

In the world of behavior, ABC is an acronym for antecedent, behavior, and consequence. The antecedent is what comes before the behavior; the consequence is what follows.

Often, if we can get to know students really well, we can prevent undesired behaviors by controlling the antecedent or at least mitigating the impact (notifying students of transition time, giving a break when the class seems restless, stopping an activity short that’s not going well, adjusting expectations or stepping in with scaffolds when frustration peaks).

A consequence might just be a natural outcome of a behavior. For example, if you touch a hot stove, you get burned. If you are rude to a friend, they walk away and won’t play with you. Sometimes, these connections are obvious to students; other times, they may need some guidance to help draw those connections. Consequences can be intentional on the teacher’s part in order to guide students to draw a strong connection between the chosen behavior and the consequence. The term “logical consequences” is one I’ve heard primarily through Responsive Classroom.

I am a big fan of Responsive Classroom. If you’ve never heard of this classroom management philosophy, I encourage you to check out the articles or books available on their website.

The three types of logical consequences in a Responsive Classroom are:

  • Take a Break (a positive time out system to regain focus)
  • Reparations (You break it, you fix it through cleaning up a spill, apology letters, helping someone you hurt)
  • Loss of Privilege (taking away something that is a privilege in the classroom, not a need)

Take a Break is something that is often used with very young children due to the “time out” association, but I found it extremely helpful with older children, too. It is helpful to remember for adults even; I’m sure you can imagine a time when you just needed to take a break! If a student is distracted or doing something at an inappropriate time or calling out, taking a break is by far the best strategy I’ve had for dealing with this.

Since I set up this routine so positively in my classroom, I think some students don’t look at it negatively. I know this might cause concern for some if a student is not feeling guilty for calling out for example, but the thing is — it works. Taking a break works.

Having students step away, think about their behavior, mess with a few fidgets, and return to their desk really does make them more well behaved upon return. When faced with classroom management decisions, we should be less concerned with whether students are guilty or bothered by their misbehavior and more concerned with whether our choices as teachers are resulting in positive behavior outcomes.

Reparations is the type of logical consequences that I’ve found easiest and most meaningful. Children are often taught how to apologize when hurting someone’s feelings. Teens and adults might not want to “make it up” to someone, but they often recognize that they should and how they could do it. Apology letters take time and can be meaningful, so don’t forget about this option.

Loss of Privilege, though, is one that could be misguided, because we first need to ask ourselves, “What is a privilege that can be taken away?”

Removing privileges

A privilege is something that can be replaced with an alternative or taken away without severe repercussions. You might need to get creative. Here are some things I could take away if they were being misused:

  • Computers. If a student isn’t using their computer correctly or they are on a non-approved website, I take it away immediately. The immediacy of my response is what helps solidify the connection. Almost anything can be done on paper instead; even many online assessments can be printed.
  • Stuffies, play-doh, or fidgets at desks. I have taken to letting kids have a special something at their desk. It makes them comfortable and gives them something to play with. I have specific times of day when it’s appropriate to use things and other times when it’s not. If rules aren’t followed, it goes to me for the day.
  • Flexible or Choice Seating. If a student isn’t following directions or quietly working in a spot or staying focused, move them back to an assigned desk or spot that is theirs. Even at the epitome of my flexible seating arrangement, I still had one table spot or desk space for each student so that they knew that was their home base to go to.
  • Pencils. If a student isn’t using a pencil correctly or can’t hold onto any, give them something else — a crayon, a crazy large pen that you’ll remember they have, a colored pencil, whatever. They may need something to write with, but it does not have to be a pencil. The same is true of markers, etc.
  • Classroom Jobs. If they’re not doing their classroom job, I just take it away and give it to someone who will do it. I’ve done this and had the original student really step up and take it back on as a result.
  • Games. If students are too loud while playing a game or not focused on the academic aspects enough, they can just do more of their worksheets or read independently. The days I just stop an activity (such as a fun Jeopardy-style game) before we’re even finished really solidifies for students the effect. The immediacy of “this volume = we have to stop now” really helps them know exactly what I mean by “too loud”. We have lost the privilege of this activity; we can try again tomorrow.
  • Stations. I love doing small groups and stations, but if students were not following procedures correctly and ready for class on time, I would take them away for the day. I have only had to do this once with any group of students. One class that was never ready on time and transitioned agonizingly slowly still loved stations. I warned them they had to be ready on time (which was 3 minutes after entry) with notebooks and pencils out. The trick was that as soon as I implemented that rule, I had to follow through on it. I used sub-plan worksheets instead of the lesson plans I had prepared.
  • Being late vs. on time. If you are always late to activities, that’s something to reflect on as a teacher; however, if there is a day when students need to line up again because they were chatting or didn’t clean up appropriately and need to go back in the classroom, that extra minute or two will make them late to PE, Music, Recess, or other class. That is a natural consequence because they were not ready. Again, if this is always happening, that’s a problem to address in a class meeting or a procedure that needs to be more explicitly taught on the part of the teacher. Sometimes, though, being late is just a natural consequence of not following expectations.
  • Choice. I provide students with many choices for activities, topics to research, books to read, partners to work with, etc. Restrictions become the consequence for not using choice judiciously. If a student is not behaving appropriately in the hallway with a buddy, they get assigned a partner. If a student is not finishing work at their own pace, they must finish page 1 in 10 minutes.

When students have something taken away, there needs to be a reasonable replacement. If you can’t replace or do without the loss, it’s something they need. I get concerned sometimes when teachers think about the loss of privilege for things that are in fact not privileges but needs. 

Classroom meetings: Your most powerful tool for creating a respectful, inclusive class culture

Understanding student needs that shouldn’t be taken away

The problem with taking away recess or lunch with friends is that these seem like “extra” or “just fun” things, but as we may have realized over the past year and half, these are essential parts of the school day. They provide socialization, feedback on friendship, learning about boundaries, exercise, and opportunities for creativity.

If I take away all socialization and isolate a child, that is not healthy for their well-being. They no longer belong to the class. If I punish a student for poor choices by removing all pleasure, I’ve removed any motivation for them to come to my class tomorrow.

Similarly, I’ve heard teachers say that students lost the privilege of going to the bathroom during their class; this doesn’t sit well with me because this is a right of students to use the restroom especially since you don’t understand every medical problem or reason someone might need to go. Maybe they lose the option of traveling with a buddy and need to be watched walking down the hallway by you from your door. Maybe you have to call the office so they are escorted until they can be trusted again. Maybe they need an assigned classroom buddy.  All of those pieces are privileges but the need to be able to go to the bathroom remains.

Some teachers will respond, “But I know they don’t have to go.” If you put more restrictions around going to the bathroom, they will be less likely to go unnecessarily in the first place. That’s not to encourage you to have lots of restrictions around the bathroom for everyone; I personally feel that trying to monitor that intensely is a waste of energy. I know that when I have a day filled with projects and stations and partner work, kids just don’t need to go to the bathroom as often. They are not thinking about it as much and tend to go as we’re traveling and transitioning around the building.

Arguing over whether or not they’re allowed to go will likely drain your energy. Instead, say, “Due to ____ incident, I will send you with _____ or I will watch you go to _____ (specific location down the hall) from my door.”

As another example, if I take away all writing utensils or all paper, that does impact learning and can shame students. They might feel as though there’s no point in them being there.

We must keep in mind that guilt and shame is not our goal as educators; our goal is improved behavior. What action can we take that will improve behavior?

Fostering belonging, significance, and fun

The thing that actually sold me on Responsive Classroom was an opening activity in a training where we as teachers had to think of a time where we felt belonging, significance, and fun. I personally thought of being a camp counselor. I was a part of a team. What I did really mattered to kids and families. Plus, I had so much fun! What do you think of it? Don’t you want more of that?

Responsive Classroom is about creating that atmosphere for kids. I can’t imagine anything better than a classroom where students feel like they belong, like their learning matters in the world, and that they’re having fun. These are needs for students. They need to feel reinforced with positive language. They need rest. They need to feel cared about. They need socialization. This means that I need to consider talking to friends, building relationships, recess, and play as needs. They are not merely “nice to have.”

Belonging may feel like it’s great if it happens, but if it doesn’t, it’s on the kid for pushing others away. Is it, though? I’ve heard teachers say, “That kid and I just didn’t click.” It’s our responsibility as teachers to try to connect to kids. It won’t be easy for every student, but we can’t accept that a student just doesn’t fit in with us or our class.

Significance can feel like a luxury with pacing guides chasing you and lesson plans that need to be jam-packed with standards. If we don’t consider the meaningfulness of our curriculum and our lessons, students will have a hard time feeling like what they do in class matters. We need to consider the purpose of our lessons and our class in general.

Fun can make teachers think, “Wait, I’m here to teach. Students are here to learn,” I’m not going to argue with you. The thing is since learning is connected to our emotions, we need to consider how to support students’ emotional well-being. If a student is happy and having fun, they are going to learn more. Plus, infusing fun into lessons is a great way to avoid burnout as a teacher.

If we can create classrooms that foster belonging, significance, and fun, students want to participate fully and want to behave. And if they want to behave and do the right thing, then you can focus on helping them accomplish that goal by taking a break or repairing relationships vs. trying to find a suitable punishment.

5 ways to prevent burnout by bringing more playfulness to your classroom (even if you teach middle or high school!)

Supporting kids who struggle with socialization

Another tenet of Responsive Classroom is that the social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum. We need to support students in their social development, no matter their age. If their behavior toward other students and how they socialize is the problem, Take a Break is often a better response to this type of issue. If I create an extremely isolating experience for a child, this is taking away a need. They need socialization, so I don’t want to remove them from the entirety of an experience, they just need to take a break from it.

If they are being rude to classmates during lunch, they need to take a break from their table. If they hit someone at recess, they need to take a break, often before they can make reparations and apologize. If they are frustrated with a classmate and cursing or leaving a group, they need to take a break. Perhaps they lose the privilege of choosing a partner or they lose the privilege of a type of recess activity such as kickball.

The reason I prefer the language of “Take a Break” in these instances is that it reminds the student they need to get back in control of their body and mind, they need time and space to be themselves again, this is not a permanent loss, and we need to take care of ourselves in order to be with others.

Thinking of this as a “break” is helpful for me, too, because it reminds me that I should not seek to take away the socialization need for too long. Students need to be able to earn that back.

Giving additional privileges that foster grace in the classroom

Let’s consider a case study for this. One student who I’ll call Mitch had a reputation from previous years of not doing any work, getting sent to other teachers’ classrooms who would ignore him or somehow shame him into doing something, ignoring lessons and reading, destroying objects and classroom supplies or other students’ supplies out of a quiet resentment, and more.

The reaction I saw from many teachers to him was to enforce harsher punishments, remove him from interaction with students, give up on any completion of work at all and give bad grades, and generally be frustrated and helpless. I did not endorse the negative behaviors displayed, but I did make a choice that was surprising to him and anyone I’ve explained it to.

I gave him a free choice time during math class.

My math class was structured so that I had a number sense routine and/or mini-lesson with notetaking to start class, then 2 stations. There were 4 stations total so it took a student 2 days to go through all 4 stations. The stations included an online math program, math worksheets, a game with a partner or small group, and differentiated lessons and practice with me.

I noticed early on in the school year that Mitch refused to do any of the stations. He would rather just sit there. While sitting, he often read, played with supplies, or disrupted other students while working. He wouldn’t even come to the station with me without prodding which most kids, even some of my most challenging students, loved for the focused attention. I was frustrated by this behavior, and I know many, many teachers who are very frustrated by students reading through lessons or reading instead of completing work.

I took Mitch aside and explained to him how it was important for him to learn math and that I wanted to spend time with him in a small group. I also explained that I could see that he was frustrated that he didn’t want to do certain activities and would rather do other things. I gave him the choice of swapping out one station (as long as it wasn’t the teacher station) to independently read.

This was definitely flying in the face of every piece of advice I had heard about this kid. Everyone else said he needed more boundaries and harsher responses because he didn’t care what teachers thought. They also essentially told me to give up on him doing activities with other kids because other kids didn’t like him and he didn’t like other kids.

From the day I offered that free reading time as a station, I kid you not, he got almost all of his math work done. He took notes during whole class instruction. He paid attention to me. He often did read during one station but not always. He often played games with other students and seemed to start to enjoy them. Sometimes he did all 4 math stations or just read after he finished some of his worksheet. This worked like magic.

Were there still a few interpersonal concerns throughout the year that I had to sort through? Yes. But this one move made a world of difference. If Mitch didn’t complete something that was expected of him or he wasn’t taking notes, all I had to explain was that I needed to take away his privilege of swapping out a station for reading.

I couldn’t tell you what possessed me to make this move in the first place, and I wouldn’t recommend it without knowing another student’s situation, but this choice turned around the entire math block for this student. I completely believe it saved my relationship with him and ensured he learned more over the course of the year by far. I started the year maybe getting 20 minutes of his attention over 2 days and in return for giving up 20 minutes of math time, I got 100 minutes of his effort and attention. For me, that was an obvious win.

Some of you may be thinking, “Didn’t other kids notice? Didn’t they want to just read, too? Didn’t they just skip out on work?” Honestly, no. They didn’t. I have found that even when providing daily rewards to kids on behavior plans, other students don’t usually whine about what other kids get. They know that that student was not behaving well.

Because Mitch was behaving better and working most of the time, other students were thrilled with that turn of events. He wasn’t bothering them and he was happy, so they were happy. They didn’t want to mess that up.

Also, they genuinely liked the worksheets which were high activity and puzzle-based, they liked being on the computer, and they loved time with me and games with one another. Sometimes they’d goof off and take too long to get logged in, but I could talk to them about that. I also have explained to kids who questioned behavior plans why I didn’t need to check in with them as often and why I made different choices for different students and that was ok.

Leaning into grace when things seem to get worse

In the example of Mitch, giving more leeway ended up getting a better outcome for me. I have realized this to be true in many instances. As a classwide example, I give kids 10 minutes of quiet time every day where they can do anything they want as long as it is independent and silent. They can play with play-doh, draw, rest, read, and get ahead on work or study. For one particularly challenging class, I even let them play games on the computer during quiet time. Typically, I avoid computers at this time and like their brain to be engaged in different ways.

You may be thinking, “So with your worst behaved, most academically challenging class you let them play nonsense games? That’s backwards!”

The point is that I could take this privilege away easily if something went wrong. They LOVED this quiet time, so their entire behavior throughout the day improved because they knew we started quiet time when writing class was finished and we were all cleaned up. I also could delay their start to quiet time if they needed to do something with me first or talk to me about a behavior choice. It created flexibility for me and it motivated them. This was not a reward. Quiet time was a given. There was merely a loss of that privilege as needed.

The reason why I prefer this mindset is that I don’t have to keep track of anything. I don’t have to keep track of points. I don’t have to spell out “EXTRA RECESS” on the board and then drop everything when we earn it. I don’t have to navigate an app or defend positive or negative points to parents. If they hadn’t handed in their paper and cleaned up, they couldn’t start quiet time. This is an example of a logical consequence. Logically, you can’t do this until you’ve done that. It creates a small sense of urgency to follow expectations which can be helpful.

Remembering that fun isn’t earned; it’s built in

Fun, rest, and academic choice are embedded into the culture of my classroom. If a student is not meeting the expectations of kindness, responsibility, and respect within the culture of the classroom, I need to consider what consequence is going to best guide the student towards the desired behavior? Which consequence will best create a connection between behavior and consequence?

Upon reflection, one of the blessings of teaching through 2020-21 school year mostly virtually and then in person with exhaustive and ever-changing protocols was that I realized I could actually still teach a lot in less time. I had to build in extra time for transitions. We had to eat snacks outside which took longer. We had screen breaks built in while online. I had one whole day less to teach per week. I couldn’t muster the energy to even really use the full time I did have with kids.

As I’m looking through my lesson plans from last year, I’m realizing I managed to still teach major units, complete projects, teach new skills on a computer, and foster community through extra long morning meetings. I was able to invest time into breaks and I didn’t feel guilty about it because I knew I didn’t have as much time anyway.

My curriculum had been cut to reflect that loss, and I truly still taught a lot. We took breaks, and I got through stuff anyway. We spent part of language arts sharing about all sorts of stuff, and we still managed to learn. It was okay. Giving grace was okay. It didn’t backfire on me. It was what we all needed.

When no one’s showing YOU grace … make space instead

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Amy Stohs

2nd Grade

Amy Stohs is currently a 2nd grade teacher in Northern Virginia. She was named Teacher of the Year in 2019 by her coworkers while previously teaching 6th grade. Her passions include great books for all ages, the workshop model, Responsive...
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  1. Hi Amy! I’m teaching first grade this year and wondering what your response is to a lot of silliness. For example, I have a few students that are fixated on toilet words and bring everyone else off track. What sort of consequence might you give in that situation? Thanks!

    1. Hi Jenn! In the podcast, I talk more about “take a break.” For calling out behaviors, distractions, attention getting behavior, I definitely lean on having students take a short time out. I introduce it in the beginning of the year and send everyone on a practice take a break. If a student calls out in my room or disrupts, I’ll either respond by repeating an expectation that they raise their hand and try again if it’s on topic or I will just send them on take a break if it’s off topic. I would also probably have a 1-1 conference with them to talk about how that might make other people uncomfortable and everyone deserves a safe and comfortable environment at school that focuses on learning. I think the biggest thing is to keep teacher reaction to a minimum and just be calm and direct with “take a break.” I know spring is so hard! Little kids are silly!
      Thanks so much for reading my article!
      – Amy

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