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Classroom Management   |   Dec 5, 2013

Why discipline is different from punishment

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Why discipline is different from punishment

By Angela Watson

I shared this image recently on Facebook and was really surprised by the amount of pushback it received.

There were a number of teachers who felt that punishment is the only thing that works at times, especially for students in high-poverty classrooms. Some commenters interpreted the quote to mean that positive reinforcement should be used instead of punishment, and decried the lack of consequences that students receive in the name of politically correct behavior management.

Here’s my take on it. I think this quote explains the difference between discipline and punishment very accurately and clarified the terms in a new way. The very first sentence refers to *discipline*…it doesn’t suggest that students’ poor choices shouldn’t have consequences or that positive reinforcement should be used instead. The point is to approach discipline with the intent of helping the child improve rather than making him or her suffer. We have all punished kids out of anger or frustration, and it doesn’t help anyone. The quote is a reminder to think of the end goal of discipline: to produce children who can solve their own problems and make their own good choices.

Let’s say you have a student named James who gets physically aggressive with other students or even teachers. James gets into an argument over something silly in the classroom and shoves another student. (Repeat 15 times a day–so often that if you attempted to suspend him each time it happened, James would probably spend about three minutes a week in your classroom.)

You see the incident happen, and you feel your blood pressure rising. You’re furious at James for interrupting a learning activity, hurting an innocent child, and creating havoc yet again when you have so many other issues to attend to. And so your knee-jerk reaction might be to punish James. Get out, go to the office! or Go move your desk to the corner, you’re sitting alone until you figure out how to treat other people! or That’s it, you’ve lost your recess! I’m so tired of this!

Can we get really honest and a bit introspective about those punishments? Can we admit they’re given out of anger and frustration, and they’re designed to make James suffer for what he did? Punishment is an act of retribution: it says, You mess with me and my classroom rules, and I will get you. Punishment does not show the child how to make better choices or in any way reform him.

Punishment involves consequences that we hope the child will dislike enough to stop the behavior. But since most chronic misbehavior is deeply ingrained and somehow meets the child’s needs (for power, etc.), it’s highly unlikely that any punishment will ever be enough to stop the child from acting out again. We try every punishment we can think of, making each one more severe than the previous and can’t understand why nothing’s working. We don’t realize that until the child is comfortable with an alternative way of behaving, the misbehavior will continue.

So what would discipline look like? It doesn’t necessarily mean positive reinforcement. That’s a method that has been over-emphasized in recent years, in my opinion, and it’s not the solution for every problem. I’m not suggesting you say, “Okay, James, each time you go five minutes without hitting another student, I’m going to give you a piece of chocolate! Would that be alright with you?”

Discipline is going to involve consequences. James does not get to hit other students and get off scot-free. However, the discipline will not be given out of anger, it will be determined based on what is going to help solve James’ problem. Any kid who’s getting violent on a daily basis obviously has some problems he’s dealing with: maybe his family or community taught him to defend himself physically, maybe he’s feeling bullied in the classroom (you’d be surprised how many bullies perceive themselves as victims), maybe he’s so far behind the other kids academically that he feels stupid and lashes out at them every time they realize he doesn’t have a clue what’s he’s supposed to be doing.

Strong and effective discipline figures out the root of the problem, and applies consequences in a way that addresses that root problem, not just the effects of the problem (the chaos of misbehavior in the classroom.)

Discipline is also designed to help the student understand what he or she has done, why it’s not okay, and what other choices are viable. In our example above, James needs to learn how to solve his problems effectively. His go-to solution is striking anyone within arm’s distance when he’s mad, and he’s dependent on you as the teacher to prevent that from happening. This is not sustainable. James has got to learn how to control himself and express his frustration differently, or else this is going to keep happening over and over and over again.

In my next post, I’ll share how discipline vs. punishment could play out practically in the classroom, and explain what I would say and do with a student like James. There’s no guarantee that my suggestions or any discipline will work. There’s certainly no guarantee that punishment will work, either. But discipline helps to produce the kind of child who can problem solve. It’s an approach that builds rapport instead of a wall between you and the child. Discipline addresses the heart of the child’s issues and helps to create long-term solutions.

How do you approach discipline in your classroom?

 

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. Angela,

    I like this distinction very much. This sentence made me cringe… “There were a number of teachers who felt that punishment is the only thing that works at times, especially for students in high-poverty classrooms. Some commenters interpreted the quote to mean that positive reinforcement should be used instead of punishment, and decried the lack of consequences that students receive in the name of politically correct behavior management.” It makes me sad to think that some teachers are even leaving the profession because of how behavior is handled in the classroom. What makes it worse is that methods that have been proved to be effective (research-based) are still looked down upon because they are not “how we have always done it”. I believe there is a balance that has to exist when dealing with behavior because like you said, “Strong and effective discipline figures out the root of the problem, and applies consequences in a way that addresses that root problem, not just the effects of the problem (the chaos of misbehavior in the classroom.)”.

    Great post. Will be sharing widely.

    Tim Villlegas
    Think Inclusive

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Tim, and for sharing the post. I, too, am sad to see teachers leaving the classroom over behavior issues and I hope the reflections shared here help them a bit.

  2. I struggle with this issue every year. I try to teach good decision making strategies. However it is not working so well this year. I have two students that throw furniture, two that bite, one that will chase others with scissors, three that hit (hard). I have broken up fights, been punched while standing in-between tow of them to keep them apart…I asked for an aid as one of these children has autism and struggles to deal with the world and I have absolutely no training on how to help an autistic child. I was told by the school psychologist he was not bad ebough to warrant an aid
    ( hitting 5 people in one day and tossing furniture across the room is not bad enough) really? Heaven help us if he gets ” bad enough”. I have had parents insisit that thier kids be moved to other classrooms because they have been hurt by this child. As have I. My principal is no help. She does not act on citations and also speaks with forked tongue. I am frustrated, tired, and so desperately need help. So where do I way in? I am so into swift and judicious punishment this year and so trying not to punish and use logical consequences instead. However, I am sinking.

      1. Oh, Katy, I have so been there. The furniture-throwers are the toughest. Please email me (angelawatson@live.com)–I will send you chapter 18 of my book, The Cornerstone, which talks about how I’ve handled that exact situation.

        1. I too struggle with the violent tantrumming child. And I teach 4 year old full day kindergarten. It seems that so many people just shrug their shoulders and sigh and say oh they’re just babies it cant be that bad. BUt it is! The anger that these little ones are exhibiting is just awful and I am not trained to know how to help them. It is scary when other children are being injured by their tantrums. The throwing of chairs and knocking over shelves is dangerous! I would be very interested in your chapter regarding that topic.

          1. My favorite source of information for managing young children with very challenging behavior is Conscious Discipline – designed by Dr. Becky Bailey. I highly recommend that you look at this wonderful website, watch the videos and order some of her fantastic materials. This little 4 year old child needs to be taught strategies for coping with his/her strong feelings!

            http://consciousdiscipline.com/

  3. I’m glad you made the distinction between punishment and discipline. Don’t we become teachers to teach? Punishment is limiting. Discipline is expansive. Punishment simply punishes and discipline serves our purpose: to teach!

  4. Angela I will be waiting for your next post with anticipation. I think we have all had a child like James and struggle on a daily basis to deal with them appropriately. Yes, we do wonder why they have not changed the behaviour and what else we can try, but sometimes in the heat of the moment and the stress of dealing with other children copying them or questioning why JAMES is allowed to get away with such bad behaviour and then dealing with irate parents we do use the type of punishment you described. I would like to hear some ideas for different ways to bring about changes in behaviour. My James also has an intellectual disability which makes it even more challenging for me.

    1. I always try to be open with the other students about special situations like this. Kids aren’t dumb, and they know when other children have anger problems or special issues–there’s no sense in trying to pretend a kid throwing a desk is fine. I also think it’s helpful for kids to realize there are emotionally unstable people in this world and they need to learn how to behave around them.

      I try to rally the whole class around the child who is dealing with anger and talk openly about different ways we cope with our problems and emotions. We also talk about ways that the rest of the class can support the child and respond helpfully when the child becomes angry instead of escalating the situation.

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