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Classroom Management   |   Dec 5, 2013

Why discipline is different from punishment

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

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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  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!


  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.

  5. I am curious to know what from the pushback writers how they feel that punishment “works?” Who does it “work” for? I am assuming it means that the student leaves the classroom so the teacher does not have to cope with the misbehavior – at least for a brief period of time. But — did the student actually learn any new skills? Did the behavior happen again – just a short time later, requiring another punishment that “works?” I am a strong believer in Ross Greene’s work: Kids do well if they can — and if they can’t do well – it’s because they have a developmental delay in the cognitive skills needed to cope with life’s social and emotional challenges…. cognitive skills in flexibility/adaptability, frustration tolerance and problem solving. In this view, challenging behavior is actually quite predictable – kids act out when they don’t have the skills to do it better. Our job as educators is not to “punish” kids – but rather to identify the lagging skills that keep getting in their way over and over and over again – and then teach those skills. Take a look at his wonderful website: livesinthebalance.org Download a copy of the ALSUP and start working with colleagues and parents to identify the skills that are tripping these kids up over and over again and figure out how to teach them new skills – collaboratively — with input from the child.

    1. Kathy I agree that too often we just give a punishment because we just want our classroom to be under control & giving a punishment is way easier than getting to the root of the problem. And often the root of the problem is complex.

      However, is seems that you are saying we shouldn’t give consequences, and I believe that ignores something very important – that all of us (kids included) have a sin nature. We do wrong. And while sometimes it is due to developmental delay, often it is a matter of the heart – a wrong attitude or a wrong way of thinking on the part of the student. And sometimes consequences are an effective way to deal with this. But consequences rarely work well if given on their own – they need to be coupled with genuine caring, discussion of the root problems, help with avoiding problems in the future, and lots of praise.

      But I do believe consequences have their place. It’s ultimately what’s best for the student in the long run, and sometimes that’s the most effective way to help them grow. Otherwise they may grow up learning that their actions have no consequences.

      1. Linda:
        Thanks for your thoughtful post.
        What I have learned in my own experience is that when students have persistently challenging behavior – that is, a chronic pattern of misbehavior that happens again and again and again – over a period of time – then it’s NOT a matter of the heart – it’s a matter of lagging skills. I should have made that distinction. Everyone screws up sometimes – but when a student is screwing up ALL of the time or MOST of the time or MUCH of the time then, for me, it makes the most sense to figure out what skills are lagging – what is getting in this kid’s way again and again – is it weak frustration tolerance/emotional control, limited flexibility/adaptability or immature problem solving skills or a combination of these? Because I do believe that kids do well if they can.

        And, just to b e clear, Ross Greene’s model definitely does not suggest that kids should grow up learning that their actions have no consequences. It says that punishing kids for not using skills that haven’t yet developed is likely to be ineffective – and in fact, is likely to ratchet their behavior up a notch – and make them even more challenging. And, it also teaches them that this adult believes that “might makes right” which I’m not sure is such a great way for them to grow up.

        Again – I suggest that folks read about his model themselves at: http://www.livesinthebalance.org/

        1. Great discussion here. I agree with the sentiment that most kids do well when they can. Most kids want to be successful, fit in, and be liked by their teacher. So our job is to focus on setting them up to succeed in the class rather than just punishing them when they fail.

  6. Angela,
    Well written article! I completely agree with your approach on discipline. I once heard a keynote speaker say that the word discipline comes from the word disciple, which means to “follow loosely in the footsteps of.” If we approach discipline this way, being good models for kids and teaching them positive examples of behavior, we will accomplish much more than a simple punishment could ever do.

  7. Great post, Angela! Love the distinction. That’s such an important truth to keep at the forefront – that discipline should always be for the purpose of helping the student. And that means that sometimes we have to be creative or deviate from what we normally might do.

    I taught in a Christian school, and we had the privilege of taking it one step further. Each discipline encounter was also an opportunity to disciple the student – to help them learn truth and become more like Christ. What a privilege that was & how much more effective and powerful than just handing out a punishment.

  8. I don’t know what to say here except I had a 5 year old little boy begin school last year. All ready for big p1. Approx 2 weeks (as far as I’m aware) did this content last. For the next year & bit my child was stripped down & his inner insecurities exposed for all his peers &other teachers to get a good grip on that label they’d now for sure, planted right on my baby’s forehead. All attempts were tried & tested to force him to ‘conform’, to stop this blatant ‘defiance’ he was obviously displaying…hiding his head in his jumper when confronted, curling into a ball when focus of attention,or when other chn accused him of something or other, he was given detention -at 5!! – of which surrounding issues found to be dishonest!! As were other issues, I proved dishonesty, inconsistencies & complete unprofessional behaviour that eventually I removed my child. These have had a lasting negative impact & I am struggling to compose a complaints letter if anyone please can offer advice. …btw..my child have zero self confidence & low self esteem which was explained in first week!! Response to me: Conan is making himself the focus of attention!! Grrrr!!!

  9. I just want to clarify a couple of terms that are being tossed around. First Punishment: Punishment is not the action that the teacher engages in. It is the result of that action. Thus, Punishment is the reduction of a target behavior as a function of either the presentation of an aversive stimulus (for example, a reprimand) or the removal of access to a preferred activity/person/tangible item. Similarly, Reinforcement is not the action of giving something for an agreed upon response. Reinforcement is the increase of a target behavior as a function of either the presentation of access to a preferred activity/item (positive reinforcement) or the removal of an aversive stimulus (negative reinforcement). So, if the child engages in aggression, and you remove them from the classroom, but then when they come back, they continue being aggressive, punishment as NOT occurred. Similarly, if you give a child a piece of chocolate for not engaging in aggression for 10 minutes, but then at minute 11 aggression occurs, you have not provided “Positive Reinforcement” of non-aggression. Again, Punishment and Reinforcement are defined by whether or not the behavior decreases or increases, not by what you do about the behavior.

    That being said, the concept of “Positive Reinforcement” cannot be simply dismissed as “too PC and overemphasized.” Behavior modification through reinforcement is an evidence-based practice with a research history that is both broad and deep. The problem is that it is seldom implemented correctly in classrooms. “Reinforcing” the absence of negative behavior isn’t the way that it is supposed to be done. You are supposed to explicitly teach–you know, that thing that teachers do–an alternate appropriate behavior that the child is supposed to use instead of aggression, and shape that behavior through the process of reinforcement. The problem that I see in classrooms is often that teachers try to solve behavioral problems by just basically saying “don’t do that” but then never actually addressing what the child should do instead.

    Another point about so-called “Punishment:” What you say about punishment is true in one respect. What teachers actually do in the classroom is respond emotionally to students’ negative behavior, and engage in retribution. The thing about retribution, and why it is so firmly clung to is that it is negatively reinforcing for the teacher. Think about it: you remove a child from your classroom and your problem is instantly solved. You have removed an aversive stimulus (the aggressive student) from your environment. This is textbook negative reinforcement, and it assures that the teacher will use the same response the next time the child is aggressive. That is problematic for two basic reasons that are, again, well-defined in the behavior modification literature. First, Punishment is generally a short-term phenomenon. Without reinforcement of an appropriate alternative behavior, Punishment alone will result in a brief reduction in the behavior; however, the behavior is likely to re-occur. Second, frequently applying aversive stimuli to children who exhibit problem behaviors will, ultimately result in the child habituating to the aversive stimuli so that it requires more and more severe tactics to get the same results. Teachers don’t generally recognize this because they are still being negatively reinforced for removing the problem behavior from their environment.

    The way to appropriately apply Reinforcement and Punishment is to identify replacement behaviors to be shaped and determine whether or not the replacement behavior is currently within the child’s repertoire. Then, reinforce that behavior when it occurs. Punishment can be used as a supplement to these types of procedures, particularly in situations where the problem behavior is either unsafe or socially stigmatizing for the child. Teachers should be mindful about how they utilize these techniques, and should be appropriately trained in their application.

    1. Great thoughts here–thanks for sharing! I especially appreciate what you shared about punishment being negatively reinforcing for the teacher. This is what makes the punishment cycle so difficult to break.

  10. I am dealing with the worse disrespect tones, sneakiness, teasing, and lying I have ever seen. I came into this class 4 wks. ago as a long-term sub. Just when I think the teasing is being curbed I find that the couple that were teasing have just gotten quiet about it. We have talked extensively about hurtful words(crumbled and flattened heart), established and posted rules, created a poster/discussed a good student, made a pledge, discussed(LOTS)/showed “Grandma Rose’s Garden,” …oh ya and had personal conversation with the students and their parents… At this point I have resorted back to punishment and not happy about it. What else can I do???

    1. Hi Connie:
      That sounds super stressful – for you and for your students.
      Being a sub is so tricky because the students haven’t really had a chance to make a trusting relationship with you.
      I have three ideas: 1.) use Angela’s trick: the 2 x 10: spend two minutes, ten days in a row, just chatting and getting to know the one or two students in the room who are being the most disrespectful/sneaky – with no agenda other than to strengthen those relationships.

      2.) shake things up – if you are able – with a service project. Help the students in your class to focus their energies outward in a selfless act of loving kindness. Help the students organize a food drive for a local shelter; write letters to servicemen/women; revive a garden space on school grounds; etc – something to help all of the students learn what it means to be kind – in deeds, not just words.

      3.) keep modeling for them at all times what it means to be kind and respectful – this will be the hardest one of all – but it’s really true that the students are paying attention to what YOU do and say.

      Good luck! Hang in there!!!

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