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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Make Consequences Work

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Along with Dr. Allen N. Mendler, my close friend and co-author of several books, I have spent a great deal of time promoting the use of consequences over punishments. We define a punishment as what is done to us (detentions, suspensions, checkmarks on public boards, calls home), and a consequence as what we do to ourselves (learning new behavior, helping others). This new behavioral and social contract system uses values, rules and consequences as the main components of an effective school or classroom plan for discipline.

Lately, on our own and collectively, we've both been questioning how much value consequences really have in changing behavior. The rest of this post will reflect my own ideas on this issue. They may or may not reflect Dr. Mendler's views, which I strongly respect and value.

"How" is More Important than "What"

When it comes to consequences, how we implement them is more important that what they are. The interventions that work best are the ones that engage students, include their ideas, are dealt with privately and are non-confrontational. Small things make big differences. Tone of voice matters, especially if it indicates a high degree of emotion, including fear, anger, frustration or "not you again." Sarcastic inflections that are subtle but, to the student, unmistakable will generate higher resistance than straightforward communication.

The best way to communicate to students is what we call P.E.P. We talk privately, make eye contact when culturally appropriate and sit or stand close enough to the student so we can talk softly and make an impact.

Forget the Sequence

The traditional way of using consequences (and punishments) is to sequence them. First offenses get number one, second offences get number two, and so on. Sometimes the sequence is attached to a rule; the first time you hit, you get an hour of in-school suspension. The second time you hit, you get a two-day home suspension, and so on. Other plans are not attached to a rule. Any rule violation moves you through the sequence.

Sequencing consequences makes no sense and serves no purpose, except to insult teachers and fail with students. Sequencing became very popular during the seventies when the goal of many was to make education "teacher-proof" by taking teacher decision-making out of the process and replacing it with systems. If foolproof means that even a fool can do it, then what does teacher-proof mean? A better method is to list all possible consequences for you (the teacher), and for the students, administrators and parents, and explain that when a rule is broken, the most helpful and appropriate consequence will be selected.

Some students and parents might think this is unfair; this concern is covered below, so set it aside for a minute. It is obviously better to pick a consequence that has a better chance to make a helpful outcome than it is to simply go down a list. No one would choose a doctor who gave aspirin on your first visit, surgery on the second, and antibiotics on the third. Consequences need to match the circumstances of the problem, and for that we need teacher judgment, not rigid systems.

One argument for sequencing is that it provides a structure and predictability for students to help them make responsible choices. This is a delusion. Being able to predict something that doesn't work only makes students think the whole system is stupid and increases cynicism and resistance.

Fair Is Not Equal

Treating all students the same is never fair. This principle, introduced in the first edition of Discipline with Dignity in 1988, is the cornerstone of effective discipline. Students have different needs and respond to different interventions differently. Hopefully, no effective teacher would ever teach content the same way to all students, regardless of the way they learn. The same is true for behavior. For a consequence or intervention to work, it must deal with the cause of inappropriate behavior, not the number of times someone was caught behaving inappropriately.

Students need to learn the concept of fair isn't equal as soon as possible. Assign as homework or discuss in class ways they are treated at home that they know are unequal but recognize as fair. Typical answers include allowance, bedtime, driving privileges, food served and other like examples. Increase the circle by looking at society in a broader sense for examples.

If students or parents complain about unfair treatment, re-explain the fair vs. equal concept, explain fully that you will never discuss another student's treatment and ask the parent or student what will work to solve the problem. If their answer is unreasonable, explain why. If it is reasonable, give it a try. If it works, great. If not, then you can try something else, explaining how you gave their idea a try and there was no improvement.

Offer Choices

Oftentimes students can choose the best consequence for themselves. When students choose their own consequence or intervention, they have a stake in its success. The more control we give students, the more likely they will develop the skills for responsible behavior. Choices empower students to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions.

Dignity Matters

No matter what the student offense is, robbing the student of dignity will only make matters worse. A student will not hear your words or care what you say if they feel diminished by the way they are treated. In the short term, you may get compliance from intimidation, although the odds are against this result, but in the long run you may lose the possibility of trust, reach a breakdown in learning and set the stage for a payback.

Further, you are role modeling the kind of interaction that we hope students will avoid. The more we demean and intimidate, the more we teach students that these behaviors are acceptable and even preferable. They learn how to be adults by watching and imitating adults.

One way to avoid attacking student dignity is to wait until our anger subsides if we notice that it is interfering with our professionalism. Another is to think how we would react to someone treating us that way. Often we can solve problems without consequences by intervening in ways that enhance dignity and show respect. Another important way to maintain dignity is to always talk privately and never use a board with names, checks or other public displays of inadequacy.

Finally without minimizing the importance of using consequences for student misbehavior, I believe that, in most cases, the method of intervention is more important than the actual consequence. While none of these ideas are radical -- I have written about them before -- they offer a new perspective for those teachers who are stuck in a useless system, and way of intervening that cannot help students improve their behavior.

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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