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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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Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.'s picture
Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist & Author of The Homework Trap
Blogger 2014

I like this article. I would also add one other concept about consequences and that is that consequences which are effective are the ones you don't need to use again. You know a penalty has worked because you stop giving out the penalty. I think this is excellent advice for the classroom teacher, and would remind all that the power to follow this model is heavily dependent on the in-class relationship between the teacher and the student. Once we extend consequences for behavior outside that domain, i.e. the home, we weaken the teacher's authority and the authority of the parent, with undesirable results. www.thehomeworktrap.com.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

There is a very fine line between what you are saying, which I theoretically agree with, and allowing an 'in' for academically entitled students and parents to manipulate me and the system. I think the perception of favorites and unfairness could easily sink the system you outline. In life there are some hard and fast deadlines with natural and serious consequences (not getting the job, losing a client, a fine etc.) Keeping the consequences natural and in line with what students are likely to experience in real life seems like a good way to go. But it has to come from a 'tough love' stance, not as an exercise of power. Hard all round. Worth fighting for holding a line that will help our children in the dog-eat-dog world of the 21st C.
(I'm a little burned out right now, nearly the end of the year :-)

Jamie Armentrout's picture

I really love the post and idea of the consequences in this blog. I teach 10th grade Biology and it is always hard to get to those students that seem to act up in class all the time and do not care. Does anyone have examples of good consequences students have suggested in the past? I'm having a hard time thinking of a way to make consequences work for my students.

Kristy's picture
Kristy
2nd grade teacher Jacksonville, Ark

I agree will Sue; she stated that students need to learn real life consequences so they can learn how to manage life in the real world. The problem for me is that I teach 2nd grade and most of the children where I teach come to us with little or no social skills or character education. So we rely on the consequences fitting the behavior. It is so often up to teachers to teach our students better choices balanced with real life discipline.

Kadie White's picture
Kadie White
2nd Grade Teacher in Las Vegas

This article made me consider some new points. As a 2nd grade teacher, my administrators have always encouraged me to set a sequence of consequences. I have never even entertained the idea that it is not effective. Now I will have to critically reflect on my experiences. My fear would be that it may become difficult to enforce rules and consequences fairly. I do definitely agree, however, that students respond differently to consequences and the ability to be flexible is a necessity. I concur that students should always be treated with dignity and allowing them to make choices in all aspects is highly beneficial to the desired outcomes. It is important that we teach students through our actions as well as our words.

Emily R's picture
Emily R
4th Grade teacher from Michigan

First, I really agree with Kenneth Goldberg when he stated, "this model is dependent on the in-class relationship between the teacher and the student." I try to form a relationship with all of my students during the first week of class and let it develop throughout the year. I like the idea of using privacy, eye contact, and proximity. There are times when a situation comes up and I don't take the time to reflect before I react. I lose the privacy part, which takes away dignity. I need to remember the P.E.P. approach before I decide how to react. However, the part I disagree on is giving students too much control. I know choices make the students feel more a part of their education. I am a little against giving too much control because I feel students wouldn't learn that there are just consequences sometimes. I like having the control and organization of: if you do this: this will happen. I will have to do more readings to see how I can incorporate these two approaches.

J. Boan's picture
J. Boan
parent of two pre-school children, elementary teacher of 12 years

I liked this article post because I have found that punishments and consequences are very different. I believe there is a place for both. The difficult part is trying to determine the motivation behind a certain behavior. Sometimes students/children are acting out of immaturity and in reaction to circumstances, such as being tired, not having enough attention, frustration over some issue, and peer pressure. Other times, students deliberately want to push the limits. I think there should be a balance of both punishments and consequences. If there is a pattern of certain behavior, then it may be necessary to move past punishment to explore what is really going on in the mind of the student. I agree with Emily R that the relationship we have with young people is an important foundation on which to build everything else.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

"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."

In an idealistic utopian environment, sure, but in reality, what really works much of the time is to deny access to a preferred item or activity and make the person earn back the privilege of the access by completing some task for a set amount of time to benefit others. With lower functioning individuals, token rewards are about the only means that work. I dole out lots of small snack morsels to get low functioning individuals to complete tasks. Think reward systems don't work, Dr. Curwin? Think again.

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