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Fair Isn’t Equal: Seven Classroom Tips

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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In last month's post, I mentioned that there are two skills that separate great teachers from good ones. I explained that the first skill is the ability to reframe student behavior, to see it in new ways. Today I want to discuss the second skill: knowing how to treat students fairly by not treating them the same. Allen Mendler and I introduced the idea that fair isn't equal to the education community in 1988 in the first edition of Discipline With Dignity (an updated, more comprehensive explanation with examples is provided in the current edition). Since then, nearly all of the educators who have used our model have seen remarkable results when resolving a wide range of behavior issues. In short, treating students in a fair -- but not equal -- way works.

If you ask students what are the most important qualities they like in teachers, one of the universally top-mentioned is fairness. Teachers and schools strive to be fair and build programs and polices based on this value.

But what is fair? Many define it as treating everyone the same, but I would argue that doing so is the most unfair way to treat students. Students are not the same. They have different motivations for their choices, different needs, different causes for misbehavior and different goals. I think this is good, because wouldn't the world be very boring if we were all the same?

The most glaring example of the misunderstanding between fair and equal is in progressive consequence organization. The first violation results in the same consequence for all; the second infraction, more severe, is still the same for all. This continues throughout the sequence. A vast majority of schools and classes use this model. There is great danger in using progressive consequence schemes. No one would go to a doctor who treats all headaches the same, since the cause for one may be allergies and the other a tumor. Identical treatment for two students who don't do homework for different reasons -- one who has to help at the family business after school, and one who watches too much television -- is no different than that crazy doctor with the single cure for all headaches.

Does treating students fairly take more time? Not nearly as much as unsuccessful solutions to behavior problems that continue to eat classroom time in five-to-fifteen minute chunks over the course of a year.

Here’s how to put this concept into practice.

1. Everyone has the same rules.

Exceptions may be made for unusual circumstances, but positive social interaction is pretty much the same for everyone.

2. Consequences are flexible.

When a rule is violated, the teacher can choose from a large set of possible consequences. These consequences work best when spelled out in advance to students, administrators and parents. There is no defined order or progression. Pick the one that works best or the one you think will be effective from your knowledge of the student. Often it is very effective to give a student a choice from the list along with a promise to improve or the possibility of losing the privilege of choosing.

3. Equal isn't always fair.

Remember that using progressive consequences does not mean that you are treating students the same. How many times a student is run through the progression depends on who is caught and how the consequence is delivered. The following is a highly exaggerated example, but even when a teacher is far subtler, the students pick up on it.

"Johnny, please stop interrupting. This is your warning. Thank you."

As opposed to:

"Bessie, you little weasel. How many times do I have to tell you not to interrupt? I'm really tired of it. You get one more warning before I do something far more serious."

Both students were treated equally because they both got a warning, but was it fair?

4. Teach the concept of fair vs. equal to your class before implementing it.

With homework, class discussion or in-class activity, ask students for examples from the home, school or society where it is very fair and good to treat people differently. Then give a few examples of how you intend to be fair but not equal. Students K-12 can understand and accept this when explained in a way that matches their capabilities.

5. Follow the basic tenets of great discipline.

Keep communication between you and the student who violated the rule private unless it is impossible to do so.

6. Be willing to discuss your strategy with students.

When students complain that "it’s not fair" if their consequence is different from another student's, remind them that:

  • Fair isn't equal.
  • Talking about others is gossip and you won't do it. Add that you will not talk about them to others.
  • Ask them what would be fair. When they answer, follow with words like, "Okay -- if you can guarantee that when I follow your suggestion, you will stop (or start doing . . .). If your idea works, that will be great, but if it doesn't, then we'll do it my way." This gives students the responsibility to change while understanding what is at stake.

7. Be willing to discuss your strategy with parents.

If a parent complains about unfairness, racism or that you dislike their child, try a conversation that includes the following points:

  • "I'm really glad you are here. It's great to work with caring parents who have the same goal as me: to help Juan improve."
  • "I'd like to hear your ideas about this situation. You know Juan better than I do, so tell me what works at home." (This is a great equalizer question.)
  • "I can see why you might be concerned, but together we can make things better for Juan."
  • "I’m willing to change my decision to one you think will work better, but if it fails, then let's give my original idea a try."
  • Here is the best way to conclude the discussion: "I really care about Juan, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to help him improve his behavior. But there is one thing I will never do, no matter what. I will never treat him like everyone else. Your child deserves a lot better than that."

Being truly fair is harder and requires more work in the short run that just treating everyone the same. In the long run, it saves time and is more effective. And when it comes to treating everyone the same, every child deserves a lot better than that.

Was this useful? (1)

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jesse Hill's picture

These are some great tips, especially the pointers on talking with parents at the end. when I was young my parents disciplined my brother and I with a very similar "fair is not equal" philosophy, and it seemed to work well, at least from my perspective.

What I think makes this philosophy potentially problematic in the school setting is that it relies on the teacher to know his or her students well enough to know how to discipline them. I imagine this would be difficult during the first month or two of the school year when teachers and students are still getting to know one another.

Susan Weikel Morrison's picture
Susan Weikel Morrison
Science Education Program Developer, Sci-Q Systems

I absolutely agree! I've always told students at the beginning of the year, "If you do something wrong, there will be consequences. But what the consequences are will be different depending on the situation." For example, a missing homework assignment, depending on an individual students' circumstances could range from peer tutor help to a phone call to parents.

I never liked automatic suspension for certain "crimes" in elementary school. So I usually handled "weapons crimes" quietly. The kids would tattle that so-and-so "has a knife." I would ask the perp for the knife. They always gave it to me. Then I'd put it in my desk and say, "It's in my desk. Have your parents come to school to get it." No parents ever did, and kid in question never repeated their crime. They also didn't miss any school. I retired with a lifetime supply of knives and letter openers. (OK, I'll admit that consequence was always the same.)

Duane's picture

I agree that students will not always be treated exactly the same for various reasons such as the fact that not every student will get caught and because there will be inconsistencies from simple human error. However, I do not agree with the premise that "fair is not equal" and instead believe that educators must strive to achieve equal treatment of students as best as they can. Fair IS equal in most situations--or fair is perceived as equal by most students and parents. Where I think people get on the bandwagon saying that fair really isn't always equal is when we feel the need to treat two different students differently because there are differences in the circumstances. If the circumstances are not the same or similar to begin with then we are already talking about situations that are already not "equal." Responding differently when there are different circumstances may very well be perfectly fair, but this does not mean that fair is not equal.

In #3 above, the contention was made that both students were treated equally because both students were given a warning. However, in the example, they really were NOT treated equally because the WAY each student was given a warning was different--or not at all equal. So, one could say that it was not fair because the methodology was very different.

If a student is tardy because he was messing around and wasting time this is different that if a student was tardy because on the way to school there was an accident that blocked traffic for the bus or a parent. However, if you respond differently to two different students that are tardy and there were no apparent extenuating circumstances, you are setting yourself up for conflict with students and parents and undermining your character and respect if students feel you are acting arbitrary in the way you treat them under similar circumstances. So, fair is equal when you are talking about similar or the same circumstances.

Looking at another example...

If a student wants to turn in work late and the only reason the work is late is because the student simply did not make it a priority, and then you let that student turn the work in late--then you must let every student do the same. However, if you tell that student "no" but let another student that had a death in the family turn in late work, this is fair because of the extenuating circumstances. I think some will say that these examples mean that fair is not equal when in fact, yes, fair is equal. If the other student had a death in the family, you should then also let that student turn work in late. ALL STUDENTS that have a death in the family should then be treated the same and be allowed to turn in late work. Treating students with similar circumstances the same way is what is fair.

Sometimes the circumstances are different and so we make distinctions on how to respond, but this does not mean that fair is not equal.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi Duane,

I just came across your response to my post on fair is not equal. Your point shows that I left out a very important sentence that would clear up our differences of opinion. I should have added that, "Just because you don't have to be equal to be fair, it also doesn't mean that you can't be equal and fair." Being fair means choosing the best intervention for a particular intervention, which I think we agree, but if it the same intervention makes sense because the circumstances are the same, then being fair means doing the same. I think this added sentence, which I thought I included, but didn't, suggests that our positions are the same. It's our semantics that vary.

Thanks for helping me see an important point that I missed.

Have a great new year.

Dave's picture

Hey Duane,
You said it well! Fair is equal. We provide the same differentiation for the same deficiencies. We provide the same host of consequences for the same infractions; however, we may extend grace where it is warranted. We as educators must be consistent for a host of reasons.

And in the final analysis, Dr. Curwin, we may be all saying the same thing. We are in this business because we love these children and want their best.

Thank you for the thought-provoking discussion!

Leanne Strong's picture


I have Asperger Syndrome (milder end of Autism Spectrum, now just social communication disorders, or Autism with different levels of severity), and I struggled with understanding that "fair doesn't always means equal" even in high school.

Here are some ways we can explain the difference to people who are struggling to understand:

"Equal means everyone plays on the Xbox for exactly 1 hour each day. Fairness means it's ok to play on the Xbox for less than one hour each day, but it's not ok to play on the Xbox for more than one hour."

"Fair means everyone is happy with the birthday presents they get. Equal means everyone gets the exact same number of presents on their birthday."

"Equal means everyone has to follow the same rules, and the same consequences for breaking the rules. Fairness means everyone has to follow the same rules, but consequences for breaking the rules might be different."

Another thing you can do if your kids (or the kids you work with) are constantly saying stuff like, "that's not fair," is ask yourself questions like these (the ones with stars next to them are big ones):

***Am I constantly monitoring my kids (or the kids I work with) to make sure they're being "fair?"***

***If I notice that one of my kids (or the kids I work with) has something different, or a different amount of something than the others, do I always say stuff like, "Jordan, it's not fair that you get more cookies than the others do?"

Do I constantly count the number of birthday presents I buy or make for each of my friends and family members every year, in order to make sure everyone gets the exact same amount of birthday presents?

Do I carefully keep track of how much time and attention I give each child to make sure everyone gets the exact same amount of attention?

Do I carefully monitor how I discipline each child, how often, and for what reasons, in order to make sure each child gets the exact same amount of discipline at the exact same age?

Do I cut each slice of bread (cake, pie, pizza, etc.) to make sure they are all the exact same size?

Do I give each student the exact same grade?

If some children need certain accommodations, do I deny those kids the accommodations they need (or do I choose the other extreme, and give those accommodations even to the kids who don't need them), because I'm afraid it would seem unfair that I'm giving those accommodations to some kids, but not to others?

If even one of the things I mentioned above sounds like something you do, you should understand that you are applying fairness at the level of a 6 or 7 year old. There are 2 very important lessons your kids (or the kids you work with) might not be learning when you do this. One of those lessons is that not everything is fair all the time. Sometimes two people commit the same crime, but only gets arrested (now, I'm not advocating criminal behavior, I actually think such behavior should be avoided). Sometimes two people are exposed to the same illness, but only one gets sick.

Another lesson your kids (or the kids you work with) might not be learning is that fairness doesn't always mean treating everyone exactly the same. Sometimes it means everyone gets what the need. Babies and younger children usually need more attention than older children do. Children with certain health problems might need more attention than healthy children (or children with less serious health problems). Children with certain special needs might require more attention than children without (or with less severe) special needs. If you give each student the exact same grade, after a while your students might start thinking stuff like, "I'm just going to get a bad grade on this project, no matter how hard I work on it," or, "I don't need to do my homework, I'm just going to get a good grade on this assignment anywho." As you can see, it doesn't motivate students to work harder. If a child needs certain accommodations, it's probably because that is what that child needs to be successful. You want as many children as possible to be successful. Right? If another child says something about a child who needs accommodations getting preferential treatment, you can say something like, "Jordan needs more time to finish tests. If you needed more time to finish your tests, you would get more time too." As the adult in the situation, when it comes to fairness, you need to use your adult reasoning, not your 6 year old reasoning.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Leanne, those are such awesome explanations, thank you for writing!!!

Leanne Strong's picture

Thank you, Alex! Glad I could contribute! The reason I gave those examples for how to explain the difference between fairness and equality is so that next time certain kids get something like a bigger allowance, more cookies, or more time to finish their work, the other child(ren) might be less likely to complain that it's not fair. And the reason I had readers ask themselves those questions is because these are things a lot of adults and older kids do to make sure things are seen as fair by younger kids, and they know that younger kids will understand this definition of fairness (using the exact same tactics on everyone).

JessicaCrowley's picture

I have really struggled with this during the summer school course I taught this summer. I had a student that seemed to fall somewhere on the spectrum, but that was not in his records. He would say things that he thought were funny, but the others just thought he was annoying them and they would yell "send him to the office." Instead I talked with him and tried to correct his behavior. It was a challenge and ultimately it turned into me cutting him off before he said anything. However the class never caught on (or cared) that he was clearly struggling with social behaviors. I think establishing this idea of fairness not being equal would have helped immensely and I will definitely do it in my next class!

H Bullock's picture

Discipline With Dignity was one of the textbooks we used in an ed course at Furman Univ in the early 1990s :) Thank you for the clarification and for the great start to working with students!

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