The Real Purpose of Consequences

Image     In my classroom management course, we often talk about the need for children to realize that there are consequences to inappropriate behavior.  Within a classroom, there must be procedures to follow and consequences of negative behavior.  These are necessary to maintain a respectful learning environment.  However, over the years I have heard teachers say things like, “He forgot his lunch money, so he will just need to go without lunch.  Maybe he will remember next time.” “That parent needs to understand that there are consequences to sending her child to school late.  He just won’t get to participate.” “I will not repeat the directions again.  She will just have to miss the assignment because she wasn’t listening.”

     While I agree that every individual case is different and consequences often teach important skills, I have struggled with where to draw the line.  When do consequences become punishment or just plain cruelty? I have taught my pre-service teachers that they need to have an organized plan that includes teaching children appropriate behavior and procedures as well as consequences of inappropriate behavior. Consequences are meant to be another teacher and help the child learn to negotiate this tricky thing called life. Hopefully, when she is in this situation again, she will make a wiser choice.  I have encouraged teachers to always pre-teach these behaviors and consequences before anything actually happens.  That teaching method helped me keep my emotions out of working with difficult children. When inappropriate behavior occurred, I could say, “Well, this was our agreement for classroom behavior and since you have not followed that procedure you will need to complete the consequences.”  It is a statement of fact, not an emotional response.  However, I have observed teachers who seem to cross a line into making consequences into negative punishments, even when they have a solid plan and seem to be an effective teacher.  It makes me wonder if I ever lulled myself into thinking that organization is the only key.  It is certainly a critical key, but I think compassion and understanding must play roles just as critical.

     I thought about this again this week when I went to watch the movie, Philomena.  In the movie, the nuns were committed to making sure that Philomena suffered a lifetime of damnation for getting pregnant as a teenager. Philomena’s punishment was never a teaching moment because she couldn’t have a life ‘do-over’ (next time you’re a teenager you should…).  Her treatment was nothing more than hateful punishment and cruelty. Punishment that never helped anyone, just caused irreparable hurt.   As a teacher, I need to remember that important fact.  Consequences should become teaching moments, not create misery that we will never be able to erase.


3 responses

  1. John,

    Thank you for the insightful post. I do have a question. Please explain “preteach these moments. . .” Thanks, GH

  2. Pre-teaching the classroom rules, procedures, consequences, etc., is always a better method than waiting for issues to arise in the classroom. For example, it is appropriate to have a discussion with the group about what to do when someone makes you upset. “Since we know we don’t hit or kick, what should we do when someone makes us unhappy?” Help the class establish some guidelines as to how to behave when they are upset. Then when something occurs (let’s say Joey hit Kirk), you have some recourse. “What did we decide we were going to do if someone makes us upset?” You can then discuss the issue and state how Joey will need to follow through on the consequences. It keeps the teacher from becoming upset or emotional because he is just stating previously discussed procedures. There is a lot of research on this pre-teaching from the Center for Social and Emotional Foundations in Early Learning (CSEFEL) at Vanderbilt University. You can check out their website for more details. But, from a reality standpoint, having used that strategy myself as a teacher, it really does work.

  3. Having a child on the autism spectrum made me reevaluate my approach to discipline. I began to see that most moments are opportunities to “teach”. My interactions with him have made me a more insightful and compassionate teacher.

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