The Purpose of Punishment

Consequences can be positive or negative, and they can increase or decrease the frequency of specific behaviors. However, some consequences can have virtually no effect on behavior whatsoever.

This weekend two NFL players, Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan, were each fined $25,000 for a fists-a-flyin’ fight during the 4th quarter of a game Sunday. Sounds like quite a chunk of change, and it is…for us. For them it amounts to .45% of Johnson’s salary and .94% of Finnegan’s salary. For me, this is the equivalent of a $225-470 fine. While this is not chump change even at my level, it probably isn’t enough to deter NFL players from fighting if this is precedent setting.

What really is the purpose of this punishment? Is it simply a way to make people think the NFL is taking a hard line on fighting by startling the common man with a figure of $25,000? Is it an easy way way to say “don’t do that again” but still keep the game agressive (and maybe even violent)? Did the commissioner simply not want a star player (Johnson) out of upcoming playoff-impacting games?

So again, what is the purpose of consequence, of punishment?

I believe this may be the most important question to answer when trying to decide what sort of discipline system to use in a classroom.

I don’t have classroom rules in my teaching style. I prefer to discuss incidents on a case-by-case basis, and I relate everything back to levels of respect when talking to my students. I guess, to be honest, my classroom is full of implied rules and expectations of behavior, but I do not post them and do not take class time to review them. Granted, I work with high school students, but I think forms of this system–even on a small scale–can be used at all levels.

I prefer, instead, to reward positive behaviors and celebrate them. I publicly praise my students for desired behaviors, say “thank you” and “please” regularly, use the terms “sir” and “ma’am” without irony, and often throw out a couple extra credit points or candy here and there for unsolicited positive behaviors.

Just last week before Thanksgiving a girl’s colored pencil case crashed to the floor, and only one young gentleman got up to assist her in picking up the pencils. I thanked him for helping, joked that he was now the most worthy eligible bachelor in the room, and awarded him 2 points on the next vocabulary quiz. The points are really worthless, but that’s not the point. I wanted to see a repeat of the behavior, not just in him but in others in the room.

Also, I enter a room and give all students a clean slate. They have my trust until they violate it. I frequently use language like “I trust you to…” and then fill out the rest of the line with a desired behavior.

Once the first person asks to use the restroom, I tell my students that I trust them to use the restroom when needed and not to abuse the trust. In fact, I prefer that my students not ask, that they simply wave the pass at me to let me know where they are going and simply go. I do keep track of their time out but don’t mention anything more until a problem arises.

Still, what is the purpose of your intervention system? Are you attempting to curb undesired behaviors? Are you desiring to increase wanted behaviors? Do you approach students with an atmosphere of trust? Must trust be earned or given right away?

2 thoughts on “The Purpose of Punishment

  1. Melissa

    Does your administration dictate anything about your rewards or rules? At my school our rules must be positively worded, posted, and reviewed with students during class time at the beginning of the semester. We are expected as teachers to uphold the district dress code, confiscate cell phones, mark tardies, ban food or drink from the classroom, use the school-designated hall passes only, etc. Most of the teachers in my dept. also have additional rules regarding respectful behavior and speech, staying in your assigned seat when you’re supposed to, etc.

    I don’t think we’d be able to get away with your system at my school. And most people probably would balk at the idea of having “no rules.” Do your colleagues have similar reactions to your system?

    1. drpezz Post author

      Never had a problem, and I think it’s because it works for me. My colleagues often ask why such and such kid works for me and not them, but I really think the environment we create together makes all the difference in the world. I keep the kids active all period with 3-4 transitions, make sure everyone knows exactly what they need to do each period, and treat every kid with respect.

      Now I’m at a point where I have a reputation for a fun classroom, but we work hard. It’s definitely flattering to know kids fight to get into my classes.

      By the way, I still uphold all of the district’s policies, but I don’t have kids challenging them because they know I’ll address an infraction. The system isn’t perfect, but I’ve been successful with it so far. I hope to continue this.


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