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Virginia Journal of Education

Mason Swipes a Pencil

Why a system of 'logical consequencs' works better for classroom discipline than rewards or punishments.

by Philip S. Hall

While Mason was writing his spelling words, the tip of his pencil broke. Looking around, he saw an unused pencil on Edward’s desk—so he took it. It wasn’t the first time that Mason took something that wasn’t his; it was closer to the hundredth. “I need to deal with this,” Ms. Hubble said to herself.
There are a number of ways Ms. Hubble could address the situation. For one, she could set up a system to reward Mason for not taking things from other students’ desks. She could say, “Mason, every day you go without taking something that isn’t yours, I’ll give you a token. But if you do take something that isn’t yours, I’ll take a token away. When you have five tokens, you can trade them for this toy car.” Mason would probably like that offer.

There are two possible outcomes to this, or any, reward system. One is that Mason earns the toy car and is quite pleased. But if that happens, what does he really learn? He learns that if he behaves in a socially responsible manner, he should be given something. A reward system bribes children to behave. However, the more likely outcome of this reward system is that Mason will not earn the toy car, which has an even worse effect. When children work for a reward but are unable to earn it, they give up. They give up on themselves, and they give up on the people who hold out the reward.

Another alternative: Ms. Hubble could punish Mason. Using a real-world definition of punishment, she could do something to Mason that makes him feel so guilty, so remorseful or so fearful that he’ll never again snatch something from someone’s desk. For example, she could take away recess for a week. But punishing Mason doesn’t prevent him from taking something off someone’s desk tomorrow. It doesn’t teach him a socially appropriate way to get something when he needs it. But punishing Mason is certainly going to make him angry at his teacher, which may dispel his belief that his teacher cares about him.
Both reward and punishment techniques are based on a flawed premise: the implicit belief that children willfully misbehave. They do it on purpose. In truth, most misbehavior in the classroom happens when an impulsive, no-thought notion collides with a lack of social skills. What is needed is an approach that instills self-discipline, and his calls for employing a system of logical consequences.

A logical consequence is the loss of a privilege to the extent necessary to prevent the child from hurting someone, damaging or taking property, or disrupting the teaching/learning environment. In this case, Mason lost the privilege of sitting right next to classmates. Ms. Hubble moved his desk from the middle of a row and placed it at the front of the row along the right side of the room. She also moved his desk ahead a little, slightly separating him from the student to his immediate left and the student behind him.
Mason did not like being separated, even slightly, from the other students. Seeing that, Ms. Hubble asked, “Mason, can you tell me why it was necessary to move your desk a little distance away from the desk behind you?”

Of course, Mason could explain why. Like all young people, he knew intuitively that no one should take other people’s things.

After Mason explained why it was necessary to move his desk, Ms. Hubble asked, “Would you like to be able to have your desk just like the other students’ desks?”

“Could I?”

“Sure, but first I need to help you learn how to get what you need without taking it from someone’s desk. You think about how you can do that, and I will listen to your ideas Friday during recess.”

When Friday came, Mason had the answer. “I need to raise my hand when I need something and you’ll help me,” he offered.

“Excellent!” Ms. Hubble said. “Now let’s practice that next week. If you raise your hand whenever you need something all of next week, we can try moving your desk back so it’s just like the others.”

Using a logical consequence approach accomplished four objectives:

1.  The logical consequence immediately made it difficult for Mason to take other student’s possessions.

2.  The logical consequence created a need for Mason to think about how his behavior imposed on other students.

3.  The temporary relocation of his desk motivated Mason to learn a missing social skill.

4.  Imposing the logical consequence put Ms. Hubble in the position of a caregiver who helped Mason learn the social skill he needed to regain the temporarily lost privilege, and doing that strengthened the teacher-child relationship.

When a child has behavior problems, the importance of strengthening the teacher-child relationship cannot be overstated. Students who make dramatic improvements in their behavior are almost always standing on the foundation of a strong teacher-child relationship.

The job of children is to become responsible, contributing adults. Helping them do so takes good parenting and skilled teaching. What a job educators have! We must teach children to read, write and do arithmetic. We must also inform children about the world. Embedded in this traditional academic work is an equally important task: Educators have to empower children so that they can participate in adult-to-adult interactions. How is this done?

Children are not empowered when adults dole out response-contingent rewards. In fact, rewards do just the opposite. Response-contingent rewards establish a power hierarchy: The adults have the power, and they use it to get children to comply with their expectations in order to get rewards. Subservience does not develop responsible adults. If children are to become responsible adults, they must be treated as much like adults as their behavior warrants and circumstances permit. This is best done as a process that takes place over time. When children arrive for their first day of school, many of them cannot tie their shoes or zip up their jackets. But by the time they walk out of school 12 years later, they’re ready to be gainfully employed, to manage their finances, and to participate in our democracy. All of this is achieved through an educational process that allows power to be progressively and gradually given to children as they demonstrate the capacity to handle additional responsibilities and the privileges that accompany them. For this reason in particular, as well as for the other reasons, it is time to move beyond rewards. There are better ways.

Hall, an education consultant, is the retired director of the school psychology training programs at the University of South Dakota and Minot (ND) State University. He is the author or co-author of six books, including Educating Oppositional and Defiant Children (ASCD) and Parenting a Defiant Child (Amacom).



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