Punishment or Restorative Practices: The Only Two Choices in School Climate?
For more than a year, I have been struck by the ongoing school discipline “wars.” Sometimes the fight seems as much a war of semantics as of approaches and beliefs. Perhaps it is not a new fight, but for the first time in my two-plus decades in education, I feel we could be on the brink of a discipline revolution that stands to benefit all students, especially those marginalized by misguided school policies and disempowered belief systems. I am hopeful, in large part, because several areas of theory and practice have come together to challenge traditional common practices in school discipline such as suspension and isolation. Now, restoration and relationships have quickly become the common wisdom for effective teachers and school leaders. In this ongoing change and its impact on student lives, however, I see a disturbing pitfall: the idea that schools must choose an extreme.
As humans, we are prone to extremes and in the quest to find what works in school discipline, the tendency is the same. Many still believe that we must either a) punish children with consequences OR b) restore them through communication. When a teacher or administrator believes that these extremes are the only two choices, ineffective school climates are built and students are quick to pick up on the deficits of both.
When I examine “punishment with consequences” as an approach, two things jump out at me. First, punishment by nature isn’t focused on the needs of the student but rather on the needs of those who feel disrespected, usually the adult. Already this is an ineffective way to teach a child. Second, consequences don’t need to be framed as punishment. Many educators have written about the role of boundaries and known, consistent consequences as part of teaching self-regulation and empowerment of choices for children. As my colleague Karen wrote in Principal Leadership, consequences can help students “understand they are responsible, capable individuals who are accountable for their actions and decisions. This often teaches them to consider fairness and understand societal rules and norms as they mature. This skill can increase the likelihood of making wise, ethical choices today and as they transition into adulthood.”
Because consequences communicate love, healthy boundaries, and safe behavioral norms, the application of consequences is extremely valuable. ASCD recently published two articles on this topic: one speaks to the negative aspects of behavior charts and the other recommends ways to apply consequences effectively. Both make good points that can help educators, but I would like to further address the beliefs that lead people to mishandle systems of consequences like behavior charts. Mishandling of any system of consequences often comes from a disempowering mindset or a belief that students cannot meet expectations or should be punished. These beliefs fail to translate to students that consequences are a gift that helps them stop behavior that hurts their ability to learn. Some systems are also more culturally responsive and effective than others. For example, a simple list of student names on a clipboard where the teacher can keep track of the consequences given allows the students to know the consequence was recorded but doesn’t publicly post it. Consequences should always be consistent, and communicated to students as a list of steps before the need arises. Therefore, if and when the need arises for a consequence, students already know what to expect and will know that the teacher is consistent from student to student. This type of system generates trust and emotional security for all students, but especially for students who struggle with internalizing consequences.
On the other side of the spectrum from systems focused on unfair punishments are restorative practices aimed at empowering students. Much has been said about restorative practices and most of it is accurate and effective, but I have also seen a common misunderstanding. Some educators have come to believe that restorative practices eliminate consequences in favor of communication and relationships. This belief is not only an extreme but it betrays the research on the power of restorative practices.
Restorative practices rarely work effectively when students lack clarity around the purpose of expectations and appropriate ways of behaving. In order to restore students, adults must first set up those expectations. In order to properly set up expectations, adults must also be clear about the consequences for every student when expectations are not met.
This is a logical flow of cause and effect that gives behavioral norms their meaning. For example, let’s say I am a student who continues to make fun of another student for their hairstyle using harsh language when I clearly know the expectation is to use kind words at all times. An adult then holds me accountable by applying consequences, such as completing a reflection sheet and explaining to a parent the choice I made. The learning for me is clear and life-altering: what I do matters. My actions have consequences for myself as well as other people. This learning serves as a foundation when the adult communicates with me and perhaps the other student to restore the relationship. That conversation can expand upon the meaning and impact of the negative behavior, rather than having to establish the learning and extend it all at once. Unfortunately, our tendency toward extremes is quickly pitting consequences against restoration when they actually must work hand in hand.
Putting myself back into the shoes of a teacher, it can be difficult to navigate understanding how consequences can avoid the negatives of punishment and still include practices that are restorative. It is critical to remember that misinformation does exist and extremes are rarely effective. Therefore, the action step here is clear. Build a relationship with your students that is fully transparent on the reasoning for known, predictable consequences. Open the doors to restorative conversations without shaming students, but also don’t completely remove from the students the gift of knowing that boundaries exist and consequences are necessary for learning the impact of our choices. The most important impact is always on learning. Consequences must be a tool to ensure students learn more and are empowered to keep learning.
By Wanda Perez, M.Ed.
Managing Associate at CT3
Implementing accountability systems that include consequences, incentives, and restorative practices is a part of the No-Nonsense Nurturer Four-Step Model. To learn more, click here.
To read more about Wanda’s background as an educator and passion for adult learning, click here.
Wanda contributed to the Association of California School Administrators’ Leadership magazine’s Health and Wellness issue in January 2018. Click here to read her article sharing thoughtful and well-researched best practices for educators working with students affected by trauma.
Click here to read Wanda’s post on our blog with three tips for teachers to build strong relationships with their students’ families, and here to read her post on how teachers can best support emerging bilingual students.