Why Threats and Punishments Don’t Work

My second grade teacher took the authoritarian approach to classroom management. She had lots of rules and lots of penalties when the rules weren’t followed.

For a long time I lived in fear of getting in trouble. The threat of having to stay in at recess and write sentences was enough to make me stop doing whatever fun thing I was doing, such as making fingernails out of Elmer’s glue.

But then one day it happened. I got the penalty. I had to stay in at recess and write sentences. And guess what? I realized it wasn’t the end of the world. Sure, I would rather go to recess, but staying in wouldn’t kill me. In fact, I actually like writing, so it really wasn’t that bad.

What Happens If I Don’t?

After that I started weighing the consequences of my decisions. I started asking (either out loud or to myself) “What happens if I don’t?”

If I was late to class I would have to write the sentences. But my friend had a new toy that I wanted to play with before school. Which was worse, not getting to play with the toy, or having to write sentences? Hmmmm.

Bigger and Bigger Threats

My teacher noticed her consequences weren’t working as well anymore, so she upped the ante. Now I would have to miss TWO recesses. Then THREE. When that wore off, she threatened to call my parents, which worked for awhile. Then she tried to force me to do something I thought was totally stupid and wrong. She told me I had to do my assignment over again, because I colored the sky gray instead of blue. And any fool knows that the sky isn’t blue in November in Portland. It’s gray.

At that point, I decided I wasn’t going to comply, and I didn’t care what she did to me. I decided I would rather die than lie about the color of the sky, and I felt I was justified in taking my stand. She had just lost control of me, because I discovered that I always have a choice. If I want to do something, I will do it and if I don’t, I won’t.

This is why, as teachers, we look weak when we resort to threats. Sure, there may be a surge of power for a minute or two if the threat initially works, but if that’s our only strategy, it will eventually fail.

So What Do You Do Instead?

7 Things You Can Do Instead of Threatening a ConsequenceTell the truth. Acknowledge that students have a choice, and help them make good decisions. Let them know the reasons behind what you are asking them to do. Build a positive relationship with your students so they will trust you and do what you ask. Help them feel great when they make a good decision. Make sure any consequences are logical, reasonable, and teach a lesson instead of merely causing pain and suffering. Listen to them. Maybe they had a good reason for making their choice. Or maybe they didn’t. Either way, help them clarify their thinking so they can make a better choice the next time.

What have you noticed about threats in the classroom? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to share either by email, or in our Awesome Teacher Nation Facebook group.

Now go create a great day for yourself and your students!

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