Are Group Punishments OK? How About Group Consequences?

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I am the parent of a fifth grade student. His teacher and I are having a disagreement and I was wondering what you thought on the matter. One method that she uses to control her class is to punish the entire class if one or two kids act out. For instance, two kids apparently were arguing with her and giving her a hard time, so she made everyone put their heads down and then kept everyone in from recess. I told her that my son should not have to suffer because other kids are messing around. What do you think? -Yvette, Cincinnati, Ohio

Thanks for your question, Yvette. Bad news. You are both wrong.
Well, I suppose I could be more diplomatic and say that you are both right and you are both wrong. But mostly, you are both wrong. I chose your question, though, because it illustrates a couple of important points that I think teachers and parents often have some misunderstandings over.

First off, you are right that your son’s teacher is doing something she shouldn’t be doing– you’re just wrong about what that is. It’s not just that group punishments are a bad idea, it’s that all punishments are a bad idea. Punishment is when an adult decides to intentionally make a kid’s life worse in retaliation for the child exhibiting a negative behavior. In other words, a kid acts like a jerk and the adult returns the favor. For example, a child talks in class so the teacher takes away the child’s recess. There is no logical connection between a child talking and the child having to stay in for recess. I never punish kids. When we punish, we give the kids the chance to be angry at us instead of being angry at themselves for making the mistake of exhibiting a negative behavior.

What we do instead of punishment is to calmly put logical consequences in place. A logical consequence is something that makes sense and fits the crime. For example, if a child makes a mess in the school bathroom, they can spend an hour after school cleaning the bathroom so that the custodial staff doesn’t have to.

As for the idea that your son shouldn’t suffer for what someone else has done, where is that written? As educators and as parents, our job is to prepare our children for the way life is, not to create an unrealistic “fake” world where bad things only befall individuals and never groups. Think about it: schools are the only place on this planet where people often feel that there should be consequences only for individuals. If one family member loses their job, does it affect the rest of the family? If a member of a basketball team doesn’t play any defense, does it affect the team? If a member of a sales team doesn’t work hard, does it affect the company?

Why then would we say that one student’s acting out shouldn’t affect his classmates? Group consequences are an integral part of my classroom. In my class, I create real-life situations where everyone’s actions affect everyone else, just like in real life. Mind you, I do not punish everyone because one or two kids are acting out. What I will do is stop teaching because a few kids are talking.“I teach when it is quiet,” I will often say. Then I wait. Peer pressure and my enforceable statement get things quiet pretty quick. It would be impossible to single out culprits and punish them as a matter of everyday discipline.

On the rare occasion where it feels like more than a few kids are out of control in my classroom, I will “shut it down,” as I call it. This is when everyone in the room puts their heads down. I then take a few minutes to get some of my own work done, modeling taking care of myself and showing that whatever happens during the course of the day, I will have a good day. Whether by having fun teaching, or by getting some work done, I will have a good day. In this way, I am showing these students that their negative behavior is their problem, not mine.

This is when you may be disturbed by the fact that your well behaved child is not getting the education that he deserves while the heads are down. If it makes you feel any better, when kids are out of control in a classroom, your son isn’t learning anyway. “Shutting it down,” when done with calm empathy, is an invaluable teaching tool. When done correctly in concert with other skills, it almost never has to be used.

Group consequences can also be used every day in much less intrusive ways. For example, I split my classroom up into five teams. In order to make any transition (line up for lunch, come to the carpet, get their math books, etc.) everyone on a team must be silent with everything off their desks, or in the case of preparing to go home, everything must be stacked on their desks. Yes, it often happens that the kids who don’t cause problems have to wait for kids who are screwing around. But this gives all of the kids an opportunity to learn how to deal with difficult people. Well-mannered kids have to learn how to influence more difficult kids. This is a life skill that they will use for the rest of their lives.

On the flip side of the same token, difficult kids see that their negative choices affect others and see how people react to their bad choices (not well). We don’t want anyone, the difficult child or the well- behaved kid, to be tricked into thinking that choices people make happen in a vacuum. I care too much for these kids to let them get tricked into thinking the world is one way while it really is another!

So make sure that your son’s teacher is really punishing and not just using logical group consequences. It sounds like she is punishing, but a lot can get lost when translated by a fifth grader. Talk to her about it. Ask her to check out this blog. Maybe it could be a starting point for a good conversation. Please let me know how it goes.
-The Kid Whisperer