How to Calmly Eliminate Stealing in Your Classroom

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I have a third grade student who is having trouble keeping his hands out of others’ desks. He will take their pencils and put them in his desk. I would like to know how you would suggest to logically consequence this. –Steven, Central Decatur, Iowa


Steven,

Stealing is often one of the first negative behaviors with which kids experiment that is actually illegal. This causes many people to react with the typical “I’m going to ‘nip this in the bud’” reaction, which is to say that they will put the fear of God into their kid so he doesn’t steal again. Yelling, lectures, and warnings are usually not effective because when anger is present, kids are thinking about how to arrange the untimely demise of their teacher and not about their own poor behavior.  Second, lectures involve words but no action. Kids don’t usually listen to words, especially when anger is present, but they do usually pay a lot of attention to the actions that we take.

After delaying the consequence after seeing stealing, this is how I use action with minimal words in the classroom. Notice how I stop a potential argument with nonsense.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. I was really disappointed yesterday. When you steal, it makes me feel unsafe because I’m worried that you might steal my stuff or somebody else’s stuff.

Kid: I didn’t steal anything! I was framed! I want my attorney to be present!

Kid Whisperer:  I know.

Kid: Wait. What?!?

Kid Whisperer: Until I can feel confident that you won’t steal anyone’s stuff, I will remove you from situations when you might be tempted to steal.

Kid: But I didn’t steal anything!

Kid Whisperer: Avoid the rabbits on Tuesdays.

Kid: What in the world are you talking about?

Kid Whisperer: When we line up to leave the room, you will have to come and stand next to me so we can feel safe about our things. As we walk past people’s lockers you will need to continue to be next to me. You can join your friends in line as soon as we are past the lockers and no longer near other people’s possessions. Also, since we can’t currently trust you to be near people’s stuff, instead of excusing yourself from the room to use the restroom, you will have a chance to be escorted by Mrs. Cortez when she comes to get her reading groups: once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Kid: NOT FAIR!!

Kid Whisperer: Florp.

Kid: What is going on?!?!

Kid Whisperer: Perhaps the good news is that I will keep a close eye on you and I will be noticing whether or not you are acting like a kid whom we can trust. When I have noticed for a long time that you have been trustworthy over and over, you can start back doing things like everyone else again.

Kid: How long will that be?

Kid Whisperer: It all depends on how consistently honest you can be. We’ll have to see!

I then follow through with my plan, and whisper to Kid a couple of times per day that I notice him keeping our possessions safe whenever he is keeping or possessions safe. This noticing and affirming of the positive behavior makes it less and less likely that he will steal again. If he does steal again, I simply become very sad and let him know that it will take a good long while to get my trust back.