A very different approach

Here’s a new spin on the notion of “consequences,” a term familiar to every educator. But rather than looking at the negative outcome of behavioral choices your students make, let’s examine a more positive alternative, a shift in focus that is far more effective in generating the kinds of behaviors you want—and in a climate you and your students can enjoy. (Click here for a version of this post written for parents.)

Over the years, one of the biggest challenges I have faced in my work involves convincing educators of the importance of switching our emphasis from negative consequences to positive outcomes. The resistance and suspicion I’ve encountered probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Generally speaking, in terms of our students’ behavior, the word consequence itself seems to automatically signal something negative or punitive. So much so, that thinking of the word in a positive context somehow just doesn’t feel natural.

Nearly all discipline models emphasize negative outcomes for negative behavior, a nearly universal, long-standing, and familiar response to teachers’ concerns about “what do I do when my students misbehave?” These models have conditioned us to think of a student’s negative behavior as something that demands a negative adult response, rooted in the notion that some form of deprivation, discomfort, embarrassment, or even physical pain is the best (or only) way to get kids to change their behavior. Fortunately, we know this simply isn’t true.

Imagine achieving the same outcomes— inspiring desirable, cooperative, respectful, and responsible behaviors from your students— without depending on threats, fear, anger, frustration, disappointment, or conditional approval. Because there is another way, an approach that is not only more effective, but also less likely to escalate negative behavior or cause resentment, and is therefore less stressful to all concerned. The approach is actually quite simple. It involves shifting our emphasis from the negative outcomes of your students doing something you don’t want (or not doing something you’ve asked them to do) to the positive outcomes of positive behaviors, language, tone, and attitude.

The emphasis on the negative outcome (“If you don’t return your library book, you can’t take another one out.”) is so pervasive and well-ingrained that it’s easy to forget that we almost always have a positive consequence available as well (“As soon as you bring back your library book, you can take another one home.”) Yet there are some clear benefits to stressing positive outcomes— what the kids get or get to do when they do what you ask.

One of the nice things about thinking in terms of positive outcomes you can offer is that it allows you to require certain behaviors or a certain amount of work from your kids in order for them to earn, or continue to enjoy, these benefits. In a culture in which far too many kids are growing up with an unnerving sense of entitlement and without limits or accountability, this is not a bad thing. And it’s easier to get kids to respect limits and buy into a sense of accountability when offered outcomes they perceive as positive and meaningful.

This is where the whole bribery argument comes up, so let me assure you that there is no such thing as unmotivated behavior. Every decision your students make is influenced by an anticipated outcome, and the same is true for adults, including you and me. We either choose the option that offers us the most valuable or meaningful benefit at that moment (money, privileges, toys or some desirable tangible outcome, a sense of accomplishment, comfort, acceptance, or even a feeling of self-righteousness, for example) or we choose the option that protects us from some form of loss (dignity, belonging, status, privilege or possession, freedom, or emotional or physical safety, for example).

So it really comes down to whether we’re going to use positive bribes— including work-related options and earned privileges— in place of the negative ones on which we currently depend. We connect desired behavior to consequences one way or the other, so why not focus on the good stuff? Threatening to not allow the kids out for recess is just as much a “bribe” as giving them a break as soon as their desks are clear. Either way, choice connects to outcome. Our orientation to the choices we offer, positive or negative, has a huge impact on the quality of the climate in the classroom, and gives you a great deal of leverage and authority without compromising your students’ need for autonomy and dignity, and without creating a great deal of stress for anyone.

If you’re still not sold, consider this: Simply stating a contingency as a promise (as opposed to a threat), transfers the responsibility for your students getting what they want where it belongs— on them. Besides, a reward-orientated environment that emphasizes the payoff for cooperation (rather than punishment for non-compliance) is not only a cornerstone of win-win classroom, but it’s also a lot easier to manage and generally a whole lot more fun. Even if you have always depended on your kids’ fear of punishment or disapproval, it’s not likely to very take long for even the most cynical, well-defended students to start seeing your classroom as a place where “good things happen when…” And therein lies the incentive to come to class on time, put things back when they’re done with them, or stay quiet while you’re reading the story.

Once you get comfortable with the idea of positive consequences, it’s time to start thinking of what you can offer. Start with stuff you know your students enjoy. This is where things like interest inventories, observations, and even casual conversations will come in handy. Positive outcomes could be as simple as saving a few minutes at the end of each class, or day, for an enrichment activity, story or short video, or time to start on a homework assignment (with teacher nearby to answer questions or offer help as needed). They might also include opportunities to work as a peer helper with other students, design projects based on certain criteria, or use certain equipment or accommodations to satisfy personal learning style preferences— as long as the privilege is earned and practiced within clearly-defined limits.

Also consider some of the things you may never have thought of as privileges before, things like being able to go on to the next level or chapter, getting to help out in another classroom, being able to design their own assignments (within stated parameters), or even being able to continue having a discussion with you (as long as they aren’t yelling). And keep in mind that simply being able to make certain decisions about things like content, sequence, presentation, or where they want to work, for example, offers a host of positive consequences, and in many cases will be all you need to engage some, if not most or all of your students.

Even in cases when students fail to earn a privilege— or lose a privilege because they aren’t working within previously prescribed limits— a punitive or shaming response is not necessary. It’s perfectly reasonable to withdraw or withhold a desired outcome until the kids’ behavior changes. This is where you’ll find yourself repeating “magic” sentences like, “We’ll try again tomorrow (or next week)” so you can avoid attacking, blaming, or labeling the misbehavior or lapse. The lack of access to the positive teaches more than anything you could possibly say— as will earning back privileges according to their behavior. Because in a win-win classroom, students will presumably have lots of opportunities to refine the behaviors and strategies necessary for gaining access to these positive outcomes until they eventually get it right.

The material in this section was inspired by (and in part, adapted from) chapter 12, “Create a Win-Win Classroom,” from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher, by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 2010, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA. You can find more information on creating positive, win-win relationships with your students in The Win-Win Classroom as well as Creating Emotionally Safe Schools.

Related links:

The Challenge of Setting Boundaries
The Discipline Trap
Guidelines for Offering Choices to Students
Guidelines for Reinforcing Positive Student Behavior 
Handling Negative Student Behavior
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Parents as Allies
Questions, Not Answers
Teacher Self-Assessment
Ways to be an Effective Mentor
Ways to build Irresponsibility in Children
Dealing Successfully with your Students’ Parents
Getting Away with Success
A Report Card for My Teacher
Teacher Self-Assessment

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