They Need Teaching… Not Punishment

Last year, during the reading of Dr. Ross Greene’s book “Lost at School” (another must read for any parent or educator), the following question helped me to further drive my views on student discipline:

Why is it that when a student that struggles with reading or math… we support… yet when a student struggles with behaviour… we punish?

As some of you are probably aware I try to avoid using punishment and rewards to try to get students to behave in a certain way.  When we change our mindset from a role of someone who gives out punishment to someone who teaches and supports, students end up learning the skills needed to be successful in a social setting.  As Greene states, when we change our lens from “kids do well if they want to… to kids do well if they can“, we see much greater growth in our children.

If a child acts out in class or on the playground, the principal can punish by taking things away from the child, reward by offering bribes/prizes/privileges for changed behaviour OR he/she can sit with the child and try to determine the reasons for the acting out.  Once the student and the adult have come up with reasons together, then can then work together to come up with strategies to teach lagging skills.  Punishment and rewards might work for that moment but the use of them fails to teach the child the appropriate skills needed to learn, change, and grow for the long term. Punishment and rewards will not teach a child to do something they simply cannot yet do.

I am privileged to have a staff who sees those students who struggle with behaviours not as bad kids but as students who are lagging in skills needed to do well.  As a school, our strategies focus on working to develop these skills so that not only these students can become more successful but also those around them.

I highly recommend Dr. Ross Greene’s method of Collaborative Problem Solving and Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems.

Also, please take a moment to watch this short video:

Thank you to Joe Bower and Kellie Marquet for the reminder to discuss this topic.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. Being a parent of three boys who are now 23, 22, and 19, I’ve learned through the school of hard knocks and figuring it out what did and didn’t work when raising my kids. My wife and I started out with a traditional approach (what we knew from being parented) which included spanking and other punishment tools. I gotta say, by the time we got to our 3rd son, we didn’t use many of those techniques – they didn’t work. The more I’ve learned about how to motivate people the more I see the support approach working better. There still may be a place for punishment in more extreme circumstances but overall support is a much better way!

    • I think the key here Brian is realizing when things are not working. We all make errors in judgment and that is natural… but realizing an error has been made is the key to growth. Every decision we make teaches our kids something so modeling reasonable decision-making is something that I strive for… having said that, sometimes I get caught up in the moment and resort to acts of punishment. There are also times when a child needs to be removed from the classroom or the playground for safety concerns. The important thing is the conversation that takes place immediately following the incident. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Nice post, Chris
    Quick story about understanding that skills (or lack of) drive behaviour.

    In one of our recent assemblies, a grade 11 boy was acting inappropriately and disrupting the guest speaker.
    Our vice principal, Thomas Harapnuick, pulled him aside and spoke with him.

    At this point, the forms of discipline and subsequent consequences handed out could have varied but they would surely have been punitive in nature.
    Instead, Thomas pulled him into his office and briefly explained the importance of participating properly at a formal gathering, the importance of a speaker’s message.

    This boy’s consequence: he will be reading a poem at our school Remembrance Day Assembly and in doing so, appreciate the perspective of the presenter and the power of a group assembly.

    Discipline used, like everything else around us, as a learning tool – an opportunity to discover (not pay back).

    • Thanks for a fine example of restitution, Gino. Attempting to create empathy with our students is so powerful.

  3. After reading your post, after reading Alfie Kohn’s “Beyond Discipline”, and after dealing with my own two (small) children, I have realized a few things. It is easy to get sucked in to the short-term, traditional solution of arguing, yelling, and general club-thumping. But the time spent looking for the rationale as to why an individual (child, student, colleague, etc) is acting in a certain way is far more rewarding as you actually learn a bit about the person and learn a bit about yourself. A relationship is made, and once you have a relationship with a person, it is far more difficult to blow that relationship with poor behavior. I admire one of the Assistant Principals at our school a great deal for his desire to understand students and their personal situations rather than jump to punishment.

    I have lost many father-of-the-year awards through lost arguments with my three year old, and the funny thing is, neither of us have learned anything from those negative interactions. I think the same thing applies to people whether they are three, thirteen or thirty–seek to understand first, and then work to fill in the gaps.

    Nice post.

    • It is so easy to get sucked in… happens to me every day. I have often heard from adults “don’t let the child win”. I am not sure when teaching a child behaviour skills became a game of points but ‘winning’ in this case is all about perspective. You may win the argument just because you have power over the child but that does not mean the child learned the skills needed.

      Thanks for commenting buddy.

  4. Our school uses “Real Restitution” and have found it to be a framework which expects students to be learners, and it doesn’t focus on consequences and punishments. It’s also relatively easy to find information about, and (aside from having to change your school culture) relatively easy to implement.

    • Thanks David… I would like to learn a bit more about this. Do you have contact info that can be shared?

        • Will definitely check it out… would like to learn more from you around this. I was just getting into this (thanks to you) when we worked together but would love to learn more.

  5. Thanks for posting this Chris.

    I had been trying to figure out the behaviours of a few of my students (and I am at a new school this year). I was holding onto that dated philosophy that Dr Greene talks about.
    With a new philosophy, I can see how to better support those in my class 🙂

    • I applaud you for taking the time to both reflect and add to this discussion. Let me know how it goes!

  6. Great post Chris,
    From the comments it is encouraging to see that the philosophy “kids do well if they can” can and is being applied effectively to our work with older adolescents. The ideal culture is one that is based on respectful relationships rather than on fear and control. Helping students find a place in that culture is why I became a teacher in the first place.

    • Terry, it is my hope that we are continuing to move in this direction. Once we have changed our lenses to more of a teaching lens, and see the impact of this… there should be no need to go back. Thanks for chiming in!

  7. Thank you for the book recommendation, Chris… this seems like a great fit with what I already try to accomplish when meeting with students to solve problems. Sounds like it would be very beneficial for my counselors and teachers to read as well.

    • The book is fantastic… they key is that it does not just tell us what we are doing wrong but instead tells us to use a different lens and then describes a process that can be adapted for any child.

  8. Thank you for the post and I particularly enjoyed the video. As I read the comments, Cale Birk’s response rings particularly true to me as it underlies what I have come to believe whether you are dealing with children or adults. It particularly rings true as I remember my younger daughter’s struggles with dyslexia. Because we knew the root of her reading difficulties, our family and the school were able to develop strategies to help her eventually overcome her challenge to read. Assuming that she did not want to learn to read would have been criminal. Even though I strongly agree that the premise is largely true when dealing with adults, I find the challenges associated with adult motivation dramatically more complex.

    • I think the longer we rely on rewards and punishment, the more difficult it gets. When older children and adults have been taught over and over again that the way to deal with things is through rewards/punishment… the problem just gets that much bigger. Thanks again for adding a personal experience to this topic.

  9. I’m trying to imagine the scenario… off-task, bugging others, interruptions, swearing, skipping, homophobia, shoving, vandalism, physical assault, drugs, etc. Some of these scenarios have legal and societal expectations for consequences, some do not. If we narrow in on the behaviours for which the response is more a function of our effort and time, I think your premise is quite sound and non-coercive. Punishment and rewards work great for dealing with symptoms, and sometimes a teacher or admin wants a student’s immediate behaviour (a symptom of some larger need) to simply go away. Occasionally this is gives the student time to give their behaviour some thought, but more frequently it just gives the teacher time to move on with their lesson and the other 27 kids in the class (which has some value). I think that is why dealing with symptoms is so popular, because it’s quick and we have so little time to do what is right, which is to deal with the underlying need. One of my mentors Norm Booth used to say “deal with the need and the problem goes away.” I’ve come to realize that “thin-slicing” the need is very difficult, but is the precise skill teachers need to develop if they want to use the small time we have for each student wisely. Also, we are usually pretty good at assessing students’ learning needs, but the cause of weird behaviour can require some prying and personal disclosure that teachers are understandably hesitant to engage. We don’t all have to be behavioural specialists. Sometimes it is as simple as asking students about what’s going on and what was going through their heads when they created a scene – at least use the time to get closer to the most obvious need, even if it is a proximate cause – sometimes it is as simple as thirst or boredom. What are some other ways we can shortcut to the “need” with students and thus dispense with the punitive steps? Sorry… this is looking more like a blog post!

    • Wow… that is a great blog post you just wrote! haha. “Dealing with the need” is an interesting way of putting it because we all know when a student’s needs are not met (or they do not have the skills to get their needs met in socially acceptable ways), we see the behaviours that cause problems. One of the biggest obstacles to this is time…. with 29 other students and a curriculum to cover (and the bell about to go) we are often forced to use punishment and rewards just to make it through. I love Greene’s collaborative problem solving approach as it involves everyone, including the student, in a process to discover the unmet needs as well as solutions going forward. For some of our students, this takes years. Now I am biased, but I believe that if we can get to the bottom of this in elementary school, by the time they reach high school, we will see less concerns. If we continue to rely on punishment and rewards in elementary school, we will continue to see further problems in high school. Another solution that I think needs to take place is more time with students. For some grade 8 students, they have 8 different teachers… what if we halved this? Grade 7 teachers teach all subjects so maybe grade 8 teachers could teach more subject but have less students overall (ie. teach math and science). Teachers would then have less students to form relationships with and more time with each one…. just some thoughts…

  10. There is a difference between parenting and teaching as far as discipline is concerned. Both involve teaching/instruction in what is appropriate and expected, support while they are learning the appropriate behaviours, and consequences when it becomes a matter of defiance and not childishness. However, the way that process is carried out changes between the two home and school.

    When my children were young, we practiced ‘first time obedience’ by making a game out of it. We set up situations and practiced appropriate behaviour. We made sure they understood what we wanted. However, when they deliberately disobeyed us (by looking at us and then doing what we had just told them not to) there was punishment. The punishment was NEVER carried out in anger. The older they got, the less punishemnt there was because they knew what the expectations were and generally carried them out. At my school we follow a similar pattern. We lay out expectations (this is how students behave) and practice them. There are consequences for violating the expectations. However, it is never a threat of immediate punishment; we always try to determing why the behaviour is happening and then deal with that. Consequences may include punishment, but that is never a given. We try to focus on restitution more than punishment.

    • Thanks Christian – moving toward restitution is key. Too often, we resort to punishment because it is easier and takes very little thought – do this and you get that. The consequences all depend on how they are viewed by those involved – consequences that involve the student around empathy and “making it right” is where we need to go. Punishments such as detentions or suspensions in which I child is alone and we “hope” he/she realizes and learns is something is what we need to move away from as all that does is create fear and “correct behaviour” when the adult is around. As Greene states, consequences as we often use are designed to work for those students who rarely need them. Thanks for chiming in on the importance of restitution!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *