They need Teaching… not Punishment

Is this teaching? Photo from

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 work with 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:

Originally posted on “The Wejr Board” blog. Check out the original post for more examples in the comment section.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with this. If kids are given the option whether to do well or not, they will surely choose the former. We’ve all been students once, and I’m sure we all bask in our teachers’ glowing praises whenever we do something right!

    It reminds me of the time I was trying to wean off my son, Mateo, from nail-biting. I’ve tried nearly everything to dissuade him from doing that, when I realized there was something else I failed to do: praise him. I wrote about it here:

    In retrospect, Mateo and I may have gotten the problem resolved sooner (and with less stress) if I also took time to sit down with him and explain clearly why the nail-biting habit has got to go. I didn’t think it was that important then to warrant a “Mom-looks-serious” talk, but after reading your post, I began to look at things in a bigger, long-term perspective. Nail-biting habits will not be the only challenging thing that Mateo and I will not see eye to eye with, so it’s important for him to know that I will not immediately judge his behavior as “good” or “bad” by virtue of reward and punishment–that I will always hear him out first, and then help him out in the best way I can.

    September 18, 2011
    • Dave said:

      While I think this is a logical approach in theory, I think it is more functional in an elementary setting when you are actually teaching students right from wrong on a basic level and in a case-by-case situation. In the middle to high school range, I think students already know right from wrong, and at some point, they also learn to manipulate the conversation. I have seen several students have these conversations and absolutely manipulate stakeholders into thinking a difference/connection has been made and then make the choice to misbehave in the same fashion over and over again.

      Admittedly, I have also seen this approach work with several high school students; therefore, I am not admonishing it. I just think it is merely one approach to be tried and tested in cases, but not the only tool to be used.

      My question, respectfully, is when this conversation fails to bring results, what do you do? What is your approach when the student habitually misbehaves even after several conversations explaining appropriate behavior practices?


      September 19, 2011
      • Chris Wejr said:


        In my opinion and experience, no one tool is going to work for every child. The key for the philosophy put forth by Greene, Kohn , Dweck, etc is that we need to change our mindset. I agree that there is some manipulation that can occur in older students (we see this with our intermediate students); the thing is that there is much MORE manipulation when punishment and rewards are introduced. I taught high school for 7 years and during that time I saw students get suspended over and over for doing the same things. We have to ask ourselves, is the punishment actually working or is it further contributing to the behaviours?

        I taught some alternate classes and had a number of students with severe behaviour challenges is in my class. If I tried the top-down approach whereby I used power to do stuff TO students, I lost them. If I used the approach to work WITH students, I had much more success. Obviously any kind of teaching without a relationship will not work. Students need an adult in the school they can have a trusting relationship with; through this relationship, teaching can take place. Within our current system where high school students have 8+ different teachers each year, this becomes a real challenge… but not impossible. There have been some students I have struggled to reach but the majority have responded well to a culture of respect in which they are included in the decisions (Collaborative Problem Solving).

        I, too, have been manipulated but I have found if the students actually feel they have voice in the actions and there is a trusting relationship, there is less manipulation.

        As to your question: the approach described is never just a conversation. It includes action and most often restitution. The students are involved in determining why the behaviour occurred as well as a plan that can happen over time to ensure that restitution takes place. I had a student that vandalized, swore, fought, and stole while at the school (in his first year at the school in grade 5). I was told by people that “he should not be at the school… he doesn’t deserve to be here… suspend him… expel him. Our supporting teachers and I kept going with a teaching approach and this year (grade 8 for him at the high school), he requires no support for his behaviours and is doing well in all his classes. Had I suspended and expelled the child, there is no way that he would be where he is today. We often give up too early (believe me, I had many moments where expulsion crossed my mind) and say that things are not working. Depending on factors outside the school, teaching can take a few years.

        As with any child that habitually struggles with skills, there must be support and as leaders, we need to fight for funding so these students can get the support they need.

        September 19, 2011
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Thanks for adding a personal story to this dialogue. The one thing to be careful with praise is that we praise effort (see Carol Dweck’s “Mindset”) rather than ability (this goes a but beyond your example but your story got me thinking). Praise can be perceived as a reward by the child and this can be noticed if they tend to do good things when you are watching but not when you are looking the other way. The key for me is that the child needs to understand the importance of the task itself – this can be challenging and more time-consuming with younger students but much more powerful than punishment and rewards. Thanks for the comment!

      September 19, 2011
  2. josh said:

    Although a good theory, teachers are not supposed to teach children what behaviors are right or wrong. It is the parents responsibility to convey this to their children; and if the parents fail to do this the children suffer. You should instead look for a way to help the parents. They need to learn which behaviors are acceptable in a broader social setting, otherwise the teaching at home and school will be inconsistent, and will ultimately fail. This cycle of bad parenting and mediocre teachers leads to more of the same…

    September 19, 2011
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Josh, I disagree that “teachers are not supposed to teach children right or wrong”. This is a huge part of what we do every day. We often don’t teach by what we say but more of what we do (modeling). I agree that parents should play the number one role in this but if they do not, we cannot just right off the child and focus on the parents. I have seen many many students both as a teacher and as an administrator eventually do very well in spite of a bad school experience and/or bad family experiences. We spend 6+ hours a day with our students so that is a lot of time to make a difference above and beyond the curriculum.

      I wholeheartedly agree that we need to work WITH parents and the Collaborative Problem Solving approach is designed for this. Too often, decisions (often punitive) are made without parent and student input. We must work toward a partnership because as you said, there must be consistency in the approach. Parent communication is huge when it comes to dealing with students with behaviour concerns; this communication CANNOT be just letting the parent know there has been an incident. It must be ongoing dialogue around behaviours, lagging skills, support in addition to BOTH positive and negative incidents at school.

      This take so much more time and, as I wrote above, often causes me to question whether it is worth it… but in the end, for the majority of our students, we see much more success.

      So, modeling respectful behaviour that works WITH parents as well as students around both reasons for behaviours as well as actions that will result will help the student to see more success. If we just tell the parents what to do, much like when we do this with kids, they will be come disengaged and the partnership is lost.

      September 19, 2011
      • Mary Miller said:

        Chris, I agree that teachers play a vital role in being positive role models. It is every staff’s moral responsibility to teach students right from wrong through guiding and modeling. Students look for that and need that especially if they don’t get that at home. We are with the students more than their parents are in a day and the affect that teachers, educational assistants, cyw’s and vps and principals are extremely significant. There are many parents out there who do amazing work with their children and there are other parents who are simply absent due to various reasons. We have to remind ourselves that students come to learn and our role is to ensure that we teach all aspects of life and not just strictly academics.

        November 15, 2011

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