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Positive Consequences: Put a New Spin on Discipline

EducationWorld is pleased to present this professional development resource shared by Dr. Jane Bluestein, an expert in relationship-building, positive school climate and effective instruction.

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. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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. 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…” 

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.

In cases when students fail to earn a privilege—or lose a privilege because they aren’t working within previously prescribed limits—it’s perfectly reasonable to withdraw or withhold a desired outcome until the 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. Because in a win-win classroom, students will presumably have lots of opportunities to refine their behaviors until they eventually get it right.

This article was inspired by (and in part, adapted from) Becoming a Win-Win Teacher (2010) by Jane Bluestein, Ph.D. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publishing.

Related resources

Also from Dr. Bluestein:
Is Your School Emotionally Safe?
Accommodating Student Sensory Differences
Tips for Positive Teacher-Parent Interaction
The Art of Setting Boundaries
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 1
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 2
Stressful Student Experiences: What Not to Do

About Dr. Bluestein

Dr. Jane Bluestein is a speaker, trainer and specialist in programs and resources related to relationship building, effective instruction and personal development.

She is an award-winning author whose books include Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, High School’s Not Forever, 21st Century Discipline, The Win-Win Classroom and many others. In addition, she has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Dr. Bluestein, formerly a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor and teacher training program coordinator, currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Visit her Web site to access free resources, order books, read her blog and more.

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