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Responsive Classroom Strategies

Logical Consequences
Teach Important Lessons

Todd, reaching across the table, instead of waiting to have a brush passed to him, accidentally spills a cup of water onto the table and a classmate's lap.

Melissa excitedly calls out the answers in her math group, not giving others time to answer and not raising her hand as expected.

Jumping the bottom three steps, Sean bumps into the person in front of him, knocking him into the wall.

As a classmate shares important news, Christina glances at a peer and rolls her eyes.

Asked to pick up a fallen book, a 4th grader defiantly walks away, muttering to the substitute teacher, "I don't have to listen to you. You're not my real teacher."

On the way to the bathroom, a first grader stops to get a drink of water. Checking out the empty hallway, the child expertly plugs up the faucet and watches the water cascade unto the floor.

Suggested Readings

Charney, Ruth. Teaching Children to Care Brady, Fortin, Porter & Wood. Rules in School

Even when children help construct the rules. Even when they know what it means to use their indoor voices, their walking feet, their helpful words--they will forget. Or, they will choose not to follow the rules. Teachers must be prepared to respond when, inevitably, children break the rules, forgetting (or choosing to forget) to care for themselves, one another, and their materials.

An effective approach to discipline must be reactive.

Teachers using a Responsive Classroom approach draw consistently on both proactive and reactive strategies. As noted in prior pieces, we believe that the core of classroom management is proactive; it is here that we lay the groundwork for an orderly and safe community, establish positive relationships, and offer multiple opportunities for teachers and students to model and practice expectations. The more that children feel as though they belong and are valued by their classroom community, the more likely they will be to value the expectations in return. And the more likely it will be that when they do not value the expectations, they will be able to learn from their mistakes and develop accountability.

How we work to help children repair mistakes and make better choices is a critical part of our social curriculum. It is not a waste of time; it is a life skill. "In our classroom, calling names is not an choice. What's another way to let someone know you're angry?"

This is the first of two articles on logical consequences. In this article, I focus on underlying concepts and offer some of the criteria that differentiate between a punitive and a logical intervention. The next article will look in more detail at implementation.


Children break rules for many of the same reasons adults ignore a stop sign. They are preoccupied, in a hurry, impulsive, distracted, or looking around; seeing neither hindrance nor authorities, they put pedal to the metal!

Children also test the limits, look for instant gratification and undue attention. More seriously, they act out academic and social frustrations. Not understanding the math, for example, a student throws a pencil, crumples paper, and announces, "It's boring!" Children are apt to have more limited coping mechanisms and thus make poor choices more frequently.

Needing a lot of activity and feeling restless after a morning of much sitting, Erica can't resist drumming on her desk, tapping her feet and, eventually, hopping in and out of her seat. Distracted from her own writing task, she distracts others around her. She needs help finding an appropriate outlet and a way to shift back into her work. Her peers also need to be able to get on with their work. A logical consequence might help her with appropriate choices; ways to channel her energy without disturbing others.

Eager to show off some prowess, Hector loops an apple over three desks and into the trash -- except it splatters. Besides, it was Lucy's apple. Hector too needs to respect classroom limits. He will need to clean up a mess and replace an apple. He also might need to learn better ways to get attention and feel strong.

Angry that she was left out of the group at recess, Chandra invites Karina to go to the bathroom with her, so she can tell her "something good." Gossip, secret telling, and note passing can be a form of aggression. They often are ways that girls in particular act out hostilities. Can we help girls learn other ways to assert themselves? Again, we need to help children make the link between their words or actions and the impact those words or actions can have. Are there consequences for "bad bathroom talk" (as one student called it)? How can we help students repair those hurts?

Regardless of the source or the specifics, classroom rules need to be upheld and limits reinstated. When we intervene with logical consequences, we seek to make clear to children the connection between their behavior and consequences. We learn, John Dewey wrote, not from experience alone, but from comprehending it. When we intervene to stop unwanted behavior, we also listen, guide, coach and, if necessary, teach an alternative way. "Let me show you another way to let teachers know you are confused and need their help," the teacher says. "Watch me."


Neither punishment nor permission, "logical consequence" helps children learn alternative ways to behave. Logical consequences

  • reinstate the limits. A colleague uses the wonderful example of highway bumpers. Just as you start to swerve off the side of the road, you get jostled and rumbled, reminding you quickly to turn back the wheel. Note that the bumpers give you a significant enough jostle that you wake up, but not so violent a shake that you might lose control. You still are well in control and can reset your course. Logical consequences also need to jostle, but not so harshly that a child becomes discouraged or defiant. Children also need to be able to reset their course.
  • engage children in critical thinking and problem solving with adults. "What might you do differently next time?" "What else could you do when you're angry, frustrated or confused?" "How do you think others felt when you""Let's make a plan for when you go to music and you don't have the same seat." They help children develop and extend their verbal and behavioral skills.
  • help preserve the integrity of the group and an orderly environment. When a student who has just ridiculed another with a face or rude comment is sent away from the group quickly, quietly, and efficiently, a clear message is presented. "You need to take a break," the teacher says. Perhaps adding, "Come back when you are ready to follow the rules." When children have permission to call out, hold side conversations, stroll noisily about during a quiet work period, or when those misbehaviors consume the full attention of the teacher, the needs of the group might be compromised. Logical consequences help us meet and balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group.
  • are respectful, reasonable, and realistic. They are not punitive. My goal is to encourage the ethical capacities of children. I generally do not find that punishment helps achieve that goal. Whether something is perceived as punitive or logical might very well rest on "the how" of the intervention. The same action might convey respect or disrespect.
    It is important to note that non-verbal gestures, as well as the words we use, carry great weight. A teacher can require a "time out" with a voice that is quiet and firm, or public and scornful. Tone and attitude can make the difference between compliance or defiance, self-regulation or denial.
    It also is important to respond to actions and choices, and not to character. "Talking out of turn, makes it hard for others to think," rather than, "You are so inconsiderate."
    Logical consequences are reasonable and realistic when they relate to the situation and are neither too harsh nor too lenient. Someone who was dueling with scissors might lose the use of them for the remainder of that period or the next day, until they demonstrate proper handling, but a week's restriction, perhaps making it impossible to complete a project, would likely generate resentment. A reminder or lecture, on the other hand, might easily make a joke out of the safety concerns and invite repetitions.
    A chance to mop up the spill, repair the hurt feelings, make up the missed assignment, offer a service, gives children a way to help solve -- not just create -- problems. It allows them to have a constructive role in the process. It helps them become more reasonable and respectful.

Logical Consequences can fill in for natural consequences.
It was not unusual for my middle school students to forget something they needed for their day in school -- a lunch, a homework assignment, a book, a bus ticket (their heads if they weren't attached, goes the joke). I began to notice that parents got the job of gofer, turning up with the necessary object, which wasn't helping the students get any better at remembering and taking responsibility.

Natural consequences would dictate that those without lunch would go hungry; those without their books or work would fail. Or something like that. In other words, natural consequences offer highly relevant and dramatic lessons.

Except, in school (and life), we can't always risk the outcome. The student who runs after the basketball full tilt into street traffic might have to miss a recess period rather than "learn" by getting hit by a car. A hungry student is ill prepared to concentrate. Students, who consistently come unprepared, often are confused and soon withdraw or act out.

Still, we need to make the connections between behavior and outcomes if our children are going to be accountable. Logical consequences help frame interventions that keep students safe and also help them learn. For example, in our class, when lunch was forgotten, students could ask their peers to share from their own lunchboxes or take crackers and cheese from a communal cupboard. They didn't go hungry; they also didn't have a choice menu. Work that was forgotten on the kitchen table might be redone that morning or during a break time, so the student didn't come to class completely unprepared. Again, when the natural consequence might pose a risk, offer logical consequences instead.

In conclusion, logical consequences help teachers intervene when in the normal course of school life, children break rules. It is a strategy that reinforces the limits of the classroom, the accountability of each individual, and the wonderful faith that we all can learn to take better care of ourselves, one another, and our environment.


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