Getting Consistent with Consequences - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

September 1, 2018

Getting Consistent with Consequences

Applying consequences for student behavior is hard to get right. Here's how to do it better.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Classroom Management

Few topics cause as much angst in schools as consequences for problematic behavior. Colleagues can view the same challenging behavior and have wildly different ideas about an appropriate consequence. Educators can struggle with the proper use and role of consequences in schools even more than with academic issues. Why is getting consequences right so hard?

I'll explore here several ideas about consequences. One thread runs through them all: Using consequences effectively requires taking a nuanced view of disciplinary situations—and that's hard. Most of us would prefer consequences to be cut-and-dried. If a student does X, then Y should happen. This perhaps explains the appeal of one-size-fits-all approaches like "three strikes and you're out" or zero-tolerance policies. These systems are comforting because they seem to offer quick, easy solutions. We can feel like we've done something and get back to teaching.

When we step back, however, we realize that the reality of teaching students appropriate behaviors is much more complex. Punishing a student for a misbehavior offers us the illusion that we've held that student accountable, but have we really? Or have we only created a façade of accountability without actually helping that student learn and grow?

Common Stumbling Blocks

Let's consider six reasons educators struggle with consequences, and how we might avoid each obstacle and employ consequences more effectively.

1. "Consequences" Means Different Things to Different People

One reason adults in schools often struggle with reaching common ground on consequences is that when we use the term consequences, we're not all talking about the same thing. There are several different types of consequences for problematic behavior, so we should be clear about which type we're discussing or using.

Natural consequences don't require any adult action or intervention; they simply happen. If Maria doesn't wear a coat to recess on a chilly day, she'll be cold. If Markus cheats while playing a game with other students, they might not want to play with him anymore. Natural consequences can be great learning opportunities for students, as long as they're not overly damaging. We wouldn't, for example, let a kindergartener jump off the top of the play structure. A broken leg is too harsh a teacher. Similarly, we wouldn't allow a sophomore to simply not do any work all semester without support or intervention.

Logical consequences differ from natural ones in that they require adults to implement them. If Brad is getting overly silly while working with a friend, his teacher might tell him to find another spot to work. According to Jane Nelsen 1 , effective logical consequences fit four criteria: they must be related to the behavior, respectful of the student, reasonable for the student to carry out, and (whenever possible) revealed in advance so the student knows the potential consequences of their actions ahead of time. These kinds of consequences can be powerful in maintaining calm, safe, and respectful learning environments.

Punishments are the antithesis of logical consequences. They're often harsh and frequently involve shaming students. Kelly is building towers with her base-10 blocks instead of using them to solve math challenges. Her teacher calls in an exasperated tone, "Kelly! Clip down!" Kelly walks to the front of the room with her head drooping and moves her clip from yellow to red. Jamal is fooling around in the cafeteria and spills milk all over the floor. The staff member on duty declares, "Oh, Jamal! You're going to stay after lunch today to mop the whole cafeteria floor!" Punishments do more harm than good. They can breed resentment and diminish students' sense of self, often leading to even more disruptive behavior in the future. They can even model bullying, in which people with more power (teachers) impose their will on others (students) through force.

2. We Try to Get Consistent with Consequences Before We're Consistent in Beliefs

Many factors go into our personal beliefs about effective discipline. The way we were raised, both at home and in school, is a huge one that often lurks below the surface. Our teacher-preparation programs and internships play a large role in how we view discipline in schools, and even the way we approach problem behaviors as parents can impact how we interact with students. With so many factors influencing how we view discipline and so many various (often conflicting) methods floating around, it's easy to see why approaches can differ greatly from one classroom to the next.

There's an underlying instinct in schools to view discipline the way U.S. society views parenting—you do your thing, I'll do mine, and we stay out of each other's business. A colleague commented that she sees schools having more success adopting (and implementing with fidelity) common academic curricula than behavioral ones. Educators seem to be more comfortable being responsible to each other around, say, literacy strategies than around discipline strategies.

This presents a huge problem when we work toward a more consistent implementation of consequences in a school. In several schools in which I've worked, there's a difference in philosophy between classroom teachers and administrators and counselors, which is evident when students are removed from classrooms for disruptive behavior. Teachers sometimes believe that students should be penalized—shamed and punished—when they're sent out. Counselors and administrators often believe students need to be calmed down—reregulated—so they can get back to class and reengage in learning. Teachers see kids come back to class looking calm (and even in a good mood!) and feel like they haven't been supported. ("I send them out of the room, and nothing happens!") Administrators see teachers looking upset when they bring a student back, and feel unappreciated. ("I helped get an out-of-control kid back in control, and the teacher isn't satisfied!")

While these two groups have a different set of beliefs about the goals and purposes of consequences, it's going to be almost impossible to come to any kind of consistent implementation of practices. Additionally, resentment is likely to build between staff members.

3. We Want Consequences to "Work," but Haven't Defined What That Means

Teachers often think, "I'm looking for a consequence that works." But what exactly do we mean by "works"? This gets to one of the most complex issues surrounding consequences. Knowing how to choose the right reaction to misbehavior requires us to understand what consequences can and can't do. Let's look at this issue more closely.

Consequences can stop misbehavior in the moment. If we have a class rule that says that we will be safe, and two students are shoving in line, we split those students up. This creates a tone of safety and order.

Consequences can get students back on track. If Jesse is playing Fortnite on his phone instead of working on his research project, and you say "Jesse, put your phone on my desk. You can get it back at the end of the period," you've just acted as Jesse's prefrontal cortex, enabling him to get back to work.

Consequences can be part of how students learn. Stacy is playing with her snack. Her pretzels drop on the floor and she spills her milk, then asks for another bag of pretzels. "Nope," we reply. "Students get one bag of pretzels. Here's a dustpan and brush to clean up the mess." The natural consequence of losing her snack and the logical consequence of having to clean up help Stacy learn to be more careful.

Consequences can't teach missing skills. As Ross Greene notes, punishing a kid doesn't teach that kid the skills he or she needs to be successful. 2 Even natural and logical consequences can't teach capabilities that students don't already possess. If a student doesn't have the self-soothing skills needed to handle frustration, giving her a consequence when she melts down over a test won't help her the next time a test rolls around.

Consequences can't work as our only strategy. Imagine if we tried to teach students to write by simply circling their errors and making them rework their writing. While this might be one strategy to use as students are revising and editing, we know that they'll also need direct instruction in effective writing strategies, time to practice and make mistakes, and a nurturing environment.

So, what should we expect from consequences that "work"? We should expect that consequences will help us manage students' behaviors in the short-term, allowing us to put out little fires as they pop up. If we want to reduce future fires, we'll need to engage in lots of proactive teaching.

4. We Miss the Middle Ground

When we don't use consequences at all (or wait too long to use them), we become permissive. When adults set limits but don't follow through, students feel unsafe, which often leads them to push limits. It's almost like they're begging us to be in control—to keep them safe. A high school student recently told me about a kid who runs into class and vaults into his chair each day. His teacher always says, "Don't do that again," and he replies, "Okay." The next day, he repeats the performance. The student telling me this story was exasperated at both his classmate's immaturity and his teacher's inaction.

However, the overuse of consequences—especially punitive ones—also leads to an unsafe climate. When teachers yell, levy harsh punishments for minor mistakes, or are overly controlling, the classroom climate becomes one of fear and resentment. Both permissive and punishment-heavy cultures put students, especially those already on the edge, in a place where it's almost impossible to learn well.

An important part of getting to that sweet spot between permissiveness and harshness is getting clear about how consequences feel for students. Again, this is nuanced and tricky. On the one hand, if a student has to leave the classroom because she was out of control, she may feel bad—but we shouldn't make feeling bad the goal. To invoke shame ("Terry! Why am I not surprised that you're out of control again?") isn't productive or respectful. At the same time, we don't want the consequence of being removed from the room to feel like a party. Sitting quietly with a book or working on a jigsaw puzzle might soothe a student's spirit, helping him regain control so he can rejoin class. But if the student's allowed to play video games or is given candy during a time-out, this might send confusing messages and inhibit his ability to calm down.

When we're in that desirable middle ground, consequences help a classroom feel safe, orderly, and predictable. Students understand that mistakes, both academic and behavioral ones, are part of the learning process, and that their teacher is there to support them. They aren't necessarily happy when they experience consequences, but they aren't devastated. The overall tone of the classroom is one of firm caring and support.

5. We Act with Emotion, Not Reason

Using consequences effectively requires educators to react with reason and logic when our inclination is to be emotional. When a student says something mean to a classmate, we feel outrage for the child who is insulted. When annoying pencil drumming interrupts a lesson (once again!), we feel frustration grow. When a student flips a desk in rage, we are scared and hurt, which can lead to our own feelings of anger. We may even subconsciously seek revenge, wanting that student to hurt like we do.

Of course, the last thing students need (especially students from backgrounds full of trauma) is more anger in their lives. Our students need us to be strong enough to react with reason, not emotion. They need to see what it looks like when mature adults respond to frustration in calm, respectful ways. And they need to be treated with dignity and respect, especially when they're in a crisis.

6. We Misunderstand Consequences' Role in the Big Picture

There's a common misunderstanding about the role consequences play in the broader picture of discipline. Too often, educators view consequences as the center of the picture and see all other supportive strategies—like teaching skills, modeling appropriate behavior, and building relationships—as tangential. In fact, relationships should be at the center, with all other strategies seen as tangents. Without relationships, everything else falls apart.

This shift in perspective helps teachers change the question they often ask when considering consequences—"What's the consequence that will fix the problem?"—to a better question—"Is there a consequence that might be part of how we help this student?" Instead of looking for the right-sized firehose that will prevent future fires, we look for the one that will help in the moment, and we realize that other strategies will play a greater role in supporting long-term positive behavior.

That shift is especially helpful for our most vulnerable students, those who've experienced trauma and chaos at home. It's a sad irony that kids who often aren't strong enough to benefit from the potential teaching power of consequences are the ones most likely to be hammered with frequent punishments. At the same time, kids who have the emotional stability and behavioral skills to learn from consequences are often excused from them ("She's a good kid and usually on track. I'll just give her a warning.").

Digging Deeper

Consequences are tough. On the one hand, they're critically important. Like a rumble strip on a road, they help set clear boundaries and keep students and teachers safe—so that challenging behaviors don't spiral out of control. At the same time, we must not over-rely on them, because they have limited power to teach positive behaviors. Additionally, educators shouldn't adopt black-and-white consequence systems, since children are all different and each situation is nuanced—and yet a school that doesn't have a consistent approach to consequences will create anxiety for everyone. So we must engage in robust conversations with colleagues, developing more consistent beliefs and understandings of the role of consequences and practicing appropriate responses. When we do this, we create a school culture that's structured and safe while also supportive and respectful of students.

Resources on Effective Discipline

Check out these texts for a more thorough exploration of respectful approaches to classroom management. Each can work as a guide for individual teachers or a resource to support a group.

Better Than Carrots or Sticks by Dominique Smith, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey. (ASCD, 2015).

Discipline with Dignity by Richard Curwin, Allen Mendler, and Brian Mendler. (ASCD, 2018).

Lost at School by Ross Greene. (Scribner, 2008).

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen. (Ballentine Books, 2006).

Teaching Children to Care by Ruth Charney. (Center for Responsive Schools, 1992).

Guiding Questions

› Do you agree that teachers often struggle with decisions about consequences for student misbehavior more than they struggle with decisions about curriculum and academics?

› Share with others in your school your experiences with choosing and implementing consequences for problematic behavior: Is this often a struggle for you?

› Anderson says that while our decisions about consequences feel "private," they are also "public" because they impact other people in the school—so teachers should consider how their discipline decisions might affect the broader school community. Do you coordinate with colleagues as you decide on rules and consequences for students? How, practically, might you coordinate more?

EL Online Exclusive

For a discussion of helping kids monitor their own behavior, see the online article "A Healthy Ecosystem for Classroom Management" by Paul Emerich France.

End Notes

1 Nelsen, J. (2006). Positive discipline. New York: Ballentine Books.

2 Greene, R. (2008). Lost at school. New York: Scribner.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?