It’s a common script in classrooms:
“Table B just lost a point because Jeremy did not put his book away on time.”
“The Bluebirds will go out to recess last, because Sherri is still talking.”
In my work as a school psychologist I often visit classrooms where children are seated in groups or at tables. Teachers regularly hand out rewards and punishments to the group based upon the behavior of one person. In some settings it is an accepted practice; but for many parents, teachers, and students it’s a controversial issue.
Group punishment remains a common tool teachers have in their arsenal of classroom management methods. The reasoning is that the group will get so disgusted with the“bad” kid that they will exert the needed pressure to keep him or her in line. It has a certain logic and it often works, but it can backfire. The innocent who are punished can become resentful toward the teacher or the target of the punishment. Even more dangerous, the misbehaving student—usually a low-status kid to begin with—will slip even further, become even more isolated, and then feel a need to act out again.
Some of the best teachers I’ve worked with used this strategy and it did work to some extent, but I feel certain that if offered the following alternative they would have found it preferable. The method I propose also uses the group, but as a cheerleading section rather than an angry mob ready to stone the culprit. Specifically, the teacher uses a glass jar and glass marbles (or some other concrete method of awarding points). The system works by allowing an individual child or table to earn points or rewards for the whole group. Points or marbles cannot be lost—only gained. The teacher gives the whole class points toward a special activity for the desired behavior of the individual class members.
Sometime the low-status child is not the cut-up, but the brainy, nerdy, or unattractive kid. But if that child is responsible for the group earning points toward a movie, an extra recess, or a popcorn party, the child’s status can be raised significantly. Teachers sometimes express a feeling of powerlessness to help the isolated student in a classroom. This is one concrete way to address that problem and to prevent the scapegoating that is so common when one child requires a lot of correction.
This strategy can work on target behaviors for every child in the class, not just the misbehavers. Go over the class list and identify for each student a target behavior, e.g. speaking up, sharing, getting in line, not disturbing other people’s things, staying with a task. Then look for these behaviors throughout the day and reward the group for the child who is improving on that behavior. It is also advisable, when working with a status issue, to recognize a low- and high-status kid at the same time:“Tina and Hannah just earned two marbles for the class, because they gathered the papers at their table so quietly and politely.” Associating all students with the reward system makes it more desirable.
Some teachers even allow students to reward each other with marbles. Eagerness for a reward may cause the youngsters to be a little overly generous initially, but you can guide this. For example, spend the first few minutes after lunch as a time for appreciations (it is too often the complaining time). This method helps children focus upon what is good in their classmates and in themselves, and it makes them feel more a part of the group.
An enormous issue in any classroom is inclusion or acceptance. I was recently interviewed for an article following a school shooting. The journalist asked, “What are children most afraid of?” She was obviously thinking in terms of violence, but with so many years of listening to the concerns of children I answered easily, “Being left out.” This positive method helps children feel more included and accepted by the group. With acceptance, children’s ability to learn increases as well. Such a method makes each child feel like part of the group and helps them recognize that their good efforts can support and encourage effort in others as well. Another wonderful side effect of this approach is that the teacher gets to listen to him or herself in positive rather than negative mode all day. We get more of whatever we shine the light on, and often the light shines back on us.
Susan DeMersseman, Ph.D., is a psychologist and writer in the San Francisco Bay area. She works with children and parents and conducts workshops on a wide range of subjects for parents and educators.
From Today's Catholic School Teacher. April 2003