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group punishment
encouraging the good to join the bad
by lucy lediaev

Dear Ms. Fifth Grade Teacher,

I had sincerely hoped a classroom management strategy had disappeared from teachers’ play books. However, I recently became aware that group punishment is still used in the classroom. Group punishment may provide short-term results and may assist in rallying peer pressure to eliminate unwanted behavior. However, I would like to see a more equitable approach to the application of classroom discipline.

As a child, I was a model student and rarely broke classroom rules. When I did so, I expected my teacher to apply discipline and accepted the punishment without question. However, when a teacher, usually in a state of frustration, applied discipline to an entire class, I found felt resentment and lost respect for the teacher. Why, I asked myself, did the teacher not make an effort to identify those responsible for the problem, and discipline only those children? I was a shy child and never had the confidence to have a private conversation with any of my teachers about my feelings about this common practice. Group punishment might have been applied for infractions as minor as too much chatter in the classroom to a petty theft from a student’s desk or the teacher’s supply closet.

Recently, my granddaughter, who is in your class, expressed her disappointment at being assigned an essay because too many children were talking instead of doing their assignments. She explained that she recognized that the classroom was too noisy from children talking, but that she had not been one of the kids participating in the chronic chatter. I asked her if she knew that it was perfectly acceptable to have a private conversation with you about the unfairness of this practice. I encouraged her to talk to you about classroom management strategies that are more equitable and can be applied only to rule breakers.

She said she knew she could talk to her teacher, and said she planned to do so. She was, however, also planning to complete the essay. I asked her if she could address the unfair aspects of the punishment in her essay, and she told me you had constrained the contents of the essay so that she really would not have an opportunity to express her opinion about this incident.

Because you are relatively new teacher with the potential to change, I would encourage you to talk to students, parents, and other teachers to come up with fairer and more appropriate discipline when a number of students break classroom rules. Imagine how you would feel if the IRS decided to fine you because seventeen of your neighbors lied on their income tax returns. How would you feel if you had to go to traffic school because eleven teachers at your school rolled through an intersection near the school without stopping for a stop sign? Clearly, you would feel that you were being treated unfairly.

My granddaughter likes you; she respects you. So far, she has enjoyed being in your class. However, I suspect it would take only a few more incidents like the current mass punishment of essay-writing to make her change her mind about you.

This kind of discipline did not work when I was in elementary school sixty years ago, and it does not work now. You may see a short-term improvement in your students’ behavior, but it won’t last. The students who are not now causing problems for you may do so as they lose respect for you. Please think about how you can discipline the children who need it while reinforcing the good behavior of your other students. What you are doing now is to apply negative reinforcement to kids to whom you should be providing positive reinforcement for their good behavior.

I hope to hear from my granddaughter that you have changed your approach. I know teachers reach the ends of their ropes and lose patience; parents and grandparents do the same. However, most of us try to change the behavior of only the child or children whose behavior is unacceptable. I hope you can do the same in the future.


KM’s Grandmother


A freelance writer and full-time grandma, Lucy Lediaev retired recently from a position as web master, tech writer, and copy writer in a biotech firm. She is enjoying retirment more than she ever dreamed and is now writing about topics that are, for the most part, interesting and fun. She also has time to pursue some of her long-time interests, such as crafts, reading, sewing, baking, cooking, and the like.

more about lucy lediaev


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