Beyond Teaching: Exploring the Role of Consequences in Behavior Modification

Is teaching really the only way to change behavior? There are all these memes going around say if we want to change student behavior, we have to do it through teaching. Like I shared one from Conscious Discipline yesterday that said punishment doesn’t work. If you want to change behavior, you have to do it through teaching a replacement skill or teaching a replacement behavior. And you might have also seen one that says, if a student doesn’t understand a math concept, we don’t punish, we teach. So why don’t we do the same thing with behavior? And I think there’s an answer to that question. I think the thinking that we cannot use anything other than like explanation to change behavior is just plain wrong. When I was a kid at summer camp one year, I Learned the card game Mao. And you can look it up on Wikipedia, Mao or Mau. And the funny thing about Mao is you’re not allowed to explain the rules. You have to learn the rules entirely through experience. And it’s actually not that hard. And like, I think part of the point of the game is to be a little bit mean to the new player. Like there’s a little bit of a statistic aspect to it. And I think in schools, of course, we want to explain the rules and their rationale and replacement behaviors. Like we don’t want to be mean and punitive. We want to set our students up for success. We don’t want them to have to guess what to do. We want to be clear about our expectations. We want to have predictable consequences so that kids can make good decisions. But I think this whole claim that we have to only teach in the sense of explaining about behavior and we can never allow students to learn from experience is just wrong.

And it’s one of the most well established findings in psychology that punishment, not that I’m advocating for, punishment does change behavior. You do not have to understand very much at all to figure out if I get in trouble for doing X, I shouldn’t do X anymore. Like that, it can absolutely change behavior. And that was what bothered me so much about the quote I shared yesterday from Conscious Discipline that like punishment doesn’t change behavior. Yeah, it absolutely does. And even the tiniest amount of experience in life will tell you that it does. And I just think as educators, we’ve got to stop repeating these memes that sound nice, that appeal to our intuitions and our feelings. Like we don’t want to punish. And I’m not saying we should punish, but I am saying we should have consequences and we should let consequences do the, quote unquote, teaching. Because what a lot of people are talking about when they say we should teach instead of punish is they’re talking about explanation. And they don’t realize that in the absence of consequences, what’s doing the teaching is the absence of consequences. See, kids are really good at figuring out whether we mean what we say. And if we say we have a rule here, we don’t allow hitting here at this school, but we don’t actually do anything about hitting. We just talk to the kids more. There’s no real consequence. Kids are really good at figuring out that they are actually allowed to hit one another because there is no consequence. The consequences do the teaching. So if we’re going to teach anything, if we’re going to say this is the expectation here, the real teaching happens when we follow through and we say, you did that. We told you you couldn’t do that. We told you what the consequence would be. So here’s the consequence.

Kids pick up very quickly if we do not do that. They realize I can get away with whatever I want to do here. And that’s why a lot of schools are in a bind because they’ve ruled out doing anything about student behavior. They’ve ruled out any kind of consequence because they’ve convinced themselves that consequences are mean. And I think if we explain the consequence in advance, we give a rationale and like a lot of times kids don’t even need that, right? Like everybody knows you don’t hit people. Like if you’re having to do conscious discipline with high schoolers and explain to them why we don’t hit people, like, come on, they don’t need that much. But if we are transparent about what our expectations are and we have clear, consistent consequences that are actually enforced. Kids do not need hour after hour of explanation on how to meet those basic expectations. And they don’t need skill building either. That’s the goofy thing about this, you know, extending very early childhood stuff all the way into high school and middle school. Like kids do not need skill building to meet basic expectations. Every kid who walks in your door is capable of meeting those basic expectations, and they do most of the time. Even kids who occasionally hit one another can not hit one another like they have the ability. So it’s not a skill thing. It’s not an understanding thing. It’s not a teaching thing. It’s about us following through as adults. Let me know what you think.