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Ever wish your students were more motivated? If you’re like most of us, you have tried an array of rewards and punishments to motivate kids. There’s only one problem: it doesn’t work. At least it doesn't work well enough. People (yes, even students) aren’t motivated from the outside so rewards and punishments only work to a point. We are internally motivated. That’s why it's essential to engage and inspire students to be motivated to succeed in school (and life.)

If you’re ready to move beyond the reward/punishment model and embrace a whole new way to understand motivation, I encourage you to come back regularly. It’s time to challenge the status quo and create schools and classrooms based on what really motivates behavior.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Punishment Is An Effective Teaching Tool (But What Do Kids Learn?)

A five-year old kindergarten student in Hopkinton, Massachusetts was suspended from school this past week for bringing a toy gun to school. By all accounts, the child did not threaten or hurt anyone. His crime was having an inappropriate toy in school.

The Center School in Hopkinton did what most schools do: they applied external control psychology by imposing punishment (I’m sure it was identified as a “consequence” in an attempt to make the suspension more palatable.)

No doubt everyone involved had the best interest of the child in mind. I imagine that the punishment (“consequence” if you insist on euphemism) was given to teach the child something. That’s certainly reasonable. Our job as educators, after all, is to teach kids.

But what did they want Jonah Stone to learn? What was the goal? Since I wasn’t there, I can only guess but here’s one reasonable hypothesis: teaching Jonah that it’s not OK to bring toy guns to school. Seems like a reasonable thing to want to teach a young child, especially given the unequivocal evidence he didn’t already know it.

So here’s a novel idea: instead of suspending him from school and having him sit down with a police officer, maybe a caring adult could have spoken with the 5-year old and told him that guns – even toy guns – aren’t allowed in school. End of incident. In other words, maybe an educator could have done their job: teach a child who didn’t know any better. (That’s the usual process when a kid doesn’t know how to read, spell, multiply, or successfully do any other academic skill.) 

A simple conversation would have rendered punishment unnecessary. The goal – learning that bringing toy guns to school is not OK – would have been achieved. Sadly, the school chose to suspend the child, a decision that was predictably overturned by the superintendent a few days later when he met with the parents.

I often hear that punishment is a teaching tool. What did five-year old Jonah Stone learn this week?
·      That if you make a mistake, you’ll be punished.
·      That teachers say, “Never be afraid to make a mistake” but when you make one, they hurt you.
·      That someone gave me a toy, but when I took it to school I had to talk to a police officer.
·      That kids in some place called Newtown were killed by a bad man with a gun. (Note: Until this incident, Jonah had been shielded by the unimaginable horror of Sandy Hook by his parents. The school system made sure he got an education.)

One can only wonder if Jonah worries that the police officer and his teachers think he might be a bad boy and want to hurt other kids. Of course that’s unlikely, but what’s a 5-year old to think? (“They just want me to become a responsible adult and punished me for my own good. If they didn’t suspend me, I might grow up to be a bad person. I have to learn there are consequences for my behavior even though I wasn’t trying to be bad.”)

What an inexcusable, avoidable mess. Because of the continued reliance on punishment as a “teaching tool,” learning has certainly taken place. Jonah learned a lot of things no child should learn.

I suspect Jonah will be fine. Kids are resilient and manage to turn out OK despite adult ineptitude. I hope Jonah grows into an emotionally healthy adult who will laugh at the absurdity of this incident. Even if that’s how the story unfolds, however, the school should be ashamed and embarrassed.

Punishment. It certainly teaches. Too bad we’re oblivious to the learning that takes place.

As always, if you enjoyed this and found it useful, please send the link to your friends. Thanks.

Bob Sullo

For information about books by Bob Sullo and to schedule a keynote, workshop, or series for your school, agency, or parent group visit

Don't forget to get your copy of the revised edition of The Inspiring Teacher: Making A Positive Difference In Students' Lives.


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