Consequences, Punishments, or Something New?

What’s the difference between consequences and punishments? And, do students need to know the difference?

Some time ago educators replaced the word punishment with the word consequence. They intended to get young people to make better decisions by thinking about the potential repercussions of their deeds.

But scrapping the word punishment has failed to mediate the way kids make decisions. This may be because the language change wasn’t symmetric- by not axing the word reward along with punishment, consequence became a synonym for punishment.

Yes, a lot of teachers and administrators refer to positive consequences and negative consequences. But if you think students make that distinction, just ask them what consequence means.

And punishment is a fake consequence anyway. Punishment is used to train people to do things a certain way so they don’t have to face real consequences that may be improbable or distant. The potential of having an accident on a clear Saturday morning with low traffic, great visibility, and a dry road is far from my mind. But I don’t want to be punished with a ticket, so I still keep my speed under 80. Conversely, I slow way down on a wet, slippery road because the consequence of driving too fast is very easy to imagine.

Back in the classroom, my one rule, inspired by Dave Burgess in Teach Like A Pirate, is: Don’t be mean! It works pretty well. Kids monitor themselves much better than if we had a one of the agreement things that takes a day or two of class time to develop and then everyone signs and then gets hung on the wall. (As a nod to my school’s policy, I do intend to make a Don’t Be Mean poster and have kids sign it.)

But I’m still frustrated with kids who will, for example, drop the F bomb, tap their chest and say, “My bad,” then do the same thing again, in short order. So I’m working on a new tool.

In each class, I wait until a student says, “My bad” one too many times; then I stop everything and give this lecture:

I’m tired of students thinking that saying “My Bad” means anything. If you’re truly sorry about something you do four things. You say you’re sorry. You feel bad. You try not to do it again. And you try to make up for it. Saying you’re sorry and feeling bad are, to me, the least important. What I care about is that you try not to do it again and you find some way to make up for it. I’m looking for improvement, not perfection.

So now, if two kids are horse-playing, I call them over. They still go through the “My bads,” but now usually add, “We won’t do it again.” So far, so good, but when I ask them what they’ll do to make up for it, they always offer to suffer some punishment:

“We’ll do push-ups!”

“How does hurting yourself help anything?”

“We’ll do lunch detention!”

“If you do lunch detention, then I have to do lunch detention with you, how does that help anything?”

This is usually followed with silence until I propose that sometime soon I’ll ask them to wipe down the tables or help in some other way. Up to now, they’ve been completely cool with that, and when I’ve needed a favor, I turn to them.

It’s way too early to claim students are modifying their behavior as a result of this new tactic, and I still call home or will put a disruptive student out of class if necessary. But it’s not too early to notice that I’m modifying my own behavior. I’m talking to kids more positively and not getting very angry. Plus, insofar as our conversations are forward looking and improvement-minded, my sense of balance and well-being are maintained.

And that’s got to count for something.

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  • LaurenStephenson

    An important nuance


    What a fascinating observation. Punishment and consequences are two VERY different concepts… it would be interesting to have your kids create a poster for Class Accountability and see if your (4) ideas align.

    I’d love to see a picture of that Don’t Be Mean poster as well!

  • BillIvey


    First off, I just have to say, I’m all over removing the word “reward” from our teacher vocabulary. Our middle school program works hard to develop internal motivation, and I believe – and am working hard to convince the few remaining skeptics – that rewards harm that goal just as much as punishments do, perhaps more in a way.

    Secondly, I deeply believe students will never internalize the distinction between “consequences” and “punishments” if teachers don’t. Over and over again, I hear a teacher say, “Well, if she does that, what’s her consequence?” I think it goes beyond not having removed “reward” from our vocabulary; I think for many teachers, “consequence” is just a less, well, punishing way to say “punishment.”

    I believe we need to start asking questions like, “When you did this, what happened as a result?” or “Suppose you were to do this – what might happen then?” That gets kids (and teachers) thinking more in terms of natural and logical consequences rather than artificially imposed ones. For example, if a kid shows up in class and says, “I didn’t do the reading. What’s going to happen?” I’ll usually say something like, “What’s going to happen is you’re probably going to be very quiet and the class won’t be able to benefit from your voice and ideas. But you can obviously still be listening and learning, though not as much as if you had done the reading.”

    The other part of this is learning that an apology doesn’t automatically excuse you from the consequences of what you did. Rachel Simmons does some really good work with kids on that theme. I’ve begun to learn that a good apology expresses sincere regret, makes an effort to recognize the negative consequences of a behavior or an action, may ask but does not assume forgiveness, and states a genuine intention to learn from the mistake and make some behavioral changes moving forward. Those are skills we can teach kids. Forcing an apology, by the way, will never accomplish that.

    Those are my quick reactions. Love this blog!