In Defense of Public Consequences

My ten-year-old daughter played softball this past summer, and I could not believe how she was publicly humiliated. In one game, she hit the ball down the third base line. As she hustled to first base, the throw came in off line. The girl caught it in front of the bag and tried to tag my daughter, but my kid dodged out of the way! She was safe!

But the umpire called her out for leaving the baseline.

Right in front of everyone!

My daughter had to walk back to the dugout in shame because of that umpire’s call!

It’s not just softball. This public humiliating of kids happens in almost every sport. When a kid commits a foul on the basketball court, the referee blows a whistle — a whistle! — and everyone stops and waits. Then this awful excuse for a human being points right at the kid who broke the rule and announces to literally everyone in the gym that the kid screwed up.

But he doesn’t stop there!

Because then he goes over to the scoring table and signals the kid’s number and explains exactly what the kid did wrong. Then he takes the ball away –again, with everyone watching — and gives it to the other team.

In football, the referees throw a bright yellow flag on the ground. They then punish the ENTIRE TEAM for the infraction of just one kid. How is that fair? It’s like the referees are trying to destroy the team ‘s culture. How can anyone expect the guilty kid’s teammates to feel anything other than resentment toward him?

Hockey is even worse. The cruel adults in this sport blow their whistles, report the offenders, and then they actually make kids sit in a BOX! They don’t even try to sugarcoat what they’re doing. They don’t call it the Think Box or the Second Chance Box or the Stop and Reflect Box. They call it the Penalty Box! They lock them in a cage where everyone can see them!

It seems to me that if an athlete breaks a rule in any sport, the officials ought to be able to tell them without shaming them in front of everybody. These referees should find a way to quietly whisper to the players, encourage them to do the right thing, and stop embarrassing them!

What I can’t understand is why these kids keep playing these sports. Do they want to be publicly shamed? Do they like being embarrassed?

And why do parents allow this to happen? Where’s the outrage?

No, For Real

If the above sounds a bit ridiculous, then you will understand my feelings about those who criticize teachers for giving students public consequences when they break a rule in the classroom.

There is a large contingent of teachers and education thought leaders who say there is no place for public discipline in the classroom. These critics say that teachers who call out bad behavior are humiliating kids and robbing them of their dignity.

But public consequences exist for important reasons, and shaming kids isn’t one of them.

They Let Everyone Know What’s Actually Acceptable

I played high school basketball. I quickly learned that there were two types of referees: those who would “let you play,” and those who nailed you for even slight infractions. The written rules of the game were the same, of course. A rulebook existed that spelled out exactly what was allowed and what wasn’t on a basketball court.

But there was room for interpretation. Put a hand on a guy’s hip with one ref and get an automatic whistle, while other refs let the small stuff slide. If basketball isn’t your game, then the same can be said for the strike zone in baseball or pass interference in football.

The same is true in every classroom. Teachers have their posted rules and expectations. But until those rules are enforced, no one really knows what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Many classrooms have the rule, “Raise your hand to speak.” But teachers vary greatly in how strictly they enforce it. It’s through public consequences that the line is quickly understood by everyone in the room.

Words are just that. Words, whether gentle or firm, don’t always convey our seriousness. Asking a student to stop interrupting a lesson doesn’t always work. Asking them again is more of the same. Like referees in sports, teachers need to take action to show they actually mean it, and the whole class deserves to understand what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

They Allow for More Efficient Teaching

Critics of public discipline will say that the teacher should praise publicly and criticize privately. They should stop teaching their lesson (or allow it to be sabotaged and then talk to the saboteur afterward) in order to avoid embarrassing a student with a public reprimand. They should surreptitiously walk over and have a quiet word to redirect the wayward student.

Going over to a kid and telling them what you expect is fine, maybe even preferable, but it’s sometimes impractical.

The teacher and the students who are doing what’s expected shouldn’t be inconvenienced by those who aren’t.

Every kid in the room already knows what’s going on. They know who is breaking the rules and they want it stopped, just as any kid who plays in a basketball game wants the referees to do something about the kid who fouls his opponents every time down the court.

Those kids are messing up the game. They can’t be allowed to continue to do so. Public consequences keep the lesson moving so everyone else can do their job.

They Allow for Easier Parent Communication and Support

When I was in elementary school, my teachers used star charts. Many teachers in my school (including this one) use a clip chart to track daily behavior. Other teachers write names on the board and add check marks for each rule infraction. Technology allows teachers to keep track of behavior with apps like Class Dojo. But why keep track at all?

For the same reason they do in sports. Fouls and penalties are recorded (and often displayed on a huge scoreboard for everyone to see) because failing to learn from your mistakes is a problem. You can’t continue to go on messing up the game and keep playing. Eventually, the consequences get more severe. Players foul out. They’re red-carded. They’re removed from the field. Screwing up is fine. Continuing to screw up isn’t. This is a message all kids should learn early.

Tracking behavior also makes it easier to communicate. When a parent wants regular updates of her child’s behavior, it’s much easier to say “She had three strikes,” than it is to recall and report on each broken rule. “Dave committed five fouls in six minutes,” says plenty about how Dave played the game, just as, “Dante was on red before lunch” lets everyone know that Dante had a really bad day.

So why do public consequences like behavior charts receive so much scorn, when public consequences in sports go unremarked upon? I think it’s mostly out of fear and a lack of trust. There is the potential for abuse, and unlike in an arena or on a field, teachers work behind closed doors. Parents (and other teachers) have to trust that teachers won’t use public consequences to shame kids.

Like everything in the classroom, it’s not so much what you do but how you do it.

Lectures can be boring or illuminating. Group work can provide important collaboration time or can be a hot mess of conflict. And public consequences can be used to shame kids or to reinforce the rules and keep things moving efficiently, as they do in sports.

Note: My favorite article on how to enforce consequences was written by Michael Linsin. It shouldn’t surprise you that he recommends teachers act just like referees.

One Reply to “In Defense of Public Consequences”

  1. This is an outstanding piece! I was flabbergasted and outraged while reading the first part regarding public consequences in sports. (Lol!) I couldn’t believe what I was reading!! Ha! So glad I kept reading to discover the adventageous effects/results/reasons why public consequences can be a good thing. Put everything into a logical perspective. Great article as are all of your blog entries!

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