Both Sides: Whole Class Punishments

A confession: Although I usually write as though I’m 100% positive of the suggestions I make on this blog, the truth is I rarely am. There aren’t many sure things in education. What works for one teacher won’t work for all of them. What works for one class won’t work in other classes. Hell, sometimes what works for a teacher one year won’t work the next. But most people don’t want to read unassertive, maybe-you-should-try-this articles. They want new ideas or solutions to problems. So I play along.


There are many education issues on which I have vacillated. One is whole class punishments. Early in my career, I used them on occasion. I felt I had good justification for doing so. I still feel solid arguments can be made to support their use. I’ll share those arguments below. I haven’t personally used whole class punishments in probably seven years. However, I can’t write a post titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Use Whole Class Punishments” because I see their merits. Instead, I’ll present both sides and let you argue in the comments.


Why You Should Not Use Whole Class Punishments

There are a number of reasons I no longer use whole class punishments. The first is I hated them as a student. I was a good kid. Never got in trouble. So when some asshole ruined it for the rest of us, I resented it. You don’t need to be very old to comprehend when you’re getting jobbed. A whole class punishment didn’t teach me anything except that adults were power-hungry despots who treated saints the same as convicts. I don’t want to be one of those adults.


I also didn’t like what whole class punishments did to my classroom culture. It pitted the well-behaved against those who struggled to follow the rules. The kids who ruin it for others are almost always the ones who need the most support. When you punish the whole class for the misdeeds of the few, those students who did nothing wrong will resent those who did. It invites the well-behaved students to mistreat the behaviorally-challenged. When you punish everybody for the actions of a handful of students, you shouldn’t act surprised when your class gangs up on the handful.


The third reason is parents don’t like them. Some will complain. They will have valid arguments. I usually try to avoid doing things that anger parents because I’m a chicken.


The last reason I no longer use whole class punishments is that whenever I made everyone put down their heads or took away everyone’s recess, I felt like a jerk. Which was a pretty good indication that it was the wrong decision.


Why You Should Use Whole Class Punishments

Bill Cecil was the 2003-2004 Michigan Teacher of the Year. He’s a fifth grade teacher in the Lansing area. In his book, Best Year Ever, Cecil makes a compelling argument for whole class punishments. I had given them up by the time I read it, and he didn’t quite cause me to reverse my decision, but his arguments did make me think.  Here’s what he writes:


I have the students working together to earn their recess each day. It’s quite simple to earn recess. All they have to do is end the day without two checks on the board. However, if they get two checks in one day, they lose recess and write the rules during that time to refocus on what they as a team need to be doing to be successful.


Cecil justifies:


It never fails that someone will say that they weren’t doing anything wrong, and therefore, it’s not fair they lost their recess…I tell them it’s similar to when I used to play soccer. In some games I may be playing great and even score a goal. But if we aren’t playing well as a team and our defense lets up three goals, we still lose. I still lose the game despite my good performance.


Cecil’s argument is predicated on three beliefs:


  1. This class is a team, and we will succeed or fail as a team.
  2. Behavior is everyone’s business. If you see someone doing something they shouldn’t, get them to stop because that behavior is going to harm all of us.
  3. This classroom will reflect the real world.
I would add that in addition to Cecil’s soccer analogy, we can find many other examples outside the world of sports.


When the housing bubble popped in 2008 it wasn’t just those with bad mortgages who were screwed.


Homeowner associations exist because we know that having neighbors who don’t mow their lawns and fly Aryan Nations flags can ruin the whole neighborhood’s property values.


The reason you can get a ticket for not wearing a seat belt is because too many people weren’t wearing them.


You might be a great teacher, but if you work with a bunch of idiots, your school is likely to get labeled in a way that damages you just as much as the idiots.


In the real world, we are often in this together. Our success or failure hinges on the choices of others, as unfair as that sometimes is. Why should students be protected from this reality? Isn’t one of our jobs to prepare students for life outside of school?


Where you fall on this issue likely comes down to a bigger question: What is the role of school? Should schools reflect society at large? Should they prepare students for the unfairness and harsh realities of the world outside their doors?


Or should schools rise above society and strive for a more idealized version of it? Should schools offer a sanitized experience in the hopes that our students will grow up and change the world for the better?


What say you? Are you for, against, or do you fall somewhere in between? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook.


Note: While I disagree with Cecil on whole class punishments, his book is excellent. It’s especially useful to teachers preparing for a new year.  Buy it here.


Old stuff you might enjoy:



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6 Replies to “Both Sides: Whole Class Punishments”

  1. I’m enjoying your blogs.
    I tend to agree with you, whole class consequences generally just get the good kids offside with the teacher and the “bad” kids learn that it’s a very effective way to annoy others when they are feeling bad.
    However, I have used whole class (13yo +) consequences to resolve issues when the student code of silence closes in. Left alone for 5mins during class time, it is amazing how quickly things can be found, fixed or stopped amongst themselves, especially if they trust you not to ask for the details ( someone usually tells you afterwards, if the issue was serious). This builds greater trust amongst the class to work as a team and they learn to resolve things better amongst themselves. They also seem to appreciate you trusting them.
    Only once did I have to apply another 5mins opportunity before the end of the class, after not resolving it the first time.
    I teach secondary levels in Melb, Aust.

  2. As a teacher, I tend to agree with you. While I have used whole class punishment, it is very rare. I believe it does more harm than good. As a parent of a good kid who gets in trouble because his classmates are misbehaving and being disrespectful, I REALLY dislike whole class punishments. In second grade my child’s class was the only class his teacher had had that didn’t earn a reward party in the first few weeks of school. I was reminded of that for a few years. It was one or two kids that kept the part from happening. He has had to run at recess, miss recess, written sentences, etc. Most recently he said, I’m doing what I’m supposed to and get in trouble for it. (Yes, I set him straight on that one.)
    We tell out kids that peer pressure is bad and yet it is peer pressure that teachers are encouraging with the use of whole class punishment. Just how is a second grader, third, fourth, for grader for that matter supposed to convince a few, or a group of kids to behave better? That is the teachers job. Not a fan!

    1. I agree. The only whole class “punishment” I use these days is I take away break points when students are breaking rules during independent reading. It’s pretty mild, though, because they always still get a break and they usually only lose a minute or two.

  3. I enjoyed your perspective but would be against whole class punishment. Firstly I find the soccer/ bank analogy tiresome, as a coach and teacher the two have similarities but some key differences. I am on the soccer team or got a mortgage because I wanted one and was willing to take risks. Most students don’t get say or choice over the teacher, course, grade or classmates they have and cannot opt out. Team is built on common values and goals. Classrooms are based on common objectives but personalized learning and meeting learners where they are means everyone’s goals are not the same. This is true academically, behaviourally, and socially. In an inclusive environment students have diverse needs rarely does a one size fits all work. This level of diversity would be expected practice for teachers academically and in terms of social inclusion. Behaviour should be no different.

  4. I have a question for teachers how do I approach a teacher who is using this technique to stop doing this to my kid. First off some background, my child is a gifted child she has always excelled at academics, is a hard worker, and she’s a strict rule follower. She’s a part of the gifted program and she’s an overachiever. I’m not saying she’s perfect but she’s fairly shy and a well behaved kid. This year she has a 4th grade teacher who uses this technique and it’s troublesome to her. She comes home sad or mad daily because she has to miss recess because her classmates were being disruptive. I’m tempted to go to the principal but I would like to speak to the teacher without offending her first. Any suggestions?

    1. I would ask the teacher to explain her rationale and then say something like, “I understand why you’re using whole group punishments, but have you considered…” and then present the other side and how the practice affects your child.

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