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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

07.02.13On the ‘Art of the Consequence’

high schoolWe’ve been doing a lot of work at Taxonomy Towers on a new topic: The Art of the Consequence. Roughly, it’s how to give a consequence in a way that successfully changes student behavior and avoids a downward spiral where behavior actually gets worse in response to a consequence.

A few rules of thumb.  In general consequences work better when they are:

  • Quick: The consequence comes as soon after the behavior as possible and last for as little time as possible before you get back to teaching. Delay in giving the consequence only allows recipients to “forget” what caused the response.
  • Incremental: Catching behavior early and allocating smaller consequences in increments lets students learn from mistakes at manageable cost. Losing too much too soon can remove the incentive to try.
  • Consistent: They should be predictable, given student, time of day or setting so they are about behaviors not people.  Consistency will also help students understand reliably where the limits are so they can self-monitor.
  • As private as possible (when privacy is possible): Want to make your consequences work better? Drop you voice and whisper them, even if you’re in front of your class. The intimation of privacy suggests you’re trying to keep it between you and the student. That usually helps diffuse it.
  • Free of emotion: Anger only focuses attention on the person giving the consequence vs the behavior causing it.

Then there’s the issue we get asked about all the time….what does all of this looks like in HS (as opposed to middle and elementary school).  I asked a couple of principals of top schools and basically they said:

We essentially do the same things as the above but:

  • Give consequences less frequently and for more significant behaviors/Try to emphasize privacy more and try to make our management systems less visible. Teachers refer to the consequences less frequently and ask for behavior changes instead, assuming the maturity of students; if they don’t get the change they need, they would be more likely to privately tell a student a consequence such as a demerit had been allocated.
  • Couch the discussion about productive/non-productive behavior in college readiness/professional readiness terms rather than emphasizing compliance for compliance’s sake.
  • Rely more on corrections (rather than consequences) the first time a behavior occurs and save consequence for more persistent or significant issues (ie students who are subversive or dismissive of the rules and/or major behaviors).
  • As a consequence of the above, worry less about speed of the consequence, except with students who really don’ get it.
  • Emphasize self-monitoring.  As Margo Bouchie of Collegiate Academies in New Orleans put it: “We obviously don’t want our seniors reliant on demerits to let them know they are doing something wrong. Connecting their behavior to their grade in the class and how close they are to college is generally the most powerful tool we have.”

I also asked my colleague, ace video analyst John Costello, to test these assumptions by watching video of High School teachers giving consequences. In several cases he was able ot watch the same teacher working with middle and high school students and to compare.

I saw a lot of gradual release of the Management System. Use of it was much less frequent and you almost never saw it publicly and, in particular, I noticed less emphasis on students “behaving correctly because they don’t want demerits” and more on “behaving correctly because it puts them on the path to college.” I think “the path to college” is a particularly useful hybrid of moral motivation, as it functions simultaneously as both an authoritative goal and a personal goal worth striving toward.

John also described a few times when one teacher we all admire immensely, North Star’s Mike Taubman, didn’t give a consequence in his high school classroom but instead used a non-invasive correction but where he (John) thought Mike likely would have used a consequence in middle school.

In the instances where all students are not tracking, Taubman uses Strong Voice, What to Do and a lot of Be Seen Looking techniques without deduction in High School.

[Be Seen Looking is one of our Teach Like a Champion 2.0 techniques; it’s about scanning intentionally and being seen scanning so student know you care (and notice) whether they do what you ask. It’s very subtle and very quick but incredibly effective, especially with older students].

He also relies on their maturity to self-correct after a small reminder.  In one clip there’s   a moment where he brings up Twitter and the class erupts in laughter/conversation… a little too much.  In MS this would probably be met with some sort of reset or Do It Again (“Let’s do that over so we can enjoy something funny but not let it get out of control”), but in HS he just says “come on now, contain that excitement” using assume the best from Positive Framing and they come back to him.

So…. What works for you in giving consequences? And how do you adapt for older studnets so behavior is always productive but studens own it, and their autonomy, in a more appropriate and “adult” way?

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10 Responses to “On the ‘Art of the Consequence’”

  1. Gabriele Green
    July 2, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    In a school or classroom that does not use demerits, what can teachers use as smaller consequences? My elementary school uses a three warnings system before giving a consequence. Would those warnings act as the smaller consequences?

    • Doug_Lemov
      July 2, 2013 at 7:47 pm

      i’m not a big believer in warnings…. i like small low stakes consequences such as “checks” with three equalling a color change … small writing tasks such as a reflection or an apology letter can be useful. as can do it again… or loss of a few minutes of privilege time. i’m sure others will have better ideas to share.

      • Gabriele Green
        July 2, 2013 at 8:00 pm

        Thanks for your response. In our school, the three warnings are three checks. It’s more of an opportunity to check in with a student about their choices.

  2. Chris Bostock
    July 2, 2013 at 7:16 pm


    As a high school principal at a CMO cousin (I’ll give you a hint, it’s one that has roots in Connecticut :), I actually have to disagree with some of the comments here around release of the system. Our school has a merit system similar to our middle schools, but it didn’t start out that way. The assumption when we started our school was that it felt developmentally inappropriate for our 18 year old seniors to receive a demerit. However, as time went on we realized that our thinking there was incorrect.

    The truth is that all high school students mature at different rates – we have some seniors who are less mature than some of our freshmen – and so differentiating based on age doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t align with the way the real world operates (i.e. the only rewards you’ll get for getting older in life are Social Security and Medicare, the rest of the world rewards good decision-making). In reality, it’s not that our students don’t need a consequence system when they’re seniors, but if we’re doing a good job developing their character, building strong relationships, etc. they should just bump up against it less. The things we expect from our students such as not calling out or staying engaged don’t change when they enter the professional world, they just become what we call “unspoken demerits” in which the real consequence is not getting a job or a promotion.

    As an interesting postscript, one of the frequent arguments I hear against keeping the system uber-consistent as students head off to college is that they won’t be able to make the transition into the less-structured world of college. 86% of our alumni are still in college, and MORE of our alumni persist who graduated when we had the system than when we didn’t, and they tell us that the habits they built inside of it “unlocked their creativity” at solving problems successfully once they left.

    Just some food for thought. 🙂

    • Doug_Lemov
      July 2, 2013 at 7:46 pm

      What a great response–full of real world insight. Thanks for posting it, Chris!

    • Doug_Lemov
      July 2, 2013 at 7:49 pm

      i should just add that a lot of the comments the HS principals we talked to made were essentially that HS kids is not as different from MS as everyone says… i think my post highlighted some of the subtle differences but the argument for continuity is a strong one as well.

    • Chris Bostock
      July 3, 2013 at 12:50 am

      Total agreement here. I think the ultimate trick either way is to not accept baseline compliance as the end-all-be-all – it simply lays the foundation for a stronger academic culture by making it safe to learn. The trickier part of high school student culture is figuring out how to invest students when chants and cheers become less “cool” over time. We used to do a bunch of crazy investment activities, but ultimately they just were taxing to our teachers and distracted them from the core work of writing and delivering great lessons. I think the great struggle we face (and I suspect others do to), is how to consistently create a school in which the dominant culture is one where students strive to be “nerds.” It’d be interesting to hear about whole schools or classes who have exemplary levels of student investment in the content or simply working exceptionally hard and what those schools/teachers do to really foster that. High school is often the greatest test of our efforts to instill deferred gratification.

  3. Amy
    November 12, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    What should the consequence be for a elementary child saying NO to a teacher repeatedly…
    It is happening more and more in my school and I as a teacher feels helpless….

    • Doug Lemov
      November 13, 2017 at 7:00 pm

      I’d probably want to start with a written reflection write away. if it happens again perhaps i add perhaps a short note of apology from student to teacher and then if it happens again i add practice–trying to install a replacement behavior. What do i want to the student to do instead? Can i have him/her practice it to re learn the habit?

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