A common group punishment is taking away recess from a whole class of students

Is Group Punishment Really That Bad?

I have a confession to make. As a classroom teacher, I assigned group punishment.

There, I said it. 

I knew that group punishment was “wrong.” In fact, one of the first things I was told when I began teaching was that I “should never punish the whole class for the actions of a few students.”

Yet I did it anyway. In fact, I committed all manner of classroom management atrocities. 

*I took away recess: No-no.

*I assigned classwork grades based on behavior: Big no-no.

*I even assigned extra work to students for misbehaving: HUGE NO-NO!

But the question remains, why did I do these things if I knew they were wrong?

Why Teachers Assign Group Punishment

The answer is pretty simple. And actually quite common in education. I had been told what I shouldn’t do to manage student behavior. But the advice-givers weren’t always as forthcoming with solutions to the very real classroom challenges I faced.

I see this all the time in online teacher forums. A teacher asks for help because her students are bouncing off the walls. “I’ve tried everything. I keep in them in from recess, call their parents, and scream and yell, but my students are still OUT. OF. CONTROL!”

Soon, several teachers are chiming in, “Punishment doesn’t work.” “Plan better lessons.” “Build relationships.”

Just to be clear. These bits of advice are all true. Punishment doesn’t work, over the long term. And planning engaging lessons and building relationships with students really are the best ways to improve behavior.

But this doesn’t help the teacher who’s drowning. I’ve had the opportunity to teach in all types of schools. I’ve taught in schools where raising an eyebrow was enough to silence a rowdy class. And I’ve taught in others where giving a stern glance would get you a response along the lines of, “What the $#%& are you looking at?”

So before we can offer classroom management advice, it helps to understand and empathize with the unique challenges each teacher may be facing.

What the Research Says about Group Punishment

If you are unfamiliar with the criticisms of group punishment, a quick google search should fill you in.

In fact, the top hit is a Wikipedia article on collective punishment, which references historical atrocities from the Qin Dynasty through the current Syrian government. Some educators will even tell you that taking away recess is prohibited by the Geneva Convention.

While it’s a good idea to incorporate positive behavior management strategies, we don’t do any favors by equating a missed recess with what Wikipedia describes as “a form of retaliation whereby a suspected perpetrator’s family members, friends, acquaintances, sect, neighbors or entire ethnic group is targeted.”

And while there are no shortage of articles critical of group punishment (including this one and this one), there doesn’t seem to be much evidence on the practice. The first article links to two pieces of research that the author claims address group punishment (this one and this one). But both are against punishment in general. Neither paper even mentions group punishment.

Most of the opposition to collective punishment seems to consist of urban legends and opinion pieces penned by parents who felt their child had been treated unfairly. 

The one piece of research I could find on collective punishment didn’t even take a side. The article is pretty dense. But in short, it measured society’s perceptions of group punishment. The author found that people instinctively oppose collective punishment for loosely affiliated groups (such as everyone living on the same block). But when groups are tightly-knit (a group of friends vacationing together), people tend to see group punishment as reasonable.

Is it fair to say a class of students is somewhere in the middle?

When to Consider a Group Punishment

My experience as a classroom teacher has shown me that there are no simple answers. No classroom management strategy is without its perils. 

And for all its limitations, group punishment can be incredibly effective. While it shouldn’t be our first and only disciplinary strategy, there are times when a group punishment may be the best option. (To be honest, I don’t really know any teachers who resort to group punishment except when absolutely necessary).

When Most of the Class is Involved 

This is the most common, and obvious, reason for a group punishment. Disruptive behavior is usually limited to a few outburst, from a few students.

But every once in a while, disruptiveness spreads like a wildfire. Maybe it’s a full moon, maybe it’s Friday afternoon. For whatever reason, one student acts out, and the next thing you know, the whole class erupts in chaos.

For these times, a group consequence is totally reasonable. And when I’ve assigned them, my students would agree. “Sorry Mr. Jeff, we were all just feeling crazy yesterday.”

When It’s Really a Group Consequence 

In this post, I’ve used the term ‘punishment’ interchangeably with the word ‘consequence,’ but there is a difference. 

Scott Ervin has a great article on the difference between the two. In short, a punishment is a form of retaliation that may have nothing to do with the student behavior. 

He makes the case that punishments (whether group or individual) are a bad idea. But consequences, even group consequences, can be very effective. Group consequences, he explains, are reflective of the real world. Being a member of a group often means sharing consequences you did not cause.

A punishment is what a cartoon villain means when they say, “I’ll teach you a lesson!” Punishments make it easy for students to blame us for the results of their actions.

By contrast, a consequence is a logical result of their behavior. It’s what we do when we actually want to teach students a lesson. 

I often use a group consequence called the stopwatch strategy. If I am waiting for students’ attention, I start a timer. As soon as I have their attention, I pause the timer. 

At the end of the period, the students owe me all of my wait time. I let them know beforehand, “I need your attention for x minutes today.” It’s up to them whether I get those minutes in a row, or spread out over 2x minutes.

Not only is the consequence appropriate to the behavior, it’s also incremental. If they are off task for 1 minute, they owe me one minute. 

This is much more effective than ‘three strikes.’ After two strikes, students have no consequence. After the third strike, they’ve suddenly lost their entire recess. That just doesn’t make sense. And when it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t work.

In the Context of Relationship Building 

Context matters. Whether we are punishing students individually or as a group, we need to recognize that punishment alone doesn’t change behavior.

Whenever we assign a punishment, there will inevitably be some resentment. It’s important to follow-up punishments with a discussion. 

This way we are repairing the relationship, and starting to establish a classroom culture. Make sure students understand why they were punished. Talk through the ways you can avoid a similar situation in the future.

In the case of group punishments, it’s a good idea to involve students in setting classroom norms. For example:

“Do you know why you stayed after school for five minutes yesterday?” 

“Do you believe that was fair?” 

“Let’s agree on a list of class norms that will make sure we have productive classes going forward.”

You can even involve students in determining consequences. Most of the time, some will propose harsher consequences than you would. This allows you to be the ‘good cop,’ while still holding them accountable, and helping them take ownership of their learning.

When To Avoid Group Punishment

There are many times when it makes sense to apply the same punishment to the whole class. 

But we shouldn’t discount the concerns of those who oppose group punishments. In many cases, their objections make sense. In order to use group punishment effectively, we should also be clear on when not to use it.

When We’re Punishing Out of Frustration 

Whether it’s a group punishment or a homework assignment, we should never react to students out of frustration. Sometimes our emotions get the better of us, but decisions made in the heat of the moment rarely work out for the best.

When we are frustrated, we tend to overreact. Maybe you couldn’t sleep last night. And you splashed spaghetti sauce on your favorite shirt at lunch. No one in your morning classes did their homework. Now, John drops his books walking into 5th period. Everyone laughs, and the whole class loses their recess.

We need to recognize the tremendous power we hold over students and use that power with a soft touch. It may not always seem like we have power, especially when our students aren’t following directions. 

But we assign work. We assign grades. We control when they get to go to the bathroom. There is an enormous power differential. When we feel like students don’t listen or don’t respect us, it may be because we’ve been too heavy-handed with our power.

If we push students too far, they will eventually push back. Any time we assign punishment, we should feel a little guilty. And we should let them know. And even if they roll their eyes, tell them it’s because you care and you’re doing it for their own good.

For Academic Reasons 

This should go without saying, but punishing students for academics is a bad idea. This includes taking away free time when no one does their homework. And it certainly includes assigning extra work when a class does poorly on a test.

It may seem like a logical consequence, but there are a few problems here. For one, punishments should only be applied for ‘unwillingness.’ While we assume missing homework is an indicator of unwillingness, it often indicates inability. The same assignment may take one student ten minutes and another two hours.

Punishing students for academic reasons unfairly impacts our most vulnerable learners. These students may already be on the verge of giving up. Punishing them for shortcomings can push them over the edge.

Academic punishments also send the message that your subject is unpleasant. I want my students to love math and see the opportunity to do more math as a blessing. They may tell me I’m crazy, and that no one thinks math is fun. But even that makes for a fun classroom environment.

When we connect learning with punishment, we are only ensuring our students will become resistant to future assignments.

When You Don’t Know Who to Blame 

This one can be a bit tricky. Sometimes people conflate “everyone was involved” with “I don’t know who did it.”

This is a big mistake. If someone takes something from your desk, you can’t punish the whole class just because you can’t catch the person. That’s where group punishment begins crossing from sensible consequence into dystopian nightmare.

When we do this, we are essentially saying that we think other students know who did it. And if they don’t turn in the guilty party, we will hold them all accountable. 

But it’s not our students’ responsibility to police each other. Sure, we appreciate it when a student steps forward to share something important. But no one appreciates the student who tells you every time someone gets teased.

It’s important for students to develop relationships with their peers. Students today have a lot to navigate in that arena, so don’t put unnecessary pressure by forcing them to turn each other in.

Sometimes students are going to get away with things. They’ll face consequences sooner or later.

When It’s Become Routine 

Once a punishment becomes routine, it’s not working. Teachers will tell me they’ve been “writing names on the board all year,” and students are still acting out.

Then stop writing names on the board. Try something else. There is no one behavior management strategy that will work with every classroom.

If we continue to use strategies that don’t work, it further undermines our authority. This is especially true of group consequences.

Even when we use group punishments sparingly, some students will feel slighted. When students are losing recess or being held after school day after day, week after week, we are seriously damaging our relationships with those students.

Overuse of collective punishment can also backfire. Students who were behaving may eventually decide they might as well ‘do the crime,’ since they’re already ‘doing the time.’

When It’s Abusive 

Punishment doesn’t need to be physical to be abusive. Any time a punishment causes mental anguish, it’s a form of abuse.

There are two ways that group punishments can become abusive.

The first is when the punishment itself is abusive. That includes denying students bathroom privileges, stare at the walls for extended periods of time, or even write the same sentence over and over.

The other is when we use a group punishment to target an individual. For example, “Sorry class, you know we only play games on Friday if everyone’s desk is clean. Look how messy Asia’s desk is.”

Publicly shaming a student is a form of abuse. And when we punish the class for something that was clearly the responsibility of one student, we are going farther. 

If you assign a group punishment with the intention of having other students resent or retaliate against students who were responsible, it’s bound to backfire.

Become a Classroom Management Master

I hope this article has shed some light on the nuances of group punishment and consequences. 

If you use any of these strategies in your classroom, I’d love to hear how it worked out. Share your experience in our Facebook group, the Reflective Teachers Community. You can also post questions and get feedback from other educators.

If you’d benefit from extra support in improving classroom management, talk to one of our experienced instructional coaches. Our veteran educators can help you improve your classroom culture and build relationships. To schedule a free 30-min consultation, click here. Or click here to learn more about instructional coaching.

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About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff