It’s June! Let Collective Punishment Begin!

It’s June! YES! Students are rejoicing, and teachers who have been working 12 months in the span of 10 months are ready for the break. But it’s June, and the kids are losing their collective minds. So when something happens, they should all pay the price together, right?

There’s only one problem…. Collective punishment punishes all students and sends several messages (all negative). More importantly, collective punishment is against the Geneva Convention, against the law, and is considered by many experts to be a form of emotional abuse. With that said, while many teachers have used collective punishment and there are specific times in the school year when it feels most appropriate, there are real consequences to using collective punishment that are not outcomes we as educators want for our kids.

I’ve used collective punishment, and every time I’ve used it, I’ve felt guilty about it and looked at the faces of the kids I KNEW had been following the rules and thought, “What did he do? Why is she part of this?” I now know why I had that awful little tickle in my head, that disconnected feeling each time I utilized the “I don’t know who did it, so EVERYONE has lost the movie!” or the “I told you to quiet down, so now EVERYONE will have to pay the price!” maneuver. The more I’ve read about it, the more I’m convinced that I will never use collective punishment again.

There are three times of the year when I notice an uptick in punishing everyone: the beginning of the school year, right before Spring Break, and the end of the school year. These are stressful times for teachers and students alike. In the fall, teachers are still learning names, figuring out who can be sneaky and who would never tell a lie, and must make certain that rules and procedures are internalized and followed in order to have a productive and safe school year. Of course under these circumstances, when the teacher is trying to work on team building and responsibility, the use of collective punishment makes sense. Except that it doesn’t make sense.

One reason often given for collective punishment is that it reinforces team building. Students have to learn how to work together and follow the rules together or they all pay the price. But what kind of team are you looking to build? Are you trying to build a team of tattling sycophants who will do almost anything for approval? Then collective punishment is for you. We’ve seen it in history… think about the McCarthy era. The prosecution of “all” communists during the McCarthy hearings was a form of collective punishment. Every single communist would have to pay the price… unless they figured out how to snatch up a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. That often involved reporting others for being closet communists. Did it matter if the new target actually practiced communism? NO. The only real objective was to get yourself free. So, if you want to encourage false accusations and blame, then collective punishment will work.

Yeah, but that’s just ridiculous. That’s not the kind of collective punishment I mean. Okay, so when we think of collective punishment, we think of a specific group of students in a given classroom, not people outside of the group. So collective punishment for a specific class will reinforce team building there, right? Not so fast…. There is a bias belief buried in this thought process: students who misbehave will feel ashamed that the whole class had to pay for their behavior. Think about that. The kids who had no compunction about acting up in class will now feel ashamed? How often does that happen? In reality, the only kids who feel shame are the ones who shouldn’t feel ashamed at all. The kid who behaves and puts forth an honest effort day after day will feel angry, frustrated, confused, and ashamed for being punished. “What should I have done?” they ask themselves. “How could I have stopped Eric from throwing one more piece of paper? How do I KNOW when this will BE that one last piece of paper?” So, now transport yourself to a summer vacation drive down I-95. You’re staying close to the speed limit, you’re maintaining a safe driving distance, you’re not on your cell phone. All of a sudden, 5 police cars block the road and pull over 25 cars, including you. In that group, 5 drivers were tailgating, 5 drivers were texting, and 3 drivers were talking on their cell phones. So the police decide that EVERYBODY is going to get a ticket for careless driving. After all, YOU allowed that behavior to continue; YOU were part of the group; YOU should be sharing the road more responsibly. What would happen? How would YOU react?

And notice that those kids are feeling shame, not guilt. There is a difference. According to Tangney et al, “shame is considered the more painful emotion because one’s core self—not simply one’s behavior—is at stake. Feelings of shame are typically accompanied by a sense of shrinking or of “being small” and by a sense of worthlessness and power-lessness.” Powerless, being small. These are not feelings we want to instill in our students. We want them to feel empowered to stand up for themselves and make the right choice. We want them to have a positive socialization experience, not toxic socialization.

I get it… that ticket scenario would never happen. But why? Because we’re adults. So, it’s okay to treat kids this way, but not adults. Here’s the problem: collective punishment screams out, “I don’t respect your efforts to behave; I don’t respect YOU.” Is that the message we want to give to kids? If it is, then we’re telling every well-behaved student that behavior just doesn’t matter.

Remember, we want our kids to be empathetic. Yet collective punishments are counterproductive to encouraging empathy in a child. As Tangney et al explains, we often set up a conflict of “Other-oriented empathy versus self-oriented distress.” There is a difference between feeling guilt and feeling shame. When we collectively punish, some students will respond with a feeling of shame, a feeling of wanting to hide and escape. Because of this response, “In describing personal experiences of guilt, people convey greater empathy for others than when describing shame experiences.” Therefore, if the guilty party or parties are disciplined, others in the class may feel empathy for them. However, if the entire class is punished, then we’re setting up not a culture of team, but a culture of everyone for themselves.

We also are in accord that we don’t want our kids to give into peer pressure. Yet the concept of collective punishment hinges on just that: if enough KIDS (peers) pressure the ones acting out to behave, then the behavior will stop. If we really want to encourage personal responsibility, then where does collective punishment fit in? I don’t think it does. How it CAN encourage peer pressure is different than what we want to occur. If we’re ALL going to get punished, why shouldn’t I just join in with the fun? What reason do I have to be good when everyone is being labeled as bad?

I’ve read some articles where people exclaim collective punishment is simply teachers being lazy. That is, to my mind, nonsense. Teachers have to keep the day moving, the learning moving, and behaviors often get in the way of important learning. As society continues to up the ante with high stakes testing, the need to keep on moving is ever-increasing. Teachers are NOT being lazy with the use of collective punishment. I’m sure many are relying on what happened in their own classrooms, and some were even provided with this type of punishment as a viable tool when student teaching.

But collective punishment is just that — punishment. We shouldn’t be looking to punish our kids. There is a great deal of difference between punishment and discipline. We also have to repeat procedures over and over again to help classmates understand and internalize expectations. In these times of sponging out every moment possible for learning all there is to learn, reteaching procedures may seem a waste of valuable time. In reality, by reteaching procedures, we’ll save time in the end and collective punishment will not cross our minds.

We need to remember that when we treat children collectively, we are taking away their individuality. As Angela Watson explains in her blog on the same topic, after talking to little Morgan’s mother, she had to think long and hard about the consequences of collective punishment. Like I said, I’m going to do my best to make certain I never use collective punishment again. And I hope many other educators will join in this crusade against the practice.

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