In this article I will define what an “environment where no punishment is allowed” really is, where can this type of environment be found, and why do such environments even exist. Then we can analyze what kind of problems this can present for ESL teachers working with children. And finally I present some guidelines as to what can the teachers do in these situations to minimize or solve discipline issues and maintain a good learning environment. All the information presented in this article is the product personal experience and observation performed by myself in the course of two years. I hope it can be useful to the reader as it was to me.First things first, “punishment” is a harsh word and often invokes concepts like physical punishment in the mind of the listener. Sadly many parts of the world still use physical punishment as means of instruction. But I believe most proper schools have long outgrown physical punishment in the classrooms. And under no circumstance a teacher should abuse a student physically or mentally regardless of the situation. Physical punishment therefore should be entirely left for the parents to decide. The type of punishment that I refer to in this article is by no means physical, but just a negative response to inappropriate behavior with the intention of changing it (e.g. If you are naughty you don’t get candy at the end of the class like everyone else).An environment where no punishment is allowed is a learning environment where the teacher and the staff are not allowed by the administration to punish the students in any significant way; thus encouraging behavior that often prevents other students from learning in a normal and healthy way. Classroom punishments can be any type of strategies imposed by a person in authority that the students who display inappropriate behavior would find undesirable and in the future discourage that kind of behavior. However lately there are more and more overseas learning centers that are not allowing these strategies to take place in their classrooms. Reasons can vary but it is often a result of a business strategy by the administration. There is a growing misconception that if children are always happy then parents will always be happy and continue to pay for their children’s education. In turn the administration trusts that if the parents are never told anything bad about their children they will believe that all is well, and thus encourage them to register their kids for extra classes. This is a fallacy because a learning institution’s purpose is to teach and that is what parents are paying for. In this situation the parents are being misled into believing that their children have no flaws, when it is not the case. This can also be very harmful to a child’s development as bad behavior is encouraged rather than corrected. The administration in this kind of places can change their strategy over time. But in the meantime a teacher should deliver his or her class the best way the circumstances allow for.
A teacher in this situation is often asked to rule out strategies that modify behavior which are based in notorious rewards and punishments. This means that if at the end of the class one good child gets a sticker, everyone should get a sticker regardless of their behavior. And if a child behaves disruptively during class he or she cannot be kicked out of the classroom or suspended from school for example. Even when playing by those rules, a teacher can greatly improve the classroom’s environment and the children’s performance by adopting some of the following strategies:
A teacher should always assume the position of someone in authority. The children should never feel like they have more power and authority than the teacher, regardless of the circumstances. This involves keeping his or her word. If a teacher issues a threat he or she should make it happen. If it never happens, the teacher loses credibility and respect. In other words a teacher should only make threats that he or she can go through with or not make any at all.
Be careful when threatening. As stated above, threatening should only be done before the rules are broken AND when the teacher can keep his or her word. Once the rules are broken the consequences agreed upon must fall on the student who broke them. This must be done every time, for everyone. Or else the rules become meaningless and the teacher loses credibility. Making threats that cannot be met hoping the students won’t cross the line sometimes works, but is not a chance always worth taking.
Communicate with the staff. The school’s staff is a teacher’s most powerful ally. A teacher should regularly talk with them about class and what strategies can be adopted to deliver class more effectively. They can provide the teacher with valuable feedback and support his or her decisions. Teachers won’t get fired for proposing ideas. There is nothing wrong in pointing out to coworkers the flaws in the system and provide them with a different point of view on how the situation could be improved.
Always be clear. Teachers should always be clear on the rules the students should follow, and be impartial when applying them. If the students’ English level is not high enough to understand this, the teacher should rely on the staff to translate and make sure everyone understands. If possible post the rules on the wall and refer to them when needed during class. When a student breaks a rule make sure he or she understand what rule was broken and why.
Make use of rewards. Regardless of the school’s system a teacher should reward good behavior. Rewarding good students in the classroom and exemplifying their behavior can provide a great incentive for naughty students to make an effort and improve theirs. One should pay careful attention to reward and praise naughty students who successfully changed their behavior, and if possible communicate this to the parents as well.
Communicate with the parents. Parents deserve to know the situation inside the classroom and if their kids are having unacceptable behavior. If given the opportunity, talk to the parents and discuss different strategies that can help improve the problem. While some parents will not do anything to stop this from occurring, most of them will actually talk to or punish their children and closely monitor them so it does not happen again. This is only if given the opportunity by the school and parents themselves.
Be tactful. A teacher should let the parents know when their kids are being naughty without implying that their kids are bad or their parenting skills are wrong (even if this is the case). This can be especially difficult in some cultures where a misunderstood comment can really offend or make the parents ashamed. Because of this, it is particularly important to work with the staff as they might have a better understanding of the cultural circumstances and can phrase things for the teacher. In turn this can stop him or her from making a serious mistake.
Respect the rules. At the end teacher is an employee, and the learning center is a business. So the leaders and administration will always have the last word. Teachers and staff should always abide by it, and if a teacher agrees to work under those conditions he or she should honor them during class.
These strategies can help improve the situation in class most of the times. However there are some cases when they are not enough to make the necessary changes and other student’s learning is compromised. When this happens and the teacher is unable to give class in an effective way, it is important that he or she communicates the situation to the staff and the administration. At the end a school’s purpose is to teach, and if this cannot be done then the people in charge should be informed. Teachers should also remember that they are there to teach, and their students’ behavior is not their responsibility but the children’s parents’. It is always helpful to remain calm and try to have fun during class.