An overcomplicated system of sanctions will inevitably break down. Dave Stott gives some practical advice on how to make sanctions more effective by keeping them clear and simple

Many classroom behaviour or discipline plans still retain the three components of rules, rewards and consequences. Rules should be few in number, clear, observable and easily understood. The rewards should be hierarchical and be something that all students value and have access to. However, consequences, or sanctions, can often be overcomplicated and difficult to implement, leading to a lack of effectiveness.

The concept of a behaviour plan is to provide a clear framework of boundaries and expectations for students to follow which is in turn reinforced by rewards and sanctions that enable students to make good choices about their own behaviour. A system which is complex or prone to misuse is a system that will inevitably break down and fail.

Sanctions that require too much of your own time or that of colleagues (e.g. students being ‘sent’ to report to another member of staff, or requiring supervision during break, lunchtime or after school) are often not followed up. Students quickly understand that any part of a behaviour plan or policy that is not fully implemented is unfair and may see it as just a series of threats.

A positive and effective sanction should not simply be a form of punishment – which many students are prepared to take without changing their behaviour – but should be a response that allows them to consider their actions, to reflect on the situation and to consider making a more acceptable choice next time.

A simple example of this is to take a closer look at the well used sanction of ‘staying behind’ at the end of the lesson. In many cases this can involve a range of problems for you as the teacher and for your colleagues who are taking the next lesson:

  1. If the sanction is used at the beginning of the lesson there is perhaps nearly an hour before it is implemented.
  2. There is a temptation at the end of the lesson to not carry out the sanction in full, but to let the student off with a comment such as ‘Don’t do that again because next time…’
  3. It is also easy to ‘over implement’ the sanction. (How long should you keep the student back?)
  4. By keeping a student back at the end of your lesson, you will make the student late for the next, thereby giving your colleagues more problems!

Practical Tips

If you are keeping a student behind at the end of the lesson, try putting the following tips into practice:

  1. Keep it short. There is no real benefit to keeping the student back for five minutes or more. When the bell goes, or the lesson ends, most students simply want to exit the room. You can make your point and increase the effectiveness of the sanction by keeping the student back for no more than one minute. He/she waits behind while the rest of the class leave.
  2. Remember the sanction is the staying behind. There is no need to enter a prolonged questioning session about behaviour. It is the inevitability and lack of personal involvement that increases the effectiveness.
  3. If you want the student to reflect on his/her behaviour and to reinforce the accepted rules and boundaries within your classroom it could be worthwhile using a ‘think sheet’ while the student is waiting his/her one or two minutes.

A think sheet is intended to allow the student to consider:

  • what they did
  • the rule they chose not to follow
  • what they will do next time

Think sheets can be handwritten, hard copies, part of a one-to-one conversation or recorded electronically. It is worthwhile keeping completed think sheets, which will help to form a clearer, more objective picture of student behaviour and may provide a useful additional resource for any future conversations or planning.

Design your sanctions in the form of a hierarchy that is easy to implement, be prepared to carry them out to the letter (do not use them as a range of threats) and, above all, make sure they are seen as a reinforcement of the classroom rules and expectations.

It is all too easy to escalate your response to challenging behaviour and to move from a relatively low level response (‘the look’, a verbal warning or physical proximity) to a sanction that is way over the top (sending students to senior management or after-school detention, etc) simply because you have overreacted and ignored your own behaviour plan. Keep your sanctions clear, simple and effective, don’t overreact, and always mean what you say.  

This e-bulletin issue was first published in December 2011

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.