Classroom management without rancour: the Art of the Consequence

Classroom management without rancour: the Art of the Consequence

What am I going to do with Jack?  For the third time this lesson, he’s distracting his peers.  I’ve given him a non-verbal signal, then an encouraging redirection: this warrants something more.  No matter how well I practice 100% techniques like non-verbal reminders, on occasions, intentionally or not, student behaviour demands a consequence.  This might mean moving seats, working in silence, or leaving the classroom; today however, I’m just following school policy: and writing a ‘strike’ on Jack’s behaviour card.*  How might I phrase it?

  • “Can you get your card out for me please.”
  • “You were repeatedly distracting others, card out please.”
  • “Card out.”

Thing is, I know he’ll kick off.  Sanctions are invariably met by argument, which chews up my time and his peers’ attention.  I’m in a bind: I have to address Jack’s behaviour, but doing so will make it worse.  His reactions may include:

  • Disputing facts: “I wasn’t doing anything”/”It wasn’t me”
  • Disputing interpretation of the facts: “He threw the pen first”/”I was still working”
  • Disputing the consequence’s fairness: “I know I did, but that’s not a detention”/”You didn’t make Essa move”
  • Disputing the teacher’s fairness: “You always pick on me”
  • Appealing to expert witnesses: “You saw me Jan, I was working wasn’t I?”/”Didn’t I just drop it?”
  • Refusing to follow instructions (justified by any of the preceding points)

Jack may have a case: my teacher-sense is good, but it’s not unerring.  If he does though, discussion is for break: spending lessons debating the operation of the behaviour policy in Room H6 is time means I’m not teaching, and neither Jack, nor anyone else in earshot is learning.

A series of unfortunate events - strikes on a behaviour card for NFI (Not Following Instructions), NF (Not Focused) culminating in INBH (Inappropriate Behaviour).  This was before I learned about the 'Art of the Consequence:' perhaps I had managed the first 'strike' better, things would have ended differently.

Strikes on a behaviour card: NFI (Not Following Instructions), NF (Not Focused) culminating in INBH (Inappropriate Behaviour). This was before I learned about the ‘Art of the Consequence:’ perhaps if I had managed the first ‘strike’ better, things would have ended differently.

I’m sure Jack will give me his card (although I know other teachers for whom he won’t); but I don’t think this strike will solve anything.  It’ll leave a sour taste, for Jack, for me, and perhaps for the class.  I doubt Jack will focus on learning; more likely, his inner narrative will run “Fine, I’m not doing any work for you.”

Moreover, this challenging Harvard Business Review blog reframes this situation around a bigger question: “What do you want them to say after they walk away?”  It’s easy to think ‘I did the right thing and that’s an end to it.’  It’s even easier to wonder why I should go out of my way to ensure a student who has chosen to misbehave consistently should be left feeling uplifted.  On the other hand, I’m teaching Jack again tomorrow and I want him learning; I want him to benefit from the rest of this lesson.  In any case, I’m unsure senior leaders will follow up appropriately, no matter how many strikes Jack accrues.  I need a way to stop and mark Jack’s behaviour which also sets him up to do better.

Having reviewed Teach Like a Champion 2.0 last week, I want to focus on a new technique: the ‘Art of the Consequence,’ which may solve my dilemma: how to issue a sanction without making things worse?

Lemov’s suggests what I say to Jack might include:

  • Tagging the behaviour – ensuring he’s clear exactly what he’s done
  • Purpose not power – underscoring that this is about Jack’s education, and that of his peers
  • The bounce back – a positive statement about how I want him to act now

As with all Lemov’s work, he’s offering suggestions, not a formulae; Uncommon videos show teachers selecting among these ideas.  But if I set out to include them all, instead of “Card out please,” I might say:

Look at me; thank you.  Your calling out is disrupting our learning, card out please, I want to see you waiting patiently for a turn, as you did when you made that excellent point yesterday.”

This is an idealised sentence and may look long: according to need and context, I might chop or change it.  But the more I habituate myself to these elements, the more likely I am to use them under pressure.

Lemov counsels further considerations.  It’s worth maintaining the ‘Illusion of Privacy’ – avoiding a perceived public power struggle – and ‘Emotional Constancy’ – not showing my irritation or frustration.  He also offers insightful comment as to choosing between a consequence and a correction, focused on a student’s motivation, the persistence of their misbehaviour and the degree of disruption it has caused.

Jack is a hypothetical and pseudonymous student amalgamating characteristics of at least three individuals I may once have known, and I’m struggling to speculate exactly how he’ll react.  This hasn’t become a habitual practice for me yet, but when I’ve used it I have seen many positive effects: at the very least, it has pre-empted some of the unhelpful disputes which consequences can engender and caused more willing changes to students’  behaviour.  Sometimes, this has been accompanied with a nod of recognition and even a smile: tacit acknowledgement from students, I think, that yes, this is fair; yes, I can do better.  The situation has felt conciliatory rather than confrontational; I’ve been left feeling positive.  When I led a session on this last term one colleague who tried it described the technique as a “Revelation.”

This is not unproblematic: school policies can obstruct doing it effectively (at my former school, we went through a number of officially-sanctioned approaches to consequence, none of which looked much like this).  Nor is it a panacea: it is a tool to be used alongside clear expectations and proper support for those who consistently struggle to meet them.  However, it is a powerful approach to address poor behaviour early, without causing conflict.  And it can help get Jack back on track, by ensuring he walks away thinking: I made a mistake, but I’ll do better.


* In my former school, the experience of which provides some of the basis for this post, ‘strikes’ accrued to detentions (according to a tariff which changed several times).  This post raises questions about whole-school behaviour management policies, but does not seek to answer them.

Teach Like a Champion 2.0: the book, detailed review, brief review.

Aiming for ‘100%‘ of students on task.