Why Threatening Consequences Causes Misbehavior

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Surprisingly, it’s becoming more common, not less.

You’d think that refraining from threatening consequences—rather than following through on them—would be classroom management 101.

But since the pandemic, and the precipitous drop in standards, the old “Stop what you’re doing or else” has made a roaring comeback.

The reason is twofold.

First, it meshes with the current sentiment that students need more chances, more understanding of their wants and needs, and fewer set-in-stone rules and guidelines.

Second, it’s generational. Although I meet a lot of awesome young teachers with backbone and strong leadership skills, too many are as soft as boba. Philosophically, the whole idea of setting clear limits is anathema to them.

But human nature has its own ideas.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter what you think or believe, the failure to follow through with a predetermined consequence the moment you witness misbehavior will always and eventually result in more misbehavior.

Here’s why:

Threats tell students you’re afraid.

The first time you threaten action, rather than acting, you communicate loud and clear to your students that you’re afraid to follow through.

Thus, you can be ignored, manipulated, and not taken seriously.

Everyone in the class will know it and behave differently because of it. You may think that the problem is them and that they’re rude and immature—and they are—but you’re the cause.

Threats tell students you don’t mean what you say.

If you can’t be trusted in this one area, that so publicly exposes the kind of leader you are, then you can’t be trusted in anything else either.

Your lessons. Your stories. The advice you provide. The directions you give. All of it can and will be called into question. All of it will carry a seed of doubt in the mind of every student.

The weight and resonance of your words, your very presence, your aura and gravitas, will disappear like a spirit in the night.

Threats open you to challenge and aggression.

Inevitably, when the chaos and disrespect get too much you will realize the supreme error of making threats and try, perhaps tentatively, to actually hold students accountable.

But it won’t go well.

You’ll get refusal to go to time-out or detention. You’ll get angry challenges of your leadership. You’ll get downright aggressive push-back.

Threats lead to silliness and immaturity.

Without real consequence, threats will eventually be met with laughter. Your students will see you as insignificant, no more a leader than a hanger-on friend.

They may not even hear your threats over their loud jokes, horrendous cursing, and wriggling immaturity. To save face, you may even laugh along too.

Sad, but all too common.

Threats turn you into someone you won’t recognize.

Teachers who threaten believe that students will appreciate second chances. They don’t. Deep down students want firm limits. Because it shows you care. It shows they have worth.

In the face of daily chaos, teachers eventually become who they despise. It may take a few years, but they’ll inevitably become angry, sarcastic, bitter, and antagonistic toward their students.

They’ll raise their voice. They’ll stomp and lecture. They’ll growl and glare. They’ll wake up one day and wonder where their dreams went.

A Warning Instead

Threats by their nature mean nothing. Forgotten sound lost in the wind. They have no teeth, no bite, no meaning of any kind.

A warning, on the other hand, given in the exact manner modeled and promised to students, and in response to a first infraction of classroom rules, matters.

Although in effect a courtesy, it has power because it’s backed by a consequence students don’t like and that forces a form of accountability they must wrestle with—an internal confrontation with themselves.

Now, it’s important to point out that there are strategies and principles that must be implemented in order to make a simple warning effective in curbing misbehavior.

Therefore, I encourage you to click the links in the article, visit the archive, run a search of the site, or purchase one of our books.

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