Why you need to stop punishing your students: solutions for 3 common problems

In many of the young learner classes I watch, teachers try to control their students’ behaviour using punishment. In this article, I’m going to tell you  

  • why punishment causes more behaviour problems than it solves 
  • which punishments are the most destructive 
  • alternatives you can use to stop negative student behaviour 
  • how to prevent negative behaviour from reoccurring in the future. 

Register for our next Teaching skills or CertTESOL Taster Workshops here.

Problems with punishment 

I said at the start, I think you need to stop punishing your students. Here’s why. 

It’s bad for learning 

Students learn best in environments where they feel safe, accepted and appreciated. Relying on punishment to control behaviour does the opposite. Students who get punished feel their teachers don’t like them. These negative effects also apply to the ‘good students’. Punishing one student makes the rest of the class anxious, worrying, “Maybe I’ll be next”. The more anxious students are, the less they’ll learn.  

It results in more negative behaviour 

Lots of students misbehave because they want attention. Punishing students gives them the attention that they want. The more you punish your students the more likely it is you’ll see the same behaviour in the future.  

It becomes less effective over time 

The more you use a punishment, the less effective it becomes. Students who are disciplined time and time again eventually get acclimated. This leads to a vicious circle: teachers may resort to stronger forms of punishment to get the same results.  

It damages motivation 

Would you want to keep studying a subject where you get punished every class? I wouldn’t. I suspect a lot of the reasons why students drop English are because they’re tired of being told off.  

It kills relationships 

Relationships with students take years to build and seconds to destroy. Losing your temper, shouting at, or humiliating students destroys these delicate relationships. As well as demotivating students, you’ll lose respect and cooperation.  

Its bad for you 

Finally, do you want to be the kind of teacher who enjoys positive relationships with their students? Or do you want to be the kind of teacher who spends days arguing with students and making them feel bad?  


Punishments to avoid 

All punishments are destructive, but some are more destructive than others. These punishments are especially toxic.  

Collective punishment 

Collective punishment is when a group of students (often the whole class) is punished for the actions of one or two students. For example, if some students are too noisy, the whole class gets given extra homework. 

Collective punishment is bad because it’s 

  • not fair. If your students feel you don’t treat them fairly, they’ll lose respect for you. 
  • can lead to bullying. No one will want to be friends with the student who got everyone punished. 
  • makes students dislike school (or your class in particular).  

Public punishments 

Teachers regularly punish students for distracting their peers. Yet when teachers publicly punish a student, they usually distract the entire class! Public punishments stop the whole class from learning by focusing students’ attention on the punishment being given out instead of the topic of the class. Public punishments also humiliate the student being punished. If you need to punish a student, do it in private. 

Sending students outside 

Kicking a student out of the classroom and into the corridor is problematic for a few reasons. 

  • First, it puts a student in control of a volatile situation (instead of the teacher). After being told to “Get out”, the student can refuse to leave. The teacher then has to make an uncomfortable choice: escalate the situation or back down. Backing down means the students will lose respect for you. Escalating the situation creates more distractions and loses sight of why you wanted to send the student outside in the first place. 
  • A student being sent out of class is a dramatic event. Learning is about memory and we tend to remember emotional events best. If you want students to remember the content of your lessons, keep the lessons dramatic and the behaviour management boring (not the other way round). 
  • Once a student is out of sight, you can’t see what they’re up to. One of my colleague’s students once fell off the third story of the school when they were outside of the classroom. The student you sent out could also disturb other classes or sneak out of the school. These are bigger headaches than the original problem. 
  • In private language schools, parents will be upset if they paid for an English class, but their child just stood outside an English class. If they complain, you could get in trouble with your school management. Punishing a student by sending them outside might lead to your school punishing you.  

Vague punishments  

I remember in my first year at middle school being taken into the deputy head master’s office and told, “We know what you did. If you do it again, there will be serious consequences.” I asked what the problem was, but the teacher refused to tell me. I had no idea what I had done and so couldn’t change my behaviour afterwards.  

Something similar happens in language classes when English language learners get told off in a foreign language: they don’t understand what they’ve done. If students don’t know why they’re being punished, they can’t change their behaviour. Not only is this ineffective, it also breeds resentment. I’m still annoyed about being unfairly told off in middle school! 

For using L1 

It’s frustrating when students lapse into their mother tongue (L1) in English class. However, punishing students for using their L1 penalizes students for expressing themselves. Instead of punishing students for using their L1, use this as a stepping-stone for teaching English. When students use L1 you can: 

  • translate what they said into English. This acknowledges what your students said and gives personalized input. This works well with younger students. 
  • ask the class “Does anyone knows how to say ____ in English?” This helps students figure out how to say what they want to say in English.  
  • set clear expectations for when it’s okay to use mother tongue and when it’s not. You could put a two-sided flashcard on the board and turn this over to show “English” or “First language” depending on the activity or stage of the lesson. 
  • ask students to put the things they say in L1 on slips of paper and put these in the ‘L1 bucket’. At the end of the lesson, ask students to pick out slips of paper from a bucket and translate these into English. 


Solutions instead of punishment 

Instead of punishing your students, search for solutions to the problems their behaviour causes. Aim to solve behaviour problems 

  • quickly. Students come to school to learn, not to be disciplined. 
  • respectfully. Avoid making students feel bad. Confident students learn better than humiliated ones. 
  • subtly. Integrate your solutions into fun activities. 

Let’s look at some typical student problems and how to solve these.  

Problem #1: Chatting 

Problem: Two students are talking to each other. 

Reason: They aren’t engaged in the lesson. 

Avoid: Threatening to punish the talking students or tell one of the students to move.  

Possible solutions 

  • Pause the class to play ‘Seat Swap’. The teacher calls out the name of three students who must change seats. After several rounds, start the class again. The chatting students should no longer be sitting next to each other. 
  • If the students are talking while you are giving instructions, ignore them and carry on. The students might already know what to do (or will figure this out from their peers).  
  • Subtly remind the students to listen. Make eye contact with them, include their names in your teacher talk, or walk closer to them. 
  • Ask the students to look at the class rules (which hopefully were co-created by them). After students read these, ask them what they’re not doing or could do better.  

Problem #2: Restlessness 

Problem: Students are restless. Some students are swinging on their seats and/or crawling on the floor. 

Possible reasons: Students want to move.  

  • They’ve been sitting in the same place for a long time 
  • The activity has lasted longer than their attention span.  
  • Some of the students want attention. 

Avoid: Punishing the students who are moving. They can’t help feeling restless. 

Possible solutions:  

  • Play a game (a stirrer/settler) which gets students moving around the room. 
  • Change the order of your lesson plan. Start an activity which involves movement. 
  • Hold a quick behaviour competition. Ask the class “Who is sitting nicely?” Reward students who are sitting still in their seats. 
  • If you think the students are moving because they want attention, wait until after the students stop fidgeting, then praise the student for sitting nicely. 
  • Find a role for the restless student which involves movement. Perhaps they could model the activity with you (if you’re giving instructions), help you turn the page of your book (if you’re reading), or give points to student teams (if the class is playing a game).  

Problem #3: Distracted 

Problem: Students are distracted and not paying attention. 

Reason: Something more interesting than your lesson has the students’ attention. 

Avoid: Shouting to attract everyone’s attention. This models a behaviour (shouting) which you don’t want the students to copy. 

Possible solutions:  

  • Use a refocuser. For example, say, “Everyone look at ____ [name of a student]”. Name several students. Finally say “Everyone look at me.” 
  • Move to the next stage of the lesson. A new activity might be more interesting than the distraction. 
  • Make the distraction into a ‘teachable moment’. If students are distracted by something outside the classroom or something on the wall, talk to the students about it (or ask them questions about it). 
  • Give the distracted students something more interesting to do. Let them control part of the activity or give them a role with more responsibility.  

Stop it happening again 

After a student consistently misbehaves, ask yourself, “What can I do to stop this happening next time?”  

Find triggers 

Look for reasons why students misbehave. What patterns are there? Does negative behaviour happen at specific times during your lessons? Which lesson stages are the most problematic? Do some students get overexcited during certain activities? Find out what it is that triggers negative behavior, then try to avoid these triggers in future. 

Reframe emotions 

Avoid lecturing children on how they should behave. If a child has behaved out of character, listen instead of speaking. Start by asking how they feel. You might say “This is unlike you. Are you okay?” Or “Has anything bad happened to you recently?” This can help you connect with the student and understand the emotions which led to the behavior. Once you understand the emotions, you can help the student reframe them. If a student swears at a classmate and says they were angry, ask, “What else could you do when you feel angry?” If you can’t speak the same first language as your students, ask a responsible adult in your school to translate for you. 

Understanding relationships 

Notice which students tend to misbehave when they’re near each other. Rearrange your class seating or regroup students to split these students up. You could do this playing Seat Swap, or regrouping students by getting students to mingle, then calling out a number. Students have to get into groups with this number of people. Students then work in these groups during class. 

Putting it into practice 

Changing your approach to students’ behaviour is easier said than done. Many of our actions in the classroom are instinctual: teachers teach in the same way they were taught. The next time you find yourself punishing a student, pause. Think about why some students are misbehaving. Ask yourself, how can you solve the problem without resorting to punishment? And after class plan how to encourage positive behaviour, instead of discouraging negative behaviour. 

About the Author

Ross Thorburn

Ross Thorburn is a teacher trainer, materials writer and consultant based in Shanghai. Ross started his career in language teaching in 2006. He holds a Trinity DipTESOL, a Trinity FTCL TESOL, an IDLTM from the University of Queensland and a Master’s Degree in Language Education from NILE. Ross is also a keen researcher and has published research articles on teacher training, teacher motivation, task-based learning and young learners. In 2020, Ross published his first book, Inside Online Language Teaching. He also is the host of the TEFL Training Institute podcast.

Need a confidence boost in the classroom?

Find teaching skills workshops to help.


Need a confidence boost in the classroom?

Find teaching skills workshops to help.


Trinity Certificate in TESOL

Access top teaching positions in Hong Kong and overseas with the Trinity Certificate in TESOL.

Accepted by the Hong Kong Education Bureau for Primary NET teaching positions.