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The Empowerment Approach to Behavior Management

Ignacio Lopez, Ed.D.

The Empowerment Approach to Behavior ManagementPunishment as a behavior management technique has been around for as long as schools have existed.

Even though teachers know that punishment will not transform troublemakers into well-behaved students, threats of punishment, fear of punishment and punishment itself are still common methods of making children of all ages behave.

Why not take this new year as a chance to empower your students rather than punish them?

Why Punishment Doesn’t Work

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Lack of Trust

There are several problems with using punishment as a way to “crowd control” your classroom. Punishment is a short-term solution that can create more long-term interruptions and problems. Teachers cannot simply bully students into behaving. If teachers use punishment techniques they run the risk of students becoming hostile. Teachers who are successful in making students afraid of them create classroom situations where students refuse to do work and lack trust between themelves and the teacher.

Band-Aid Affect

Punishment does not permanently change student behavior. Punishment acts like a band aid, only providing short term relief. Interestingly enough, teachers who run their classrooms like tyrants experience the most difficulty when they’re absent and a substitute is in the room.

We want students to grow up and be self-disciplined learners who can take control of their own behavior, and this will never happen to students who are punished frequently.

Negative Influence

Another reason not to use punishment is that, in few situations, some students are probably accustomed to cruelty and harsh behavior in their current life-world situations. It’s likely that some of your students have issues at home already; a mean-punishing-teacher would be another adult who is unkind to them.

Taxing Tendencies

Punishment does not motivate students and may cause teachers to quit. Teachers who think they can rule their classrooms with an iron fist all year have another thing coming to them. It’s taxing behavior to be mean for 40 weeks of school.

The Empowerment Approach

An approach of empowerment can be more effective than the punishment method. Teachers who can walk their students into the epiphany of their behavior have more success intervening with negative behavior than teachers who use punishment.

When teachers create positive behavior approaches or plans for their students, they minimize the role that punishment plays in the classroom and increase the likely hood of success.

Discipline Practices to Avoid

•  commanding students to comply with your directives

•  accepting excuses or being a pushover

•  making fun of students

•  nagging

•  being sarcastic

•  and losing your temper

3 Questions to Ask Yourself about Your Classroom Behavior Management

  • 1. How have I REACTED to the situation I just saw?
  • 2. How have I APPROACHED the student or students involved in the situation?
  • 3. What types of QUESTIONS can I ask, or have I asked, of the students in the situation?

How to React to Bad Behavior

Often, when teachers are faced with a classroom management situation it is their reaction that makes or breaks the disciplining.

Here are three common student situations: students who don’t turn in their homework on time, who don’t do their homework at all, or who come late to your class. What’s been your initial reaction to these situations?

Many classroom management situations erupt simply because of the way a teacher has reacted to the students.

In one case, I saw Mr. B, a young middle school teacher, reviewing the bell ringer his students just completed. Two minutes later, Miguel walks in, an over eccentric teenager just wanting to get under the skin of Mr.B. Mr.B, is holding a paper, reading to the class when his eyes land on Miguel. His hands fall to his waist and his eyes roll to the back of his head. The class notices Mr.B’s reaction to Miguel being late.

Miguel also notices Mr. B’s reaction to him being late, he smiles, walks over to his desk and says in a sarcastic tone,“What’s the matter Mr. B, something wrong?”

One simple reaction can be the domino effect that leads you down a path of classroom management issues. In some situations, like Miguel above, students like to see how much they can “push” or “irk” their teachers. To get a reaction like the one Mr. B gave above is priceless for Miguel.

How to Approach Students

In addition to a teacher’s initial reaction to a classroom management situation, the next time you’re out in the schools and you see a teacher in the hall way or classroom needing to “deal” with a classroom management issue take a close look at how that teacher approaches the child.

A simple approach by a teacher can turn into a large fiasco in the classroom. Teachers often don’t know it but the way they accost or simply walk over to a child can add to or take away from a management situation.

Take, for instance, Miguel from the story above. Miguel, a middle school student, walked in late to class. He walks over to his seat and sits down. Mr. B, the teacher, has been watching him the entire time. Here’s where the situation can get sticky. I’ve been in many conversations with teachers who have needed to tell me about their classroom management drama and who have said to me, “Dr. Lopez, I simply walked over to him and he got up and started yelling at me! I only walked over to him!”

What I’ve asked these teachers is, “How did you walk over to him? When you walk over to him did you stomp, did you have a really mean face?”

These questions may seem minute but can be significant when thinking about approaching students. Teachers can get so caught up emotionally because we want our students, like Miguel, to do well and to be on time that we forget about our emotions and demeanor.

In cases like Miguel, where the child wants to upset the teacher and he is looking for a way to start an altercation, all it would take is for Mr. B to react like he did, then stomp over to Miguel to get an explosive reaction.

How to Question Students' Behavior

Out of all three of these teacher-behaviors, I believe questioning is the most powerful one when intervening with classroom management issues. In many instances, like the one presented above with Miguel walking in late to class, what’s the first question many teachers would ask Miguel as he walked in late to class?

Yes, you guessed it, “Why are you late?”

This is actually the wrong question to ask students? When I work with teachers all across the country I often tell them, “I can tell how much you know about a child by the types of questions you ask him or her.”

In the case of Miguel, besides him wanting to “irk” or push Mr. B’s buttons, there has to be an explanation as to why he is late. Often the intervention that can be created or done for Miguel is sparked by the type of questions we ask him.  If Mr. B asks Miguel, “Why are you late?”,  most likely the response that Miguel is going to give is something like, “Because” or “Whatever” or some other deflective response.

If Mr. B really knew something about Miguel’s life-world circumstance, he might know that Miguel has a job and works late, or that he has to walk his little sister to school somewhere else in the morning, or that he has to take the bus. Knowing these life-world types of situations can help Mr. B ask the right question to Miguel. Instead of asking Miguel, “Why are you late?” Mr. B can ask and open ended life-world related question that will prompt a response. A question like, “Hey Miguel, thanks for joining us, did you work late again last night?”

This type of question, which relates specifically to the child’s life-world, can open up endless intervention approaches that both the teacher and student can work with so the child can be successful.

The next time you’re out in the schools, or caught in a classroom management situation, think about these three teacher-behaviors: how have I reacted, approached, and questioned this child?

What behavior management technique do you use within your classroom? Share in the comments section!


Glasser, W. (2002) Unhappy teenagers: A way for parents and teachers to reach them. New York: Harper Collins
Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, R.T. (1995). Teaching students to be peacemakers. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

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