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Alternatives To Collective Punishment


I suspect many teachers have had an experience like this:

A paper airplane, or a ball of paper, or a pencil, comes flying, or somebody makes an obnoxious noise. The object is probably aimed at another student, and it may or may not hit the intended target. The noise is just meant to be funny.

You can tell the general area from where it came from, but you don’t really know who the “culprit” is. It’s frustrating because that kind of behavior does not contribute to a learning community.

What do you do?

I’ve seen this kind of incident on TV and in the movies, and, at least there, it’s not uncommon to see teachers first yell something like, “Who threw it?” No one admits to it, and then the faux teacher will punish the group.

In my experience, I have seen a few teachers use this type of “collective punishment,” but have no idea how common it is. I’d like to believe it is not often done, but I’d be interested in hearing from readers on this point. By the way, here’s a definition of collective punishment:

Collective punishment is the punishment of a group of people as a result of the behavior of one or more other individuals or groups. The punished group may often have no direct association with the other individuals or groups, or direct control over their actions. In times of war and armed conflict, collective punishment has resulted in atrocities, and is a violation of the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions.

Okay, then, if collective punishment is out, then what are the alternatives?

I’d like to share what I do in that situation, and I’d love to hear in the comments what you have found that works.

This kind of situation does not happen that often in my classes, thankfully, but it certainly does occur. What I usually do is go over to the area where I suspect the noise or projectile originated, and quietly explain that I don’t feel respected when this kind of thing happens. And, since I feel like I show that I respect them at all times, I would hope they would want me to feel respected. I then explain that I don’t know who actually did it, but that I would like each of them to commit that they will not throw something (or make a noise, etc.), and we shake on it. I tell them that I’m sure they are people of their word, and the matter is closed.

Nine times out of ten, that is the end of things, and there is no repetition.

However, if it does happen again, I go to the next step, as I did last week. Somebody in my class was occasionally making an obnoxious noise. I knew it was one of two students. I did the first step with them, and that went fine. Then, two days later, one of them made the noise again.

I asked them both to come outside with me, and explained that I was disappointed that one of them was not a man of their word. I knew that one of them was trustworthy, but didn’t know which one. So, now, I said that I couldn’t trust the word either of them, and didn’t like feeling that way. I suggested that the person who was making the noise might want to think about how their actions were now affecting the other one. Then, I told them I would give them a few minutes to talk about it privately (I left the door open asked them to stay in front of it so I could observe their actions, but not overhear what they said).

There hasn’t been an obnoxious noise since that time.

So, in other words, the second step, when necessary, is to ask students to consider the impact their actions have on others, and ask them to try to work it out among themselves. In my eight-year teaching career, this has almost always resulted in stopping the inappropriate behavior and, I hope, students gaining some added maturity. The one time it didn’t result in stopping the behavior, I just privately asked other students if they would tell me who the guilty party was and was immediately given the same name by multiple students.

This process works for me, and seems to work for my students. Of course, in order for it to work effectively, a teacher has to have a good relationship with students, and they need to feel that their teacher’s trust is something they value.

How about you — what are your alternatives to collective punishment?

(In addition to some great ideas readers shared in the comments section of this post, I’d encourage you to read a piece written by Matt Jacobson. He shared a great idea on how to handle a class after a sub day)

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Hi Larry,

    You describe one of those classic teacher moments. Yesterday somebody in my class wiped out something I had written on the blackboard, while I was out of class. My first reaction was (as you described) to yell at them angrily. But then I told them that I would be gone for another minute and that they had to come up with a solution for the problem. When I got back I was very happy to see that they had taken the hint. Someone had restored what was on the blackboard (spellingmistake included). No collective punishment, but a collective solution!


  2. Hi Larry,
    Well, I’ve been teaching English for a long time but this year, for the first time, I’m doing project work with a group of 16 year old students who have chosen this subject as an optional one in their curriculums. We are running a class blog, so lessons take place in the computer room. I somehow feel the group is difficult to manage there because I find it really difficult to have their attention. Apart from that, there are a few that do not take things seriously and just want to have fun. How can I cope with that in the computer room?
    Thank you !
    C. Ribas

  3. This would only work if one’s….ummm…personality can pull it off.

    I would walk over to the “paper air plane” and pick it up. Slowly I would examine it turning it over and over in my hand. I would then go to the back of the class and do something along the lines of this:

    “I am embarrassed. I am embarrassed by the airplane, and by the person who threw it. I mean come on look at this thing. We were interrupted by some insensitive person, who could not even take the time to make a proper airplane. The wings are wrong, the folding is crooked, and it is not weighted properly. Everyone knows that (here is where I would unfold and refold the airplane while giving proper directions).” By the time I am done with the folding the person who threw it would be identified, because they know I’m not mad, and they will usually make some joke about how they will do better next time. Then class goes on.

    Lesson #1–Nothing you do is going to make me mad or angry or lose control with you.
    Lesson #2–No matter how hard you try I am still wittier than you 😉
    Lesson #3–&#%# He didn’t yell at me, everyone else yells at me, maybe I should give this teacher a second chance
    Lesson #4–I will not single you out in class, you can trust me

    At the end of class I would pull the kid aside as they are walking out in a way that no one in the class suspects I am going to address the situation and then have conversation with the kid. At this point we are both calm. We are both listening to one another. It is vital that you talk to the kid when emotions don’t dictate the words and body language—at least in the beginning. You can work in emotion and body language as the conversation goes on if the kid is letting you into their head. The second their defenses go up you might as well stop talking. Too many teachers seek revenge, want to inflict “pain.” If all goes well, the kid should always walk away wearing a smile, because that’s what you want them to wear into class the next day. Depending on the kid would depend on what type of conversation we would have. One kid might get a full non-verbal body “do it again and things will end differently.” Another kid might get a why did you do it. And another type of kid might get a How was the basketball game? What are you doing this weekend? Hey man, you are a leader in this class. I expect great things from you…and guess what, throwing paper airplanes doesn’t cut it, you could have hurt Harold. If it is a kid that I think I can’t make a quick connection with, I will walk with them. I won’t make them stand and go face-to-face. The next day meet them at the door with a witty comment. Almost always during the conversations I will be sitting looking up at them, and if it is a male make sure they are holding something (it works magic:). I am close to a stairwell, sometimes I bring them down to the stair well and I go down a few steps and turn around to talk putting me just below them. When they are in that position they are so much more likely to listen to me, and for some reason, I am more likely to listen to them.

    Here are a couple other posts that are connected to your question:

  4. Pingback: What is more powerful than a Jedi mind trick? | Blogush

  5. I live in the Northern Territory AUSTRALIA, we have a lot of alcohol fueled crime in certain areas, carried out by a small group of people, so instead of arresting the offenders, the government, has placer restrictions on all people residing in those areas.
    I am going to challenge this law, do you think that this is collective punishment?

  6. Im actually a sophmore in high school, and I guess I’m kind of the class clown. But also I’m a lifeguard over at a church camp so I have to deal with this from ya’lls point of view as well, and I’m usually known as the one everyone goes to for an extremely smart plan or solution! In a situation like that, I know for us teenagers, if you get angry and yell at us, the best way to find it out I individually take out the good, trustworthy kids and ask who it was and say you won’t tell who said told you. That will work 9 out of 10 times. But the problem with that is that the students lose all respect for you. We/they absolutely hate teachers who are sticklers and mean about things. An alternative to this is a situation that would kind of play it more cool, and Still get the kids to keep thier respect for you.

    First of all, make sure that the paper isn’t a note. (if it is, read it out loud, then continue on)

    After that, comment something like, “that was an awsome aim, who was that?? :D” or “this airplane is awsome!!! I’ve always wondered how to make these! I’m not made and I don’t care who it was, but can you show me how??”

    Just try and act like thier best friend. But this only works if you are a cooler teacher. And I do understand that this is against some teacher standerders but we definitely enjoy and pay more attention to a teacher that we like.

    So one the person comes up, thank them, or whatever you need to do to end the conversation and say “seriously tho, don’t do it again. I’m not ganna be okay with it next time”
    And the next time he does it, bring him out in the hall and deal with it or send him to the office.

    Another AWSOME way one of my teachers handled it when he knew who it was is when someone threw something, he would immediately stop class and go “Jacob littered!!! He will be picking up every single shred of trash on my floor after class today!! Everyone feel free to rip up paper and throw it on the ground for the next 3 minutes!!” then at the end of 3 minutes, state that whoever else drops paper again, will join him. Then everyone will stop and you can continue with class. And just write the student a pass after class! And the excuse of “the Geneva laws say you can’t hold me after!!!” is not valid unless thier parent brings them out or they are minors.

    Hope that helps!!! Call or text me at 972-322-0212 for any different help, questions or comments!!! 🙂

    – a students point of view

  7. Group (Collective) punishment works just like corporal punishment-it works. Luckily there are laws in most states prohibiting the latter. Group punishment teaches kids at a very early age that life isn’t fair but it can also cause harm, anxiety, bullying, insecurities around authority, low self esteem, anger, retaliation etc. Appreciate all your alternatives to group punishment-your experienced peers know the tricks to realigning a classroom- try the alternatives and get comfortable with a new approach. Lastly, check your school policies before you exercise group punishment – you will find no discipline policy on punishing well behaved kids, and better still does your school policy suggest group punishment as a form of discipline ? I’d also heed caution on those protected kids with special 504 or IEP’s depending on the plan you can be left wide open for legal action. Group punishment is a nation wide issue whether frequent or not – watch for a future class action suit or new law to set things straight. (parent)

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