Imagine if you woke up one morning to the following headline in your local newspaper:
Speed Limits Gone
Police Chief Announces End to Enforcement
Do you think that announcement would result in more people driving over the speed limit? Or do you think fewer people would push past the limits?
I think it’s pretty clear that driving speeds would rise — that habitual speeders would go faster and that occasional speeders would become more habitual.
I’m guessing you’d agree with me that any action like this by the police chief would be a big problem. I further bet you’d hope for a quick reversal to the new policy.
What About Limits in the Classroom?
Yet I’ve seen something very much like this action taken by teachers in their classrooms.
It happens when a teacher announces a rule, maybe something like, “The next person who speaks without first raising her or his hand will have to sit by me for the rest of class.”
Then, a couple minutes later a child speaks out of turn. Now we’re expecting some sort of action by the teacher. But the action never comes. The teacher does not follow through on the threatened penalty.
What’s going on?
An Idle Threat
Many times when a teacher fails to follow through with a threatened penalty, it’s because the teacher just can’t bring himself or herself to actually penalize a child for inappropriate behavior. The teacher may have a “soft” spot that brings on bad feelings if a threat is actually enforced.
Certainly it’s great for teachers to have a soft spot for kids. It indicates a love for kids that helps create a nurturing environment — a safe place — where kids can learn and mature.
But when that soft spot extends to a point where a teacher cannot follow through on enforcing a limit, it is quickly recognized by the children in the class as an idle threat.
And an idle threat is like a headline that reads:
Classroom Limits Gone
Teacher Announces End to Orderly Classroom
The more that threats are made but not enforced, the more children will come to understand that real limits are mostly non-existent.
Then if your classroom has any children who naturally test limits, you’re in trouble. The children’s realization of your enforcement policy is an open invitation to push past your stated limits and look for your actual limits.
If you want to maintain an orderly classroom — one that nurtures learning in a fun and memorable way — you’ve got to say what you mean AND mean what you say.
In part 2 of this 4 part series, we will look at the difference between harsh discipline and consistent enforcement of limits.