How to Approach a Teacher Who Uses Punishment

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I am a parent of a 6 yr. old boy in the first grade who has had a few occasions of being reprimanded for talking during class. This happened this past week and his desk was moved away from the other students (along with 3 other class talkers). I felt that this consequence was acceptable and made sense. What happened next is what is unacceptable to me. Later in the afternoon there was a birthday party and the birthday girl's mom brought in cupcakes, chips and drinks for the kids. When the Mom was passing out the treats the teacher told the Mom to skip the 4 children who had been reprimanded earlier in the day for talking. I can't believe the teacher did something so cruel to those children. I personally do not believe in using food as a reward or punishment for a child's behavior. My question is, how do approach the teacher with my dissatisfaction with the way the situation was handled without alienating her from me or my son for the rest of the year? I also want to make sure she never does anything like this again. Please Help! 


Hi, My name is Jody McVittie. I am parent of 3 (11,14 and 16) and part of the team that answers these questions. I agree with Mary Hughes (see another answer that follows)...and here are a few other approaches/perspectives that might help.

Having kids in a school where adults control the environment can lead to some challenging situations. I cannot imagine that any parent has a child go through school without seriously questioning "what is going on here?" or questioning the judgment of the teacher, playground supervisor or other adult. I think it is really important to keep the big picture in mind when you think about how you might respond. Having "difficult adults" and learning how to problem solve can
really teach your child some valuable life skills. Here are some things to think about:

What do you want your relationship with the teacher to be like...long term? My usual answer is that I want a good relationship, where we can work together for the benefit of my child and the other children in the classroom. Always keep that in mind. I learned the hard way by coming in as a parent with how I thought the teacher goofed. Teachers are usually very sensitive. They get hurt easily too....and it is hard to repair those relationships. Remember we do better when we feel better. Kids, parents, and teachers. People learn more easily when they feel better. You may disagree with the teacher...but before you act, think about what the nicest way would be to receive some feedback. The solution that has worked the best for us is to teach our children to sort out their feelings and to have them share their feelings with the teacher. When a kid politely asks for an apology after explaining how he felt, teachers usually JUST MELT....and it gently changes their perspective. They don't feel threatened if it is done nicely, especially when the kid takes responsibility for their mistake first.

What kind of choices do you have in responding to your son's pain that is respectful to him? Is there anything that can be done at home without involving the teacher? Some possible answers (you may have others). A parent's first response to a kid in pain is empathy....regardless of whether the pain was a consequence of his actions or not. "You felt bad because your teacher isolated you and you wish that she would have just nicely asked you to stop". "It seems like you felt really hurt when you didn't get to share in the birthday treats and you wish she had let you be part of the fun like everyone else". You might even add, "I think I would have felt hurt too." Hugs are in order. And sitting quietly and just listening. When parents are empathetic, sometimes that is a HUGE step to relieving pain. We don't have to go fix things always.

How can you involve the teacher in a way that is helpful to everyone? If your son is still upset, I would encourage you to gently brainstorm with him about solving the problem. Here are some questions that might help. If a similar situation comes up, what would you like your teacher to do? How would that work? Would it be fair? What would be a way to talk to your teacher about it? What might help her hear you? He might decide that it is important that she understood that he knew that talking was a mistake, he might decide that an apology might let her hear him better. He might be able to tell her that it felt unfair to have such a big punishment for a little mistake. He might be willing to ask for an apology from the teacher. It is really amazing what first graders can say. 

When you and he have both calmed down and if he still wants to talk to her, make an appointment for after school some day and go in with him. Be willing to be non-judgmental (mistakes are opportunities for all of us to learn) and just support your son in apologizing and/or asking for an apology and/or asking that she listen while he talks about how he felt. Do your VERY best not to talk for him. It is OK if it isn't perfect....

What can your son learn? Wow...mistakes like these (his AND the teachers) are such great opportunities if they are handled lightly and with respect. I started helping my kids express their thoughts to adults pretty early. Now as teens they are comfortable talking to the teachers themselves. They are very respectful and usually get their needs met. They have learned to think of the teacher's perspective when they talk so that they can make sure they are heard. What a valuable life skill.

I have to add that I learned about this from my kids. So here is a story about my family. I took parenting classes when my children were 6, 4 and 1 1/2. About 3 months after the classes were done, we were feeling better about our family and what we were doing...but not sure that the kids were "getting it". One day I went to a wholesale plumbing place to pick out sinks for  our new house with my son (4) and daughter (almost 2). Inside, while I was looking at sinks , my son was
attracted to this amazing wall of gadgets. It was like the wall was just calling to his Y chromosomes. He reached out to touch one of the gadgets on the wall (what normal 4 year old would not?) and the woman at the counter (unaccustomed to customers, because this was a wholesale store remember) yelled "Don't touch that!"

My son turned to me with big alligator tears running down his face. "Mommy, we need to get out of here" he whimpered. I was upset could "that woman" yell at my son? It wasn't really dangerous, he wasn't hurting anything!. We got outside and my son looked at me and said "Mommy, you go in and make her apologize to me." 

"Oh, oh" I thought, "where is my parenting instructor when I need him???" I paused.... and told my son that I could not ask for the apology, but that I would go in with him if he wanted to ask for one. He grumped and sat on the ground right outside the door. Meanwhile I put the younger child in her car seat....slowly... so that my son would have time to think. After a few minutes I went out to check again. Thinking that he had decided to just go home, I asked him once more what he
wanted to do. He decided to go in and ask for an apology! (Now I wasn't sure that was such a good idea). So we walked in, hand in hand....up to the lady at the counter. I knelt down to him to give him moral support (or was it to give my self support?) and he said to the saleswoman "You shouldn't have yelled at me, I need an apology." Much to my amazement, she said "I'm sorry, I thought you were going to be hurt"..... Then my son just walked out.... He was done. 

I got him strapped in the car and wanted to acknowledge him. He had more courage than I had...but he was really done. He didn't want to talk about it any more. I learned a lot about courage that day. If my 4 year old could hold on to his self respect like that....well...maybe he WAS getting it after all...and he was capable of solving pretty big problems as long as someone would be there for him....not to do it for him.... but just to be there. And that is the model we used from that day on. Best wishes to you and your family!

Jody McVittie, MD, Certified Positive Discipline Associate

Another Answer: 

My name is Mary Hughes and I'm one of many Certified Positive Discipline
Associates with Positive Discipline who answers questions from the internet; I'm also a Mom (grown kids - 32, 28 year-old twins), Grandma of two (Ashlea is 9 and Alex is 8),parent educator, and Family Life Specialist with Iowa State University Extension  where I train professionals of many backgrounds who work with families in a variety of way s. I think it helps to know who is answering your question!
About the talking during school.....
First of all, I bet this is a seasoned teacher who wants to start the year being very firm - making sure her limits are enforced. Also, I bet she really doesn't understand the talking thing by 1st-graders and interprets the kids' talking as dis-respectful, rather than that the students may be talking because this is how they learn and process  information. It could be that they are just "cutting up" out of boredom, or kid-driven mischief! 

I had a "chatty Wendy" in the early years of school and I worked with her to find ways to avoid talking when the teacher is talking or when she was supposed to be learning and not talking: we worked on these possible ideas that she helped me brainstorm:
- doodling when she wanted to talk
- writing out  a list of things to talk over with me when she got home
- writing down her questions to ask the teacher or her comments to share with the
teacher following a time of learning

Then about the privilege removal (punishment coming from revenge - hurt feelings on
the teacher's part) which is obviously WRONG, and yet 2 wrongs don't make a right -
and your honest desire to keep the relationship open is admirable, since I'm sure your love for your son and his feelings takes the uppermost place in your heart!........ I suggest going to see the teacher about the talking and letting her know you don't want the kids to be disrespectful by talking out of turn, and ask for her suggestions on how you can help your son. I would also ask her to explain her classroom rules so that you can go over them with your son and be sure he understands what TO do and what NOT to do and how he can take care of his need to talk without disrespecting the teacher and the other kids in the classroom.

Then I would use an I message that says, "I've come to talk with you so that we can all get along this year. Check out the reality by stating what your son has said happened the day of the talking and removal. Ask her to state what happened. Then you tell what your son said happened. Then carefully and without anger say something like, "When my son talks out of turn, I feel badly for everyone - for him for what he misses, for you because you are trying to teach, and for the other students who are trying to pay attention. I will work with my son about that. Hearing that you removed their privilege to have birthday treats later in the day doesn't seem related to the talking - in fact, he and I feel sad and angry that he missed this privilege of celebrating with his classmate because of his choosing to talk out of turn. Please explain to me how taking away this treat-time would teach my son not to talk in class." Then listen, and then go to the idea of solutions rather than consequences - bring her a copy of Positive Discipline in the classroom and even volunteer to go in and help run a class meeting on setting classroom guidelines based on MUTUAL respect and RESPONSIBILITY. (And schedule a training in your area!!! Make an appointment to see the principle and offer to be the contact locally to bring Jane Nelsen or one of the Certified Positive Discipline Associates to do a system-wide training in Positive Discipline!) If your son can be with you to work out the idea of what he will do differently instead of talking during class, that would be great - but you may want to go alone first to share your disappointment with how she handled the four talkers. You may want to schedule two short meetings with her - one for the 2 of you - and then a separate one for the 3 of you.

I am sure that if you remain non-defensive and not angry, you could be a tremendous encourager to this teacher who is either newish and not secure in her teaching or oldish and tired.


Mary Hughes, Certified Positive Discipline Associate

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