Yes, but Let's Think about the Consequences
I used to teach 9th grade English, and without fail, every year, I would have students who came to my class from a middle school teacher who had given them push back when they used the word “can” instead of “may.” They didn’t tell me about this, but inevitably I would find out through a particular interaction I would have with them over and over again. Frequently when a student would ask, “Can I go to the bathroom” I’d respond, “Well, let’s think about that for a second”. They would quickly rephrase it as, “May I go to the bathroom?” and I’d have to laugh, because that was not at all what I wanted them to think about.
What I wanted them to think about was how going to the bathroom at that particular time might affect their ability to complete their work. Am I still in the middle of teaching a short lesson, and will it be hard for them to know what to do when they come back? If they are working with a group, do they want work to be completed while they are gone? Are they going to get policed by an administrator because it’s the first or last 15 minutes of class (during which I was not supposed to let them go to the restroom)? What I wanted to get across to my students was that they were more than welcome to go to the restroom whenever they wanted because I refused to be a prison warden, but that some moments were more convenient for them (and less importantly, for me) than others, and they might want to plan accordingly.
This is what I like to call “natural consequences.” Now, frequently what I call natural consequences in my classroom are actually artificially created by me because I work with children who are under my protection. Frequently, the real natural consequences of an action don’t happen consistently or quickly enough for them to be learnable, and even more importantly, they can be disproportionate to the behavior. The true natural consequence of a child doing something very dangerous like running into the street without looking is exactly what the adults in that child’s life are working to protect the child from.
Determining appropriate consequences for a child and reminding them of those consequences is a part of my job in the classroom, now teaching younger students, that I give a lot of thought to.
When my students ask if they have to do an activity the way it’s directed or during the time that I’ve put aside for them to work on it, the answer is almost always no. They can make a choice. And in the context of my classroom, the consequences for that choice are typically connected to lower grades and/or missing out on time doing something fun. If they choose not to complete an activity before it is due, their grade will be affected or they will spend free time in class working on it.
Examples in the Classroom
I work this into the classroom in a number of ways and differently depending on the age of the student. For grading, I have found rubrics very helpful for having an exact number connected to each bit of an activity. This obviously might be too much to create individually for every assignment, but more of an option for larger assignments such as projects or papers. This also helps the student look at the rubric carefully, which feels like a constant struggle to get students to do. So a student may say, “Can’t I just leave the font of my document as it is?” and I’ll say, “Yes, but how many points is it worth on the rubric to put it in the right font?”. After they shrug, we look at the rubric determining that it’s 4 points (or however many), and I help them a bit with the math. “So is the difference between an 88 and a 92 worth not changing it?” And they almost always change the font. Alternatively, if a student asks if they can do an assignment “later” a conversation always ensues. I tell them they can, but ask them to come up with a plan about when to complete it. Typically, I have a hard boundary about them needing to turn it in by the end of the day or at the beginning of the next, although if they have not been able to bring homework back in the past, that is talked about as well. “Last time you weren’t able to bring back your work and you received a zero. Do you think there might be a more helpful choice for you to make?”
When I first started implementing these ideas in the classroom, I emphasized my students’ agency, but failed at helping them remember consequences, and clarifying that even though they can do what they choose, the consequences haven't changed. This occasionally resulted in students thinking that they would not experience the consequence that had been discussed at the beginning of the assignment. Now I realize that it is extremely important to do those things and to help your student or child think through their choice making. This helps to avoid a miscommunication where they believe that you’ve changed the consequences or expectations when you haven’t. Also if you’re using a rubric and grades as your consequence don’t subtract from 100 when you’re helping them with the math of what may happen. My students frequently justify their choices that way (oh, a 96 is still a good grade), and are frequently disappointed with how it turns out because chances are, if they feel like changing the font is too strenuous to be worthwhile, whatever it is they have written might not have had sufficient work put into it either. Another thing I do in my classroom is have built in non-academic time that the students enjoy. This is usually near the end of class, the week, or the grading period so that the time can be used by students who completed their work on time for what they enjoy. Meanwhile students who haven’t completed what was expected of them have to sit out of whatever it is we are doing and complete their assignment. The consequence of missing out because you have work that you didn’t do even though you had time for it earlier is one that will exist for the rest of their lives.
Examples at Home
I don’t have any kids at my home, but I remember much of being a kid in my parents' home where my mom also helped to prepare me for life in these ways. One of the activities I’ve found most helpful for thinking about natural consequences at home is creating something tasty or beautiful and including the cleaning up part. For these activities if your child doesn’t follow directions carefully, have/get all of the materials, ask for help when she needs it, and see the project through to its end, the results are disappointing in a way that can be obvious to even a young child. A young child may not be able to notice that her homework is completed messily, but every young child will know if they don’t like the way something tastes! The cleaning up part can be equally important (not necessarily on their own, the amount of help they need will be connected to their age and ability), because, in some ways, not being mindful about what you’re doing can really come back to make things difficult during the cleaning up process of any project.
As far as things like homework, chores, and household tasks go, being able to take away or postpone built in fun time can be helpful. Maybe a friend can’t come over until a room is clean because a room isn’t ready for company until then. Or perhaps a child can’t go play with a friend until a dispute with her sister is resolved (at least to some degree). Or even if expected grades don’t happen then there has to be more oversight regarding school work/after school time. There are many ways the consequences of an action can be made to feel directly related to a behavior.
Why Natural Consequences?
There are several reasons talking through what might happen as a result of your child’s or student’s choice with them can be helpful. It models for them how to think about consequences which they will need for the rest of their lives. Eventually you want your child or student to be able to function as an independent adult, and if they can think through what will happen if they go to the bathroom because they’re trying to avoid work in the classroom right now, they will be able to better think through what will happen if they choose to skip class when they’re in college, even when it feels like there are no consequences because the professor isn’t taking attendance. Depending on the situation, it can also create separation between the consequence they want to avoid and you. As someone in charge of a child, you’ll be the “bad guy” plenty of times that are unavoidable. However, connecting a consequence to the behavior as closely and appropriately as possible can be more effective in changing the behavior. Furthermore, it can also help to remind your child that you guys are on the same team, and you are trying to help them avoid some of the unnecessary difficulties in life instead of being pitted against each other as person-breaking-the-rules and person-enforcing-the-rules.
It’s Okay to Mess Up
All of this sounds like a pretty tall order for parents and teachers. It’s one thing to think it’s a good idea to have slow and mindful discussions about what the results of an action will be, but another thing to think through consequences with a 6 year old doing a potty dance while 25 other six year olds are in your classroom! You won’t be able to do it all the time, or perfectly, especially at first, but that’s okay. It’s a practice that both you and your students, or you and your child will become better at every time it is used.
If you’re interested in some ideas for crafting or cooking together with your child or class check out our Boredom Busters page.