50 Constructive Alternatives to Detention or Punishment

Parent Teacher Conferences Illustration by Jennifer MillerIdeas for Parents and Educators

“Are you okay, E?” I overheard a concerned classmate ask my son as he walked out of the school building yesterday at pick up time. “I’m okay.” he assured the friend. In my head, I was saying “Uh-oh!” bracing myself for the unknown challenge ahead. I ditched my errand-running plans and headed straight to the ice cream store to get provisions for our conversation hoping to channel the clarity of focus that only ice cream can bring. He relayed the story calmly. “Our class was coming back to our room from gym. Sarah (that’s what we’ll call her) was trying to push her way to the front. I was at the beginning of the line and she grabbed my arm and scraped her fingernails down it.” He extended his forearm and revealed two lines of broken skin, red and raw, from his elbow down to his wrist. After washing and treating it, I asked how he had responded and then, how the school had responded. E had said back to Sarah after the scratch “I have to tell the teacher.” And he did. “We were both sent to the principal’s office.” he said.

E continued to tell me about how Sarah lied to the principal and said he had scratched her. But the evidence gave her away. And E was excused while Sarah stayed with the principal. This is Sarah’s third offense that I have personally witnessed. While volunteering at lunch, I saw her hit a girl in the face. While volunteering in the classroom, I saw her kick a boy in the back. We – my family – are a part of a safe, caring, connected school community that does the best they can for children. But when a bullying or other misbehavior occurs, there are only a few options that are taken. I have spent time in a diverse range of schools across the U.S. and this one example of how problems are dealt with is commonplace. The frequent response is 1.) give a warning (move a clip to red or get a hash mark or a name written on the board), 2.) send offender to the principal’s office for a conversation (and/or scolding), 3.) give detention (held after school typically with nothing to do but to stare or do homework), and finally, 4.) call home.

If these interventions have taken place and the child continues to misbehave, what are we doing about it? How are we looking into the child’s life and trying to understand what emotional needs are not being met? How are we examining what social and emotional skills need practice – in Sarah’s case – impulse control and appropriate expressions of anger – so that they are ready when they feel overcome by their feelings?

I know from experience that when a child is attacked verbally or physically, they are nursing their wounds for the rest of the day. And the learning that would have occurred is just not possible. And for the instigator, she’s been scolded or given detention. She is not learning either. And classmates who witness the event and are concerned about their friend are also not learning. So – bottom line – our ability to focus and deal with these occurrences directly impacts academics.

After E had gone to bed, I began writing about what’s wrong with “it all” which I immediately crumpled and tossed in the bin. I quickly realized that was not the way I want to contribute to my son, to my school and to you. So instead, I took a constructive approach with my upset energy. I developed a list of fifty alternatives to detention or punishment that have the potential to truly help the child who is clearly crying for help when she misbehaves. It will require a little more thought on our part, a change of our reactive habits. Yelling at a child will not do the job. But if we place our curious minds on the problem, we can do so much more for those children who desperately need us. We need to regularly recognize the misbehaving child’s signal. She is sending out an “SOS!” “Help me! I’m hurting!” say her actions. But so frequently our responses do not address her needs. How can we adjust our ways of thinking and reacting so that we meet children where they are? Before sharing the list of interventions, there are some key questions we can ask when situations like this occur. These questions can apply to parents and educators alike. Next time your child or a student in your classroom harms another person or property, consider the following.

  • What is the child (who has misbehaved) feeling?
  • Do we understand the origins of why she is upset?
  • What emotional needs are going unmet in her?
  • Does she know what to do and where to go when she is upset? Does she have an outlet for her strong emotions?
    What social and emotional skill(s) does she need practice with? And can the whole class or the whole family benefit from practicing that same skill (like self-management)?
  • Does she have an attachment to one caring adult – at school, at home? If not, how can you help cultivate one?
  • What plan or intervention will not only stop the behavior but also, teach skills?
  • How can the parent and teacher work together to play a supportive role?

And now, check out this list of 50 alternative interventions.

Parents and Educators can guide the child to:

1. Write down all of the things he loves or that make him feel safe.

2. Create a safe base for him to go to when he’s upset.

3. Practice deep breathing. Try out teddy bear, ocean wave, or hot chocolate breathing.

4. Run, jump, get exercise.

5. Do a headstand.

6. Cry, talk aloud privately in a sound-proof music room.

7. Write in a journal.

8. Use a handout to guide reflection. I’ve created one for your use.

9. Talk to a caring adult who will listen with compassion.

10. Talk to a caring peer who will listen with compassion.

11. Go to a peer mediator who can facilitate working through conflicts. (School can train students.)

12. Walk outside.

13. Brainstorm ways to heal the hurt caused.

14. Sweep or clean the environment (not as punishment but as a contribution to the classroom – repairing harm and getting out physical energy too.).

15. Paint or draw.

16. Listen to beautiful music on headphones.

17. Watch video of kids’ breathing.

18. Watch video of kids doing service.

19. Make a contribution list of all the ways you can contribute to others.

20. Brainstorm ways to directly help a classmate, parent or teacher.

21. Teach a younger child ways they can express anger without harming another. Roar? Stomp? Breathe?

22. Create characters for your emotions (such as in the movie, “Inside Out.”).

23. Retrace steps. Role play alternative choices.

24. Read a book about expressing anger. Ask, “How do you want to express anger without harming others?” (such as, “When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry.”)

25. Run hands under warm water. Listen.

26. Create emotion room or space for being alone with feelings.

27. Dance with music and/or with a music video.

28. Play instrument.

29. Read about characters with similar feelings and similar challenges.

30. Examine gratefulness. What do you like about your family? What do you like about school, your teacher, your classmates?

31. Imagine what gift you could give the class or your family that would be uniquely from you. Draw it or write about it.

32. Think of a person who you admire. What about them do you admire? What would they do in this situation? What would be their next choice? Write.

33. Practice forgiveness. Reflect on those that have hurt you. Write names, reasons they might have hurt you and try to understand the others’ perspective.

34. Create a new choice or set of choices.

35. Make reparation with the guidance of a caring adult. How can a new choice help heal the relationship?

36. Talk about hopes and dreams and what actions will help you reach them.

37. Write a new ending to the story of what happened. Could you make a new choice that replicates the story you created?

38. Set a goal to do twice as many positive actions and name them.

39. Share with a feelings buddy (could be a friend or a stuffed animal).

40. Talk to or pet a gentle animal.

41. Practice impulse control. Look for small ways with the whole class/family to practice waiting.

42. Talk privately with a trained professional – a counselor, psychologist or social worker.

43. Create an anti-bullying poster.

44. Contribute to lunch preparation or clean up with a kind lunch lady.

45. Talk with a caring adult who uses coaching questions.

46. Employ restorative justice. “You break it, you fix it.”  If you’ve hurt another’s feelings, how are you going to make it up to that person? If you’ve destroyed property, how will you replace it, repair it or work on it?

47. Ask child/student to do teacher/parent a favor and help out. Set them up in another room to cut out shapes or do some activity that directly contributes to the class but allows child his own space away from the classroom for a time.

48. Keep a journal for each student/child in which they can write reflections and action plans anytime they are upset.

49. Meet with both parent and teacher to express concern, show support and work to understand child’s needs.

50. Plan for re-entry into the classroom or family community if child has taken time away. How will he reconnect with others? How can the adults show he is welcomed back? How can he make amends and communicate with the one he hurt?

I’ve placed these fifty ideas in a pdf document in case you’d like to print it and hang on a bulletin board or refrigerator as a reminder. Recognizing when children are really trying to make changes is critical if we are to support those improvements. “I notice you held the door today for others.” is all the encouragement that is needed. If we are truly attempting to raise and educate responsible individuals, then reflection on feelings and actions and offering choices on making amends are the vehicles that will empower children to repair harm, internally (healing their own wounds) and externally (assisting others).

For more on this topic, check out the article:

“This School Replaced Detention with Meditation. The Results Are Stunning.” by James Gaines

20 Comments on “50 Constructive Alternatives to Detention or Punishment”

  1. Good! Good! Good!!!!!! L,M On Oct 4, 2016, at 12:37 PM, confident parents confident kids wrote:


  2. Pingback: 50 Constructive Alternatives to Detention or Punishment — confident parents confident kids | The Pediatric Profiler ™

  3. You know what I love most about this article? Not just that you turned your frustration into something truly positive and helpful, but also that most of these strategies would work for adults too (me included)!

    • Starla, Just read and loved your post this morning (comment to come!). Thanks so much! You are right – I was frustrated and it turned out, it was easy to come up with fifty positive steps. So often, we think about what we don’t want to do but don’t have an alternative. Thanks for your comment and happy NYC days! 🙂

    • Yes, agreed! It does require some thinking and planning ahead. But I think if we consider what challenges arise for us with our children consistently, we can better plan for how we will respond in ways that teach constructive responses and social and emotional skills. Thanks for your comment! All the best!

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