Thriving School Psych Thriving Students

Beware of the Scarlet P

“Penny Pingleton, you know you are punished. From now on you’re wearing a giant P on your blouse EVERY DAY to school so that the whole world knows that Penny Pingleton is permanently, positively, punished!

Well that’s a bit harsh, don’t you think? Well this is clearly something that only happens in Full-Feature-Film-Turned-Tony-Award-Winning-Musicals-Turned-Full-Feature-Film.


Sorry, there were photos here, but they had to go for privacy reasons. They were hideous, trust me. They were of a student’s desk, which the teacher had covered with shameful sayings about the child’s lack of self-control and how it was the child’s fault for everything

Now I’ll be the first to warn my dear readers that I am not one for posting anything in the genre of “Lets Blame the Teacher for Educational Problems!” Most teachers I encounter are surprisingly positive given the fact that teaching pays $1 and teachers are bearing the brunt of the blame for public education under the No Child Left Behind law. I realize that there are millions of desks across the nation that do not have the proverbial “Scarlet P” on them.

But, I do feel compelled to discuss a phenomenon that does occur frequently in our schools, and that is punishment.

As many of you know, I’m a big fan of positive reinforcement. There are times though, that teachers must implement the rules and positive reinforcement is not sufficient: “Johnny, I like the way you only brandished the scissors and didn’t actually stab me. Good job!” “Judy, thank you for only calling me a b**** and not a f****ing b****.”

There are times when punishment is appropriate. I prefer to call it “discipline” because the latin root of discipline is “discere” which means “to learn.” In a sense, the punishment should be a learning opportunity. The learning experience should fit the “crime.” If a kid tags your desk with graffiti, they get to clean it off. If they threatened another student, they must go through some sort of corrective learning experience. The main problem with punishment and blame is that teachers rapidly run out of consequences for actions. To illustrate, here’s an interaction I saw daily at Haides Middle School.

Teacher: Sit down.
Student: No!
Teacher: Please, just sit down.
Student: No!
Teacher: If you don’t sit down, I’m going to call the office.
Student: I don’t care.
Teacher: You will get detention then.
Student: Fine, whatever.
Teacher: Well maybe you’d care if I called your mom!
Student: F*** You!

And there you go. Kid is definitely not in the mood to learn. Kid gets detention, negative call to mom, and has probably branded that teacher as “mean.” And now Teacher has mentally put a “P” on the kid for the day, if not for the week, or in the case of the teacher who put those awful things on that kid’s desk, for the rest of the year.

And here’s the real problem. Research on punishment shows that it may work in the short-term, but in the long-term, the punishments must get more and more severe to have the same effect. So basically, the effect of detention and calling mom will not have much of an effect after a while and the teacher will be out of things in her bag of tricks. Worse yet, the Penny Pingleton factor takes place and the cycle of negative interaction can ensue. Penny acts out, teacher punishes, Penny feels teacher doesn’t like her and acts out again, teacher punishes again, and so forth.

So how do you break the cycle? How do you mentally remove the “P” from that kid who is constantly disrespecting you? Teachers, feel free to comment on what you have found to work. Here are a few I’ve seen in the field:

1) Find out the function behind the behavior—is it task avoidance, attention-seeking, face-saving from difficult work, lack of sleep or food, difficulties understanding the task, not understanding English well enough to follow through, or some other factor? Do some detective work. And try to use “What” or “How” questions instead of “Why” (Why can sound blaming). What do you need to get started? How can I help you get started? You will get a better reaction than if you asked “Why haven’t you started yet?”

2) Put the student in a helping role when they are bugging you. Every teacher can see when Penny is about to do something problematic. Intercept it. “Penny, I need your help. Can you put stamps on all the kids’ papers if they did their homework?” (This is age-specific. Older kids may not be in to this idea for fear of being teacher’s pet.)

3) Put an empty jar on his/her desk and drop in a reward when you see the behavior you like. Label it as you go by. “Penny, I like how you are starting your work.” Or for an older kid, have some sort of nonverbal praise cue, such as tapping their desk if they are doing what they need to be doing.

4) Be sure to reward when the child redirects his/her behavior. So if she was talking off topic for a minute and then says something related to the topic, jump right in and praise her for her insightful contribution.

5) Reward successive approximations. I know, we want Penny to do all her homework, but give partial credit or set up an incentive system for improvement.*

6) Talk to other teachers. Consult with your school psychologist. Everyone has had a Penny in their classrooms or office. So many teachers I’ve worked with are so used to being helpers, they don’t ask for help.

7) Call the parent or caregiver when Penny has a good day or does her homework. Parents need reinforcement too, especially if most calls about Penny are negative.

8) Ah, but let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart. ~Nathaniel Hawthorn
In today’s English: Long after that kid leaves her desk marked with the Scarlet P, she will remember how she felt to be a “Problem.” Separate the the “problem behavior” from the “problem kid.”

9) Take care of your own needs. This is a broad one that deserves an entire post if not a book. Self-care is essential. Remember that if you are in a positive space, you will project that in your classroom. If you are burned out, you may be more negative than you mean to be. Be the change you want to see in Penny!

*This is a tough sell for some teachers, who are worried that this isn’t fair when there are other kids doing their homework without incentives. I say that giving every kid what they need is fair. Think of it this way: If you had to increase sales to 100 widgets and that was the standard, it would be far more motivating when you got praised or paid for every 10 you sold, rather than punishing you or telling you to shape up until you got to the 100 widgets. Few people like to be “motivated” by fear of failure or punishment.

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Comments on Beware of the Scarlet P

  1. Denise says:

    Hi Dr. Bell,

    Super idea on “P” and student success in the classroom. I completely agree with the widgets analogy for Teachers to ‘buy into’ selective incentives.

    I’ll use part of this for a tough SP interview question: “A teacher keeps referring student(s) for ‘serious behavior problems’, you find they are not that severe, what would you do?”….No one can come up with a great response? Please help =-)


  2. Good interview question! I would say the short answer is DATA.

    Here’s the long answer: I would take the teacher’s referral at face value, because to her, it IS serious. I would consult with her and get her to define the “serious behavior.” Validate her concern.

    THEN I would do several classroom observations and do a time sampling (such as the BASC-SOS, or a simple 30 second interval sample of marking down what the kid is doing every 30 seconds and categorizing it, on-task or off-task with examples).

    THEN, I would do a time sampling at the same time of a comparison peer to see if it’s more the kid or the context of the class.

    THEN, I would meet with the teacher again to share the data and ask he if this was a representative sample of his/her behavior. I would consult about the antecedents to the “serious behavior” vs. on-task behavior, focusing on the KID, not her teaching. As in, “I noticed when you were in his physical proximity s/he didn’t call out” or “S/He got off task again when you did call-and-answer type instruction”. We would together come up with one strategy to use (as in some I mentioned in the post) to try for the week.

    THEN, I would do another time sampling the following week and provide feedback.

    I know, it sounds like a lot of work for a possibly not-so-serious behavior problem, but believe me, it will help build a better consultation relationship, help the teacher with future kids like the one she referred, and also potentially prevent her from making an slew of inappropriate special education referrals, which takes 60 days of your time.

  3. Denise says:

    Thank you Dr. Bell, this answer is perfect…wicked good =-) Data-based with the focus on improving the KID (not our teacher LOL) to build rapport for future consults. I can’t wait to test drive this for the inevitable behavior question! Take care until next time

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