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Book Club: Chapter 3 - Alternatives to Punishment


What I love about this chapter is that the authors put the responsibility of setting expectations on the adult, but the child is given the opportunity to learn, grow, and participate in developing solutions to problems. The resulting spirit of teamwork and ownership could truly transform our most challenging lessons and strengthen our classroom management skills.



The chapter begins with an example of a mother and child in the supermarket. The mother expends all of her energy and becomes increasingly frustrated while she tries to control her child’s behavior. Finally, she resorts to punishing the child by not letting him have any ice cream later that evening. When this scenario was presented to some parents, they offered a few alternatives. One parent suggested staging a shopping rehearsal at home in a pretend store. Another suggested creating a picture book about taking a trip to the store, which details all of the child’s tasks, or developing a shopping list together might help, including noting which items the child would be responsible for finding.


Each of these alternatives involves and engages the child in a meaningful way. The parent provides information on what needs to be done and sets clear expectations for behavior. Importantly, these solutions are proactive, rather than reactive.


A couple of years ago, I felt very discouraged about one of my students.  I left our lessons frustrated and exhausted.  My student seemed to be unable to control his energy and maintain his focus, and would not follow directions.  Lessons were a constant battle for his attention and I often felt as though we got very little accomplished.  I attributed this to bad behavior and lack of cooperation. Finally, I asked our Educational Director, Amy Glennon, to come observe a lesson, in the hopes that she could offer some advice. Amy stepped in and guided us through a sort of scripted lesson. She would ask me to say something to the student, and then would show the student to respond appropriately. This prompting, of course, felt unnatural to us at first, and I wasn’t convinced that it would actually work, but in our subsequent lessons, I found that I now had a reference point for behavior expectations and the student seemed to better understand how he needed to act and respond.  This “practice lesson” helped so much!


Setting expectations is especially critical when it comes to classroom management with young students. My student teaching mentors always stressed the importance of clear, concise, and literal directions. To a child, there is a world of difference between “gather around the piano” and “silently walk over to the piano and stand with your hands glued to your sides.”


When we aren’t proactive about managing behavior through clear expectations and directions, our default may be to dole out punishments, just like the mom in the supermarket.  However, the authors explain why punishments are ineffective, and may actually turn the child against us.  Here are the alternatives they suggest, and I’ve added some examples to the ones I found most relevant to the context of the piano studio.


1. Point out a way to be helpful.


Something that really bugs me is when students enter the room, drop their piano bag on the floor, rush over the piano and immediately start playing. Here is a statement I could use to establish a better routine. “When you enter the studio, it would be helpful if you would set your books on the piano and then sit on the bench with your hands in your lap.


2. Express strong disapproval (without attacking character).


When students “noodle” in between pieces, it can be distracting and impossible to talk! Most likely, students aren’t trying to annoy us, they just want to play. Here’s a statement we can use to change this behavior. “I don’t like what’s going on. Noodling in between pieces is distracting and wastes our lesson time.”


3. State your expectations.


Sometimes students who are particularly energetic and curious cannot help touching things in the studio or playing with the metronome.  “I expect you to keep your hands to yourself.  If you want to touch something in the room, I expect you to ask first.”


4. Show the child how to make amends.


Children sometimes forget the routine.  We could use the “say it with a word” idea from Chapter 2:  “Quiet hands!” or “Johnny, books!”


5. Offer a choice.


“Running around the room is not choice.  You can either stand in the circle and clap with the group, or you can sit down at your seat and clap from there. “


6. Take action.


“I see you’ve decided to sit down at your seat.”


7. Allow the child to experience the consequences of his misbehavior.


“Why can’t I play the warm-up with the class?”  “You tell me why.”  “Because I didn’t keep my fingers quiet until it was time to play?”  “That’s right.  Later on in class you’ll have another chance to play along with the group.”


The steps for problem-solving are also very helpful for working out a more long-term solution to an ongoing issue.

  1. Talk about the child’s feelings and needs. (See Chapter 1)

  2. Talk about your feelings and needs. (See Chapter 2)

  3. Brainstorm to find a mutually agreeable solution.

  4. Write down all ideas without evaluating.

  5. Decide which suggestions you like, which you don’t like, and which you plan to follow through on.


How might you use these strategies with your students?  While behavior management isn’t always a fun topic to discuss, we know that when we aren’t being effective in this area, there is little hope for accomplishing much in our teaching.  You may remember one of my earlier posts, Working with ADHD: A Checklist for Success!. Although I wrote this before reading this book, I think this shows how some of the strategies from Chapters 1-3 could be applied.

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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

February 13, 2018

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