ISSUE 27 • APRIL 2001


Constructive Alternatives to Punishment 

Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice *

The Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice is designed to improve services to children and youth with, or at risk of, developing emotional or behavioral problems. The Center’s goal is to identify “what works” and disseminate that information to the wider community. In this new regular feature, the Center will share brief examples of promising practices and programs. 

The goal of the use of consequences should be to teach children appropriate behaviors. Punishment that singles out children or that produces guilt does not teach them anything. The alternatives presented in this article provide opportunities for adults to teach children positive behavior skills for success in life rather than to resort to traditional punishment. Some alternatives can be preventative in nature, addressing the cause of a problem before it occurs; others can be responsive techniques for dealing with an existing conflict. 

The Positive Education Program 

The Positive Education Program (PEP) in Cleveland, Ohio, uses a strategy called the problem-solving meeting to teach students processes and techniques for resolving problems peacefully. A problem-solving meeting can be called when any situation that creates a problem for one or more students also affects the group, or when teachers determine that a situation requires a group solution to a group problem. The procedure includes the following steps: 

  1. Someone requests a problem-solving meeting. 
  2. The group is called to order. 
  3. The problem is defined. 
  4. The problem is elaborated by the complainant. 
  5. If the problem involves another student(s), a defense statement is made. 
  6. A consensus is reached. 
  7. A commitment to the solution is discussed by all. 
  8. Teachers review, mediate, and praise all members. 
  9. Expectations are stated for returning the class to the regular schedule. 
  10. A closing ritual occurs. 

This process provides students with the opportunity to discover their own solutions and to resolve conflicts on their own through dialogue, rather than through violence. 
Courtesy of Tom Valore, program coordinator, West Shore Day Treatment Center, Positive Education Program; 216/331-9391 

Boys Town 

Boys Town, a nationally recognized organization with a tradition of caring for troubled children, offers two examples of alternatives to traditional punishment that teach children replacement behaviors: token economy with response cost and natural consequences. 

In a token economy system with a response cost component, children earn tokens for appropriate behaviors and lose tokens for inappropriate behaviors. Two things increase the effectiveness of these systems: 

  • The values and costs of behaviors should be listed and made clear to the students in order for them to learn what can be gained or lost by performing certain behaviors; and 
  • The privilege menu of back-up reinforcers should be as varied as possible—for example, things children can eat or drink (e.g., popcorn and soda), tangible items (e.g., stickers or tokens for playing video games), and activities (e.g., the opportunity to play computer games).

 Consequences should be natural and make sense to the child; otherwise, they fail to teach alternatives to the inappropriate behavior. For example, when a child misbehaves on the playground, a traditional punishment might be to deny the child recess privileges. This may seem like a logical consequence, but it still does not teach an alternative behavior. A more effective natural consequence would include: 

  • Teaching the child the appropriate behavior; 
  • Restricting his or her playground privileges (e.g., play only in a particular area where an adult can see them); 
  • Requiring the child to practice using the alternative skill; and 
  • Debriefing after recess (e.g., the child should offer two examples of how he or she used the new skill). 

This technique does not just provide a consequence for the behavior; more importantly, it teaches the child the appropriate behavior and allows time for her or him to actually practice it in a natural setting. 
Courtesy of Andrea Criste, director of education training, Boys Town; 402/498-1111 

The Westerly School District 

The Westerly School District in Westerly, Rhode Island, offers a variety of programs to prevent conflicts that could lead to punishments as severe as suspension or expulsion. One such high school–level program, STAR (Student Team Assistance Room), is a place to which students are referred for behavior problems. STAR offers a more centralized, consistent, and accessible form of intense emotional sup-port than either a general or special education classroom can provide. STAR seeks to teach responsibility and respect through helping the student (a) work through an under-standing of the problem and (b) come to a resolution. STAR can be a strategy for dealing with anger (e.g., a student on the verge of a “blow-up” has the option of checking into STAR to “cool off” and avert a potentially violent incident). 
Courtesy of Mark Hawk, director of special education, and Robin Dacosta, teacher, Babcock Middle School, Westerly School District; 401/596-0315, ext. 213 

The New Opportunities Program 

The New Opportunities Program in Lane County, Oregon, offers two community-wide initiatives to pre-vent the escalation of potential problems: behavior sup-port and a commitment to rehabilitation rather than incarceration. More precisely, it offers the following: 

  • A behavior support specialist who is part of a family-centered service coordination across agencies. This specialist works in the schools, the community, and at home with children who are exhibiting behavioral problems. The children are taught appropriate behaviors that will enable them to remain part of the community. 
  • A program that provides a rehabilitative, rather than “I will increase the peace by helping my friends and not using all the racism.” Art by Angel C., J.H.S 22, Manhattan. Reproduced by permission. punitive, alternative for young people who shoplift or abuse substances. Rather than entering the juvenile justice system, first-time offenders are referred to this program to learn personal responsibility and facts about substance abuse. In addition, the program is working to reduce the delay between arrest and treatment, drawing a closer connection between the behavior and the consequences. 
    Courtesy of Bruce Abel, program manager, Lane County Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health; 541/682-7275 

Alternatives to traditional punishment provide the opportunity for a child to learn appropriate skills to replace problem behaviors. These skills are the tools children need to complete school, get and keep a job, and form positive relationships with others. Replacing punitive consequences with constructive, rehabilitative alternatives gives children a better shot at success in life. 

This article was prepared in collaboration with the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice as part of its information exchange efforts. For more information on issues related to children and youth with emotional or behavioral problems and their families, contact the Center at: 1000 Thomas Jefferson St., NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20007, or visit their Website at:

* This feature is one of the "free pages" from Reclaiming Children and Youth, the journal of strength-based interventions. Visit the journal's pages on this site.