Why You Should Never Give Choices Instead Of Consequences

Why You Should Never Give Options Instead Of ConsequencesHere at Smart Classroom Management we hear from teachers and administrators from all four corners of the globe.

And one of the more perplexing trends in classroom management is to give students choices instead of consequences.

For example:

Let’s say a student named Jason is up and walking about your room while the rest of the class is working independently.

He’s tapping his pencil on various objects. He’s shuffling his feet.

And although capable, he’s grumbling under his breath that he doesn’t want to do his work anymore.

But instead of simply giving him a warning for breaking a class rule, you negotiate with him.

You try to coax him away from disturbing others by giving him options to choose from.

Hey Jase, do you want to do just a few problems instead of all of them?”

How ’bout if you did your work on the rug? Would you like that?”

Would you prefer to draw a picture instead of writing it out?”

Why don’t you take a little break and work on your iPad?”

What about taking a walk down the hall, and getting away for a few minutes?”

Do you want to be my helper, and do your work another time?”

You get the picture. The idea is to remove the source of his discontentment, to entice him with alternatives so that he will no longer engage in unwanted behavior.

And as long as you’re willing to go far enough (“Hey, do you want to sit in my chair?”), the strategy will work. It will indeed stop him from disrupting the class. No doubt about it.

So what’s not to like?

Well, as poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote so beautifully, “Let me count the ways.”

1. When you appease difficult students by lowering academic or behavioral standards, you send an unmistakable message that they can complain, disrupt, and misbehave their way out of anything they deem unpleasant.

2. Offering choices rewards bad behavior, defiance, selfishness and the like, thus encouraging more frequent and more severe misbehavior. Unless, that is, you continue lowering the bar and sweetening the choices.

3. By giving in so readily, even voluntarily, you’re essentially telling them that you believe they’re incapable of changing their behavior. This is a form of labeling, and it is devastating to difficult students.

4. It’s confirmation from an authoritative source that misbehavior isn’t just something they do, but it’s who they are, like eye color or shoe size, and something they have little control over. Unless this label is reversed, they will continue to misbehave year after year.

5. It’s a philosophy that believes that an upset or uncomfortable child is to be avoided at all costs, which not only doesn’t reflect the world we live in, but it makes a mockery of the critical role of perseverance and hard work in academic as well as personal success.

6. Offering choices assuages misbehavior in the moment, but does nothing to curb it going forward. In other words, it’s a band-aid that sacrifices the child’s future for the here and now.

7. When you excuse, enable, and offer escape routes, you set limits on students and their capacity to rise above challenges and overcome difficulties. You lead them away from success, not toward it.

8. Letting students off the hook is akin to telling them they’re not good enough or worthy enough to be held to a higher standard, which strips away dignity and self-confidence faster and more effectively than yelling, sarcasm, or any other harmful method.

9. Going back on your word by failing to follow the rules of your classroom causes resentment and distrust from all students and severely limits your ability to lead and build meaningful, influential relationships.

10. Baiting students with more attractive choices creates an environment of entitlement and causes them to react to firm direction and accountability with aggressive push-back.

Yes, They Can

It is possible to temporarily placate difficult students into better behavior.

But the cost is their very future.

It’s a shameful strategy that hands leverage and control over to students who frankly don’t know what’s best for them. Our job is to teach our students how to overcome obstacles, not avoid them with excuses and manipulation.

When you offer choices in exchange for not disrupting the class, when you lighten the workload and remove responsibility, you are in every sense giving up on them. You are in every sense telling them that they’re not worth holding accountable.

As a result, they come to believe that they’re weak-minded and incapable of improvement, incapable of sitting, listening, and learning, and incapable of being anything other than the court jester your words and actions suggest.

It’s tragic and demeaning and so, so sad.

The truth is, no matter how difficult a student’s home life, no matter how tough they have it, or how emotional and angry they can get when things don’t go their way, you do them no favors by letting them off the hook.

You do them no favors by giving in, making excuses, or offering a bunny hill when the rest of the class is testing themselves on K2.

So what’s the alternative?

You follow your classroom management plan. You let accountability and your undying belief in them do their good work.

You let the hard lessons that are part of every well-lived life embolden them to become better, more resilient, and more capable than they themselves ever thought possible.

In other words, instead of offering choices and telling them they can’t, give them consequences . . .

And tell them they can.

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67 Responses to Why You Should Never Give Choices Instead Of Consequences

  1. Aimee February 7, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    I have been using your techniques since September. Overall, it’s been extremely effective. Thank you!

    I am a substitute for Computer Lab and Library, so I can have about 10 classes a day. Once they understand my rules, class time is ideal. Of course, I have to start over with each school each class each time, unless I get a repeat school.

    Out of 10-11 classes (200+/- students), I will have 1 student that is so out of control (talking out, making noises) that I can’t maintain authority for 10-15 minutes. I know the consequences are warning, time-out, letter home. What can I do for a third consequence since I am not a classroom teacher? Thank you.

    • Michael Linsin February 7, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

      Hi Aimee,

      That’s a big question that we don’t have the time or space for here. However, you can find the answer and a lot more in the book, Classroom Management for Art, Music, and PE Teachers. Don’t let the title fool you. The book was written for all specialist teachers, including yourself. 🙂


    • Alana June 21, 2016 at 12:02 am #

      There is a big difference between “negotiating” with a child, bribing, or changing the demand and offering choices. It’s important that the distinction is clear! I work with students with special needs who often escalate with consequences delivered to the student while misbehaving (I.e. If they know they’ve lost something, then they’ll continue to engage in the behavior – maybe even at a higher intensity). The choices you deliver to a student might be choices about how they’re going to get back to their seat, or if they need a break before re-engaging with the demand, etc. However, all of that being said, the function of a student’s behavior because that will always give you greater insight on how to wisely respond! I do respect your message of setting high expectations for students:)

  2. Leigh February 7, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

    Thank you for this article, Michael! I am a substitute teacher looking for a full time job. I’ve subbed at many different schools around the area. Some schools are adopting discipline policies about giving kids choices rather than enforcing consequences. I disagree with giving choices because you’re right. Students will continue to be disruptive if they are not given a consequence. Thank you for writing this!

  3. Nancy Broyles February 7, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    What if a child has an IEP that requires you to offer those choices rather than discipline the student?

    • Michael Linsin February 7, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

      Hi Nancy,

      You should always honor the IEP, absolutely.


      • Karol May 17, 2016 at 8:36 pm #

        Perhaps we should stop putting such things in an IEP. Aren’t we saying the same thing, they cannot rise to the occasion? I do all this constant cajoling now and it never ends. There is no good enough for this student. Always appeasing him. I have created a monster in my opinion, instead of someone who needs a dose of reality. It’s rampant in the SPED world.

    • Lisa Atwood March 24, 2016 at 3:37 pm #

      I work as a speech therapist in the schools and just wanted to say that when IEPS are written with the provision of choices, what we are usually referring to is saying something like “Would you like to do the questions from front to back or back to front?” Both choices should always be a desired behavior. We don’t want to give the child an “out”, but provide them a small sense of control over what they are doing.

      • Sharon Shaw April 14, 2016 at 8:43 pm #

        Thank you Lisa! It’s not giving choices that is the problem, it what the teacher outlines for choices that can cause a problem. For example, if you give the choices of sitting down to the task or missing some recess time to make up for the lost on task time, you are giving a choice but it also outlines the consequence.

      • Anne May 14, 2016 at 2:38 pm #

        I teach twelve students in a self-contained multi-categorical classroom with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities. All my students are on IEP’s and I do offer choices, however, my choices do not reduce the workload or expectations. My most frequent choice is “Do it now or do it during recess, work at your desk or work at the table, sit down and do the work or stand up and do the work, start with the addition page or subtraction page, either way, you have to do both.” Other staff and teachers frequently comment on how well behaved my students are, in my classroom and throughout the building.

        • Karol May 17, 2016 at 8:38 pm #

          I need to do this.

  4. Vince February 7, 2015 at 7:50 pm #

    Multiply Jase by 8 (average) class size 38, friends all participants. 6 attempting to listen to lesson or participate in any way. Average day in most core classes & some electives. Teacher having to ignor the disruption and just deliver lesson over noise. Only way to get any removed is to sit down and input referral prior to sending out. Most of time back in under 5 minutes. Calls to parents have kids deniing all, blaming teacher, or in some cases cusing out parent at top of lungs while friends laugh. I’m inclusion teacher. Never see it end. Seen 4 with teacher of year award leave without completing contracts. All manner of classroom management books have been corporately implemented by principals lasting 1 year on average. Teachers 2. Your suggestions?

    • Michael Linsin February 7, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

      Hi Vince,

      We believe strongly that the approach offered here at Smart Classroom Management can transform your school no matter how bad things have gotten. I recommend spending time in our archive, checking out our books, and/or signing up for personal coaching.


  5. Suzi February 7, 2015 at 8:48 pm #

    My choices that I give are different from what the article mentioned…I give a student in my class a choice to do her work now or later at a less desirable time like during developmental centers…she could choose to do it later, but she usually does not and if she does, that was her choice and she has to live with the consequence of not getting as much time to do the things that they all love to do.

    • Buffy May 16, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

      I give choices. You can do your work now or during recess…you decide.

  6. Christine Foley February 7, 2015 at 10:08 pm #

    After raising 4 children and teaching for…a long time, I disagree with these methods. The same children will always receive the warnings/consequences and will come to expect their yellow card or time out. It doesn’t work. Criticize privately, notice positive behaviors publically. Choices work but have to be offered WAY better than described in the article.

    • Adrian D June 5, 2016 at 11:25 am #

      Can you elaborate on your better methods. Thank you

  7. Mark Maya February 10, 2015 at 6:56 am #

    You use words like “entice”, “coax” and “negotiate”. These words are the opposite of choice.

    Wondering if you’ve read “Love and Logic”?

    • Michael Linsin February 10, 2015 at 7:19 am #

      Hi Mark,

      The article refers to a specific type of choice involving a lowering of standards that is currently and rapidly gaining in popularity. The type you’re referring to I hope to tackle in a future article.


  8. Lynn Mode February 10, 2015 at 10:15 am #

    Hallelujah!!!! Somebody gets it!!! FINALLY….

  9. Greg February 15, 2015 at 12:08 am #

    Thanks again, Michael, for another great article! If I may humbly offer advice to your readers; ” Use these concepts!” Many classroom management books are written by people who have never taught children. Some authors( that have been mentioned by other readers) are college professors, whose ideas are great (in theory). By contrast, Michael IS a classroom teacher and he writes for us, who are on the classroom, not the university. I am currently reading “Classroom Management for Art and P.E. Teachers”. Even though I am a self- contained teacher, it is fantastic and highly recommended. ” Dream Class” is indespensible.

    • Michael Linsin February 15, 2015 at 8:09 am #

      Thank you, Greg. I appreciate your kind words.


  10. Mrs. Anna Nichols February 20, 2015 at 7:28 am #

    I second Greg’s comments – Michael is a gifted educator and understands how to manage kids. Period. There is a book by Doug Lemov called, Teach Like a Champion, where the author describes a concept called “Warm-Strict.” This fits with Michael’s philosophy beautifully:
    Mr. Lemov states;
    “We’re socialized to believe that warmth and strictness are opposites: if you’re more of one, it means being less of the other. I don’t know where this false conception comes from, but if you choose to believe in it, it will undercut your teaching. When you are clear, consistent, firm, and unrelenting and at the same time positive, enthusiastic, caring, and thoughtful, you start to send the message to students that having high expectations is part of caring for and respecting someone. This is a very powerful message. Not only should you seek to be both (warm and strict), you should often seek to be both at exactly the same time.”

    Mrs. Anna Nichols
    Visual Art Instructor, grades 6, 7, 8
    founder, editor, MANAGING THE ART CLASSROOM

  11. Stephanie September 10, 2015 at 6:38 pm #

    I teach in a title one school that is 95% minorities. The district has been told by the state during an audit that there are too many African Americans who are suspended or put in in school suspension; therefore, students sre given unlimited chances. We are told to use/teach champs (expectations) and follow a campus discipline management plan (5-6 steps, warning, conference with student, calling parent, go to counselor, parent teacher conference and then referral). Often times students still don’t receive consequences after a referral is written.
    What am I supposed to do then? Let students disrupt the learning environment? Oh, I can’t put them in the hall either.

    • Michael Linsin September 11, 2015 at 6:56 am #

      Hi Stephanie,

      At SCM we believe in following a classroom management plan exactly how it’s written. We also believe in building influential relationships and taking care of all misbehavior in class (w/ the notable exception of fighting or dangerous behavior which must be documented by an administrator). For how and why we believe in these principles and how they can and will be predictably effective if you follow our guidelines, please consult our books or keep reading through the archive.


  12. Richard Lyon November 11, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    I actually do believe in giving choices. But in the situation above, my student’s choices would be limited to 1) You can choose to sit quietly in your seat and not cause a problem for anyone else or 2) You can sit down and participate in the lesson. By giving her this kind of choice, I’m trying to tell my student that learning in my class is ultimately up to her. At the same time, I’m sending the message that I have a responsibility to maintain a classroom environment where those who choose to engage are free to make that choice without distraction. Of course, a great deal depends on how sincerely I offer her the choice. If she does choose to do nothing, I can check in later to see what is going on, without disrupting my class.

    Ultimately students do have choices. We can never make them behave or make them learn or make them do anything. Giving them a choice that I am okay with hopefully puts the emphasis on me trying to keep my classroom a productive place to be, rather than make the student feel that I am imposing my will upon her.

    Thanks for this website. It’s wonderful.

    • Michael Linsin November 11, 2015 at 3:37 pm #

      You’re welcome, Richard. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  13. Cheryl November 25, 2015 at 7:15 am #

    In the comment section I see you make a reference about addressing the concept behind Love & Logic in a separate article and I am relieved to know that. So, I’m only responding to the information in THIS article.

    Respectfully, I disagree with a lot of points made because I feel add if they may be misinterpreted (specifically regarding students with challenging behaviors due to an IEP) . I am a learning specialist for students with special needs so I understand I have a different viewpoint.

    Giving choices builds up the opportunity to make, for lack of a better word demands. In some cases, it just doesn’t matter what the child uses to me, because *I* picked them and they are (often) inconsequential. For example, if they want to use a big pencil or a small pencil, write on the floor with a clipboard or sit at the table, sit at the round table or carpet square, etc. Giving choices avoids unnecessary power struggles and, in my case, prevents a lot of potential behaviors and often lessens an emotional crisis (what most classroom teachers call a “meltdown”). I only ever give my students, and suggested classroom teachers, they only offer two choices that the teacher is completely fine with that I’m doing.

    Prior to being a teacher, I worked in the business community for several years. My boss never told me which seat I had to sit in or what type of writing instrument I needed to use in a meeting. I never once threw a chair across the room or decided I wasn’t going to actively be engaged in the meeting. However, there were certain expectations that were required that I complied with and never questioned. Mostly, because they were clearly explained to me when I began working there and the reason behind them.

    First, it’s imperative to know that bALL behavior is communication…as educators, we need to know our students well enough to understand – or at least investigate – the function of the behavior. I also give logical consequences (positive and negative) with a discussion as to why it was given. My classroom is one of the most efficiently run and respected environments in our building – and the majority of my students have emotional or language deficit disabilities which can cause some serious, and unpleasant, behaviors. (I’ve spent my fair share of time in urgent care; not one of those visits were a result of offering a student choices.) Ultimately, all of my students know that I make the final decisions. However, we begin the year knowing we are a community of learners and everyone has the right to be heard and respected and I will always consider reasonable requests. We spend a lot of time going over routines rituals and expectations the first week of school and we continue discussions throughout the year.

    I very much appreciate you informing people who have asked about the question regarding choices and an IEP. Absolutely, they have to follow it and it concerns me that question was even asked. I’m not sure if all classroom teachers understand that it is a legal document which, as a result, has ended a lot of teachers and districts and some pretty awful lawsuits because accommodations and modifications were not followed. To be clear to anyone else who’s reading my comment you do not have a choice to disregard the IEP, unless you are wanting potential legal recourse.

    Hopefully, classroom teachers reading this are realizing that choices are only offered with reflective thought and proactive planning to promote compliance. Choices can be a successful proactive behavior management tool when used as intended. The teachers that use the “my room, my rules” mentality without ever given choices, are the ones that are must often calling for administrative assistance or special education guidance.

    Thank you.

    • Kate March 23, 2016 at 7:07 pm #

      Thank you for this comment! I agree with all of the concerns you presented and was thinking of exactly what you wrote when I read the article. I’m an SLP and I too know the challenges of working with students with a variety of disabilities who do require choices in order to be successful. I love that you brought up the choices both being something you’re ok with. I love this model and use it all the time- the kids feel like they have control and we are working either way!

      I also agree with your statement about the “my classroom, my rules” mentality and it really goes beyond that too. “My house, my rules” is something I hear parents tell their kids all the time and I always cringe because my reflex response when I hear it is to be defensive. If you think about how kids learn best, putting them in fight or flight mode is the opposite of what you want to be doing. Building relationships and having kids understand that learning is a safe space has shown remarkable results in my experience.

      This is way longer than I intended but I agreed more with your comment than with many things stated in the post and I wanted to say “thank you”! I may use this post and your comment tomorrow at work to discuss how we can better serve some of our families. 🙂

  14. Yvette November 28, 2015 at 6:06 am #

    Thanks for such a great article and reminder for many! Unfortunately, my principal has been offering up choices for disruptive students and has enlisted her 3 vice principals into the insanity and all it has caused is mass chaos in a school I have LOVED for over a decade! Students hit, bite, punch, and drop F-bombs on a daily basis in our PreK-5 school. It sickens me and after having a real heart to heart conversation with the principal to try to problem-solve and share my concerns, she has stuck to her guns… All to the detriment of students and their futures. Teachers are viewed as the “bad guys” and now MORE students want to disrupt and get sent to the office as a “punishment”. And by punishment, I mean a talking to followed by a reward of a Jolly Rancher, Doritos, gum, game time on an administrator’s cell phone, etc.
    Your article was written just for my principal! Maybe she will find a copy of it in her mailbox soon….

    • Michael Linsin November 28, 2015 at 8:23 am #

      Hi Yvette,

      Thanks for sharing. Unfortunately, your story isn’t unusual. More and more schools are becoming exactly as you describe.


  15. Christi November 29, 2015 at 5:43 am #

    I’ve got a few issues with this article. First, saying never give choices in place of consequences is silly. I read the choice examples and those were very poor examples. I’ve not ever worked with a general education teacher that gave these low expectation choices. Those are just silly. As a special education teacher that has and does work with difficult children, I truly believe and often use controlled choices. An example would be, “Would you like to do your work at your desk or on the floor?” The expectation of work never changed, just the location of the work. Student needs vary from child to child and sometimes controlled choices can avert an episode from a child with behavioral challenges.

  16. Melissa Adams December 2, 2015 at 8:52 am #

    I always give my students 2 choices when they are misbehaving/disrupting. The 2 choices consist of the expected behavior and the negative consequence for the misbehavior. For example, “Johnny, you can either sit in your seat quietly, or you can go to in school detention.” I have had a few students choose the negative consequence. But, that is their choice. Usually, they make the good choice and behavior improves. I feel this puts the behaviors and consequences in the hands of the students.

  17. Kate December 5, 2015 at 8:26 am #

    Choices should be given with a means to accomplish the overall goal not time to avoid a situation. If the goal is to write then why does it matter how or with what utensil. If the goal is to use a pencil then give the choice of type of pencil. Choice does not take away from control but it allows students to feel valued and become accomplished. It also avoids power struggles which the student almost always wins. The examples given in this article are not choices. Those things are said with ignorance or fear. In order to have a successful classroom you but be clear with your expectations and give choices that supports the goal.

  18. Matt December 11, 2015 at 5:55 am #

    There is a significant difference between negotiation and giving choices. Giving choices is a basic, yet effective behavioral tool. On a side note, research and experience continually show that a behavioral management system thaf focuses, or relys on, “consequences”, is not effective.

  19. Jennifer Lages December 13, 2015 at 9:48 pm #

    Your approach works for normally developed and functioning students.
    However, please don’t discredit the progress made through appropriate, safe choices to students who have experienced developmental trauma. Their struggle is real and they are not capable of the level of sophistication required to manipulate such choices that normally functioning students can.

    • Jay July 18, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

      For kids with developmental trauma, my experience is the opposite. They are *more* sophisticated than many at manipulating others to their will. To operate with the thinking that ‘they are not capable’, runs counter to the very points this article illustrates, and there wouldn’t be any rationale to expect otherwise from them.

  20. Louise December 19, 2015 at 3:58 pm #

    Working in class of 6 year olds with a collection of boys with EBD especially one extremely disruptive child with attachement disorder, I’ve had a kind of breakthrough lately after a very stressful and trying time since September and that had come from offering choices. Specifically offering choice I want, a strategy that worked with my own toddler children and seems to work with the emotionally immature children. An example, my disruptive boy can have meltdowns over small issues so I have to be proactive and head things off, so when he’s off task/not listening/shouting out/arguing I simply say “Either you stop talking or leave the class ( time out) I don’t care which, you make your choice” and then I walk away and leave him to it. either way the disruption ends and we get on, he very rarely choses a time out and usually quits his behaviour. I always thank him for his choice BUT I don’t get into an argument or a stand off with him as it whips up into something aggressive, destructive and frightening very quickly. He believes he has a choice but I get to modify his behaviour without confrontation, whereas using our schools behaviour policy with consequences has been counter productive. It’s taken trial and error to find this out and there have been a lot of tears and stress to get to this point, my only concern is now we are on Christmas break and I might have to start all over again in the New Year!