Trading Bad Behavior for Good Behavior

Years ago, when they were still small, my boys were helping my wife make pot roast. The first thing she did was cut off four inches of good meat and throw it away.

“Why’d you cut off that good meat and throw it away?”

“My mom always did that, ask her.”

Abuela, Mom’s making pot roast and the first thing she did was cut off four inches of good meat and throw it away. She said she does it because you did it that way. Why’d you do that?”

“I never thought about it before. That’s the way my mom did it. Go ask her.”

Canita, when Mom and Abuela make pot roast they start by throwing away a slice of good meat. They do it because that’s the way you did it. Why’d you throw away good meat?”

“The pot was too small.”

Ok, I personalized an old joke, but I did hear a true story the other night that wasn’t far off. At a high school in another state, a junior ditched something like 50% of his classes. The normal punishment route was to give him detention. When he ditched detention, he got another detention for that plus he still had to serve detention for the original ditched class. When he ditched that detention, he was put in in-house suspension. Round and round it went.

The teacher telling this story said some colleagues decided to stop cutting off and throwing away four inches of good meat and try something new. They knew that he didn’t want to be in school, so they asked: How can we give him what he wants and also get what we want? Then they drew up a plan. He could extend his lunch 15 minutes and go late to the following class without consequence, but he had to raise his attendance to 70% for three weeks, then 80% for three weeks, and so on. He agreed and three weeks in everybody has kept their end of the deal and are calling it a win.

Well, not everybody. Some colleagues vigorously object to this, saying it’s not just enabling bad behavior, it’s rewarding it. The teacher relating this story worries that the opponents may prevail which would mean that future individualized interventions may not happen.

My own thinking is that the agreement was a brilliant idea and I would absolutely trade 15 minutes of bad behavior for 60% increase in good behavior.

In fact I had forgotten that a discipline tool I used to use was to tell individual students that there was a way that we could both get what we wanted and offer an idea.

My current “deal” is to recommend that students make it easy to give them what they want, which is usually something like listening to their music when they work on projects.

Here’s how that plays out in concrete terms. First, I don’t use reward language or make an explicit bargain. So, instead of saying, “If I get a good report from the guest teacher, you can listen to music the day I get back.” I say, “I don’t want to pay for good behavior, so I’m asking you as a favor to treat the guest well and not think that entitles you to anything. But I do like to repay kindness with kindness.”

I’ve been out about six days this semester and each time the guest teacher reports have been glowing. As a result, pretty much anytime a kid asks if they can listen to music, I say yes. Once in a while I remind them that they’re not entitled to listen to music, so always ask permission, and if a day comes that I say no for some reason, to just accept my decision. I also make sure they put away their devices several minutes before the end of the period so as to not set up a monitor or next teacher for a battle.

Sometimes, like after Fall Break, I do say no to music so that we can get back into the flow for a few days. Other times, if the “vibe” in class is wrong, I also say no. So far everyone’s been ok with that.

I’ve yet to hear an argument yet that convinces me I’m doing anything wrong. Rather I think that inflexible school (or class) rules that end up with everyone mad at each other, doing extra work, and knowing there will be little change, are like throwing away good meat.


Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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