What Do You Do With A Sleeping Student? by Tom King

Part of the series: Global Issues in Education

Two students sitting at desks in a classroom


A tweet flew by this morning about what a teacher should do with a sleeping student. I sent a response to Shelly Terrell about my experience years ago as a young math teacher who tapped the shoulder of a sleeping kid in my algebra class, and with all the empathy of the rookie I was, asked him how in the name of the quadratic formula, could he be sleeping in my class.
He opened his sleepy eyes and said, “Sorry Prof King. I couldn’t get any sleep last night. My dad came home drunk and was beating my mother and me.” That was the last time I ever woke a sleeping student.
When I was in high school, corporal punishment was still meted out to any errant students, usually a slap, or the infamous paddle. But there were some sadists who somehow got to be teachers and literally punched kids into submission. Although the bruises healed, my guess is that the inner scars are still there. How do I know that? Some of those kids, now men and fellow alumni, were still talking about at our 50th reunion. They weren’t laughing, either.
Positive reinforcement works. I’ve seen it light the eyes of a learner many times. Negative reinforcement never works. Physical punishment not only doesn’t work on students (or anyone for that matter), but it may keep them from ever becoming a real learner. It turns an incident meant to be a positive learning experience into a painful memory of punishment. The only thing a student learns from the experience is that it’s OK to strike someone when rules are broken, or someone else just makes you angry. The punishment is perpetuated.
I grew up in an era where spankings were occasionally administered. I’m not going to say that the couple of times I got one didn’t get my attention focused on my poor behavior. But, as I grew older, I was more concerned about letting my parents down, or worse, having done something I knew was wrong. Most parents today eschew spankings for the same good reasons. Regardless, it never belongs in the classroom or in a school. Ever. Anywhere. Anytime.
Psychologists tell us that painful memories are often hard to eradicate. The really bad ones can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Corporal punishment may not occur in a battlefield, but that doesn’t mean emotional scars won’t be lasting. Negative reinforcement obliterates the desired learning and replaces it with pain or shame. The negative is what has been learned. There are no positives.
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Tom King is a retired math teacher, the founder of the Saturn School of Tomorrow, adjunct professor for 35 years +, husband, father, grampa, friend, tennis and golf partner, coffee buddy, reader, photographer, poet, and a marveling lifelong learner. He blogs at Tom King’s Blog of De-Fog and tweets by the handle, @profTK. Read his previous contribution to Teacher Reboot Camp, Oh, the Lessons I’ve Learned.


How do you feel educators should manage classroom behavior problems?