Behavioral Management without Using Shame

Consider the space you’re in when you react

In a previous post, Shame and Behavior Management I talked about shame as a verb: the act of using shame to manage a child’s behavior. I shared an example of a teacher who uses shame — in a subtle way — to stop a child from talking out of turn. In the example, the child is talking to a friend while the teacher is trying to give directions. The teacher decides to stare at the child until the whole class is watching. She then makes a snide remark meant to embarrass the student. Because shaming someone is so powerful, it is likely that all his classmates feel the student’s embarrassment.

Girl playing
Girl playing

This example is something everyone has experienced. Maybe not personally, but you’ve seen it happen. The subtle use of shame prevents you from recognizing it. You become desensitized. It’s insidious and affects everything we do.

When we’re afraid to try something new because we could fail: shame.

When someone holds a different viewpoint than our own, we go on social media and hurl insults: shame.

When we’re attacked, we’re defensive and reactive: shame.

In each of these examples, shame is the root cause. 

When I discuss this topic with people and share the example of a child talking in class, the question arises, what should the teacher do?  That’s a fair question — in no way am I trying to say that we shouldn’t hold children accountable. I agree, the child shouldn’t have been talking.  

Instead of using shame, and attempting to embarrass the child, there are other options. For example, the teacher could walk around the room and stand near the child who is talking. Sometimes the proximity of the teacher alone can discourage the talking without drawing attention to it. Or a general reminder could be announced to the class that their undivided attention is necessary to jump into the next activity. If the child persists the teacher can talk to him about classroom expectations, but not with the intent to embarrass or demean him. 

The question is not whether or not children should be held accountable. But, when they choose an undesired behavior: how should you respond? Consider the space your reaction comes from. What does this mean? The teacher expects the children to listen while she’s giving directions. When the child starts talking, the teacher is bothered because this is not in alignment with her expectations, and ultimately, she feels tested or challenged. She makes it personal when it’s not.  

Portrait of men
Portrait of men

Go back and consider the space you’re reaction comes from. If the teacher chooses to react from this space of feeling challenged, her defensiveness will shape her reaction. The minute we feel defensive we compromise any sense of clarity and we become righteous. The response becomes more about proving a point.

In your everyday life, how do you feel when you’re being challenged? How do you feel physically when this happens? You start to sweat, your body tightens, you clench your jaw. What happens when you feel defensive? Can you stop and consider the other person or is your mission to stand your ground and prove your point? Because children have this uncanny ability to trigger us — over and over — we stop realizing that our reactions are coming from a place of defensiveness, not compassion and clarity. When you’re in this mindset, you permit yourself to use shaming tactics because your mind is in fight or flight mode. In fact, you don’t even have time to consider your response, your reaction is quick and impulsive.

Instead, what if the teacher pauses and acknowledges that she’s feeling tested? The minute she brings awareness to it, there’s room for clarity. Her internal dialogue — her self-talk — could sound like this: 

I’m trying to give important directions. He’s talking again, he’s distracting others and he’s testing me. I’m being challenged. 

A clock
A clock


I feel challenged, but ultimately, I need him and the others to be present and engaged. It’s not about me. 

In that moment of identifying your own emotions, you can course correct. You stop yourself from resorting to shame, and instead try to elicit the desired behavior. You create just enough space to align your response with your initial expectations. If you can’t pause, you will always respond from the space where you feel triggered. This reaction is always defensive. 

There’s nothing wrong with the teacher saying to the child, I need you to talk your friend at a different time and listen to my directions for the next assignment. That’s it. No snide remarks, no stare downs, just clear directions. If the talking continues the teacher can come up with a plan. She can redirect the child or she doesn’t pay it any attention in the moment. Then, she can have a private conversation after or ask him to move seats if he can’t stop talking. Check out my post about collaborative discipline; it’s effective both in classrooms and in the home. 

When you fully tune in to yourself, you can better discern which action will be more effective. But in all the examples above, not one included using shame or humiliating the child. When you allow yourself to pause, you can identify the space you’re reacting from. Acknowledge how you feel; don’t suppress it. Through that acknowledgement you can create better outcomes. 

The problem in the initial example, was not that the teacher needed to hold the child accountable, but that she waited until the whole class was staring at him, then chose to make a snide remark in order to shape or adjust the undesired behavior. It’s subtle, but it happens all the time. 

I would love to hear from you. Think about the subtle, or maybe not so subtle ways, shame was used in your own childhood as a behavior management tool. Was it hard to identify or recognize? Does it influence the way you choose to parent your own children?


Hi, I'm Albiona!

I have over 20 years of experience working with children and families, first as an early childhood educator and currently as a pediatric speech and language pathologist. I’m also a mom of two amazing humans, a writer, and life long learner. My hope is to help parents reframe the way they interpret their child’s behavior while reflecting on their parenting journey.


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