How to Discipline Your Child for Cheating in School

Give your child consequences for cheating.

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The school calls and the news isn’t good: Your child has been caught cheating. You have two options here—you could freak out and dole out the threats to take away privileges and other punishments, or you could use it as a teachable moment.

Although your child shouldn’t be immune to discipline, the latter might be a better strategy. If they're punished without truly understanding the problem with cheating, it’s less likely that they’ll stop cheating and more likely that they’ll just try harder not to get caught in the future.

Listen to All Sides of the Story

As a parent, it could be in your nature to go to bat for your child and take a stance against the teacher or student who accused your child of cheating. This isn’t the way to go—take the word of the teacher and/or talk to the parent of the student who’s pointing a finger at your child.

Calmly ask questions to understand the circumstances, and react appropriately. Your child will, in the long run, benefit when they understand that their parents won’t rescue them when they've made the wrong choice.

While cheating in your day may have constituted looking at your neighbor’s paper, today’s kids have much more sophisticated means of cheating. From using apps that solve their math problems for them to wearing smartwatches that give them the answers, technology provides kids with some creative tools for cheating.

So make sure you listen to what the teacher has to say about how your child cheated. Get your child’s version of the story too. But before you insist your child would never cheat, be aware that more than 50% of children cheat at one time or another. 

In a survey of 24,000 high school students conducted by Rutgers’ University professor Donald McCabe, 64 percent of students admitted to cheating on a test, 58 percent admitted to plagiarism, and 95 percent said they cheated in one way or another.

Find the Reason

From a young age, kids are aware that dishonesty exists. Your kids are likely aware that you lock your car and lock your house to prevent people from breaking in. Or perhaps you use a lock to prevent your bicycles from being stolen while you’re playing at the playground.

And you’ve probably had to address cheating while you were playing games at least once or twice. Much to the frustration of their opponents, preschoolers usually make up their own rules to ensure they win (and at this age, it is developmentally appropriate).

But for some kids, cheating continues and occasionally it extends beyond the confines of your family board game night. So if your child has been caught cheating in school, it’s important to consider the underlying reasons why.

Confusion About What Constitutes Academic Dishonesty

Even older kids might not quite get what’s OK and what’s not in academia. A fourth-grader might think it’s fine to copy an encyclopedia word-for-word, and a sixth-grader might think it’s OK to copy another student’s work in a group setting.

In these situations, discipline isn’t necessarily the most important reaction. Instead, it’s important to guide your child through these sometimes-tricky circumstances, so they grasp the difference between collaborating, paraphrasing and cheating or plagiarism.

Technology may blur the line for you as well. Can your student turn to an app to translate their work for their French class? Is it OK for your child to use the Internet to find the answers to their homework as opposed to their textbook?

If you have questions about academic integrity, talk to the teacher. Find out what lessons the teacher is trying to teach the class and whether your child’s approach will help them learn those lessons.

Too Much Academic Pressure

When a student has too much going on, such as sports practices, music lessons, social obligations, chores and more, they might feel the pressure to cut corners somewhere—and that could manifest by cheating in school.

Students who worry a lot about getting a perfect GPA or getting into a good college may resort to cheating.

Whether they try paying someone else to write their paper or they copy their best friend’s homework, they might think it’s the best way to secure her future.

If this is the case, talk about why cheating is wrong. Discuss the potential consequences and ramifications of academic dishonesty and make sure you aren't putting too much pressure on your child to succeed.

Lack of Motivation

Students who aren’t motivated cheat because it’s the path of least resistance (the other alternative is simply not turning in any work at all). So rather than spend time doing their own homework or studying for exams, they may take a shortcut.

If your child isn’t motivated to get good grades honestly, you might offer some tangible rewards. If they sit at the table doing their work while you monitor them, they might earn bonus time on their electronics. Or, if they put time into studying for a test, they might earn time playing a game after dinner.

Inability to Resist Peer Pressure

There’s also the chance that your child might not be the one copying someone else’s work—they might be the one lending out their own assignments. If this is the case, then they're just as guilty as the child on the receiving end.

If your child can’t say no, they're showing you they need a few more skills to resist peer pressure.

Talk about how to say no if someone asks to copy their work and help them develop a script they can use the next time. And work with them on being a good friend without colluding in dishonesty.

Possible Disciplinary Action

Not every case of cheating requires discipline, but some do, particularly if a child best learns their lesson by facing the consequences. Some options for consequences are:

  • Allow school consequences to stick. Whether the school gives your child a zero on their exam or they're given detention, allow those consequences to stick. Don’t argue with the teachers or the school administration to get your child excused from the school’s disciplinary action.
  • Take away a privilege. It’s appropriate to take away an item or experience that your family values. In this day and age, electronics, such as the laptop, tablet or smartphone, are likely contenders. You might also cancel a fun outing or disallow your child to participate in a prized extracurricular activity for a length of time.
  • Establish restitution. Talk about ways to make amends. Restitution may mean offering an apology or doing a kind deed for the student that they copied off of, the teacher who caught them cheating in class or even the whole class, if necessary. The goal isn’t to publicly humiliate your child, but rather help them to understand that cheating can affect more than just their life.
  • Create a plan to help with homework. Require your child to sit down with you each week to create a plan for schoolwork that ensures that he’s learning the lessons and taking steps to complete his own work, rather than cheating off someone else. You might decide to institute a study time where your child needs to do homework, study, or read a book for a certain amount of time each afternoon or evening.

How to Prevent Your Child From Cheating Again

Take some preventative measures to prevent the likelihood that your child will cheat again. A few simple strategies can go a long way to encourage your child to be honest in the future. Here are a few ways you might prevent your child from cheating again:

  • Tell your child not to cheat. It may seem sort of silly, but a 2011 study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology found that children were more likely to be honest when they were told not to cheat. Make your expectations clear and say, “I expect you to be honest and keep your eyes on your own paper.” It could make a big difference.
  • Examine the values you’re instilling in your kids. Consider how much you talk to your kids about the importance of good grades versus how much you discuss the importance of being an honest person. If you don’t invest many conversations in honesty, your child may assume getting good grades is the most important thing—even if it means cheating to get there.
  • Be an honest role model. It may be tempting to say your 13-year-old is only 12 so you can save a few dollars at the buffet, but cheating the system teaches kids it’s OK to be dishonest when they’re likely to be rewarded. So make sure that you’re being an honest role model, especially when it’s hard to do so.
  • Explain yourself when you’re in a sticky situation. There may be times when you lie to spare someone’s feelings—like when your neighbor asked if you loved that fruitcake they dropped off for you. If you choose kindness over brutal honesty, explain your choices to your child. It’s important for kids to know that being honest doesn’t have to come at other people’s expense.
  • Examine your discipline practices. A 2011 study published in Child Development found that harsh discipline turns kids into good liars. So consider whether your child cheated to avoid the consequences they may receive for getting a bad grade. If you’re too strict when it comes to grades and academic achievement, they may resort to cheating to avoid punishments.
  • Praise the effort, not the outcome. It can be tempting to praise your child for getting an A on a project or for scoring high on a test, but that may send the wrong message. Your child might think they have to succeed to be worthy of accolades. So say things like, “Great job working so hard,” or “Great job—I can tell all the time you put in studying paid off,” to emphasize that effort is important.
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