Behaviour mangement: What to do in detentions?

Weekly updates from Tom Bennett with advice and tips on behaviour and classroom management

I often get asked by new teachers, ‘What should I do with kids in detentions?’ To which I answer: nothing. You should do hardly anything with them. They, on the other hand, have lots to do.

A detention is a punishment designed to deter students from further misbehaviour. It can have other purposes, such as getting inside the heads of your kids or discussing their behaviour. But the problem is that these minor functions tend to diminish the primary one, which is deterrence. If applied fairly and with gravity, I find that detentions actually do more for building meaningful relationships with your pupils than any number of heart-to-hearts, because detentions encourage children to respect your boundaries and, by default, you.

There’s no need to be cryptic, ironic or devious when you have kids in detention. You don’t need to devise interesting and thoughtful activities designed to extend and deepen their learning. Just make it uncomfortable. Make it something they have no wish to return to.

1. Lines, copying out, letters of apology

Desperately unfashionable yet deeply effective when applied consistently and without fuss or favour, these activities are pure punishment without breaking the Geneva Convention. To anyone who suggests that it is some cynical form of oppression, I would reply by wondering where they get their definitions of oppression. It is a punishment and a deterrent. It isn’t meant to be nice. I don’t want kids to leave detention thinking, ‘Ach, that wasn’t so bad.’ I want them thinking, ‘That was the most boring, unpleasant part of my day.’

2. What about the chat?

You know, ‘the chat’. It’s a ritual in teaching. They should make it a competitive sport, or hold talent shows to see who can deliver the best chat. Maybe Simon Cowell could pick this up. ‘The chat’ is where, like Jerry Springer, you deliver the moral of the detention. This is a good chance to frame the situation, but don’t make things too cosy. Being in detention is not a merit sticker. To get there, students must have done something daft, dumb, or worse. The chat needs to leave them feeling scolded, but there must also be a germ of recovery. It should be clear that you are satisfied that justice has been done and that the slate is now clean…as long as they stay in line.

3. Behaviour in detention

This needs to be absolutely perfect. If they mug you off, don’t work, or monkey about, then that’s an instant mark against them. Let them serve the detention and then inform them that you will have to escalate it, or lengthen it, or involve parents. However you go about it, you must take it further to show them that if they give up their last chance, things won’t get any better from here.

Detentions aren’t sexy. They are not magic bullets. They don’t solve everything. What they are is a useful, easy and direct way to communicate to kids that the learning space is a learning space. And that even if they don’t care about their learning, you certainly do.

Good luck



Tom Bennett is the TES adviser on behaviour and a teacher at Raines Foundation, an inner city state schoolin Tower Hamlets. He regularly supports teachers on TES through our behaviour forum and monthly newsletterson behaviour. Read more from Tom on our behaviour forum or on his blog or Twitter

His latest book, Teacher, is out now, published by Continuum/ Bloomsbury


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