Behaviour - Let's turn our backs on old-school methods

28th November 2014 at 00:00
Harking back to traditional discipline is a recipe for resentment. Teachers must deal in consequences, not punitive punishments

"I must not." I wrote those words so many times as a punishment in after-school detentions at my secondary school in the 1960s. It wasn't as bad as being made to stand under a cold shower by the PE teacher for not bringing my kit. That was freezing and humiliating. I suspect that some of my teachers thought they were running a kind of benign Chacirc;teau d'If.

I thought we had moved on from that style of behaviour management. But when I was in the UK recently, I was surprised to hear a clarion call for the return of "traditional punishment" in schools. Writing lines was mentioned again.

In my home country of Australia, things went a step further, as a public debate was conducted about bringing back corporal punishment.

The idea that kept cropping up, in both countries, was that the "punishment" should fit the "crime". I find this extremely concerning. Most of our students are not criminals. Most challenging behaviours in schools are not crimes. We need to have a fundamental educational purpose in any behaviour consequence, which should be distinct from punishment.

If we are going to use writing as a consequence, we should at least direct the student to write about their behaviour: what they did, what rules or rights were affected by their actions, and what their version of events is. They should then write about how they could make the situation better and reflect on how a teacher could help.

Likewise, if a student is repeatedly disruptive in class or the playground they should (temporarily) lose their right to be in that environment. But after their timeout, the student needs to spend time working on restitution with the teacher who initiated the consequence.

The right reaction

A key part of using consequences rather than punishments is ensuring that the result of poor behaviour is related to the misdemeanour.

We should not have students picking up litter as a consequence for being disruptive in class. Instead, this should occasion a conversation with the teacher in question, in the student's own time.

The consequences that do require reparation - whether that is through civic duty or in financial terms - also have to be connected to the problematic behaviour. For example, I once had a student who snipped the ends of a female pupil's hair with scissors in class. After discussions with the student, he apologised and agreed to pay for a haircut.

For each of these behaviour consequences, we should stress the difference between sorry words and sorry behaviour. We should ask: "How will your behaviour show that you are sorry?"

This should not be delivered in an aggressive tone. You need to maintain an atmosphere of respect and be careful not to use the consequential time as a punitive payback session.

"You could be outside now, couldn't you? But no, you had to be the big mouth! You're in detention, it serves you right!"

I've heard this (and worse) all too often. Such language is not only unhelpful, but unnecessary and professionally unacceptable.

Although I disagree with the calls for traditional punishment, the movement does remind us of a key point. It's not that the punishment must fit the crime, but rather that the consequence must always be proportional to the behaviour.

Incomplete homework, for example, hardly merits a detention; the student is in need of help and support. Detention is a serious behaviour consequence and students need to understand the relative moral weight between, say, a uniform misdemeanour, swearing at a teacher and bullying. The latter is one of the most serious behaviour issues in a school and the response needs to reflect that.

The right resolution

We also need to distinguish between negotiable and non-negotiable consequences. Negotiable consequences are where we seek a resolution through discussion with the student, such as with the written tasks or the paid-for haircut. Non-negotiable consequences involve behaviours such as verbal or physical hostility, aggression, bullying, weapons and drugs - behaviours that result in measures such as temporary exclusion from the school.

Even with the latter, however, we should avoid mindless punitive punishment. It is essential that on the student's return to school, the members of staff and other students concerned work to rebuild relationships. For challenging students, this will often mean long-term behaviour support, such as an individual behaviour plan and careful case management.

Behaviour consequences are essential in a school's discipline policy and practice - punishments undermine it. Students need adults who will enable restorative behaviour support. This is a crucial part of our professional responsibility as we seek to create a positive teaching and learning culture.

Dr Bill Rogers is a teacher, education consultant and author of numerous best-selling books on behaviour management

What else?

Help students to reflect on their behaviour with this flow chart.

Ensure that young children understand the concept of consequences.

Use this display to get pupils thinking about positive and negative outcomes.


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