Detention: it's not trendy, but it works

2nd December 2011 at 00:00
Applied rigorously and fairly, it is a powerful tool for changing behaviour, argues Tom Bennett

I have a cutting-edge pedagogical strategy aimed at developing independent learning. I call it "detention".

Ah, the good old-fashioned detention - unlovely and unloved by teacher and student alike. But if you spend more than a week in a school, you will be on first-name terms with detentions pretty quickly because they remain the standby of sanctions, the.45 bullet in the teacher's naughty clip.

Let me lay out the complex logic behind them: child mucks about; child gets detention; child does not enjoy detention; child associates mucking about with something he does not enjoy. Desired outcome? A reduction in mucking about.

Like I say, it is pretty complex. Actually, no, it's as simple as a lever on a pivot. It is a machine for reducing poor behaviour using the most obvious, intuitive axiom known to psychology - we avoid things we dislike. I believe master practitioners of this theory refer to the carrot and the stick.

And you know what? It works. Detentions are not the universal answer to misbehaviour any more than a great big hug can mend a broken heart. But they are a good tool. Most children do not like them (unless they are preternaturally lonely), and the classroom practitioner will find that if they are applied more or less fairly, with rigour and consistency, the majority of kids will learn that crime does not pay.

Of course, detentions do not always work, usually for one of these reasons:

- They are not applied fairly. Dish out loads when your patience is short and children will rightly judge you to be a despot, ruling by whim. Cue: La Resistance Francaise.

- They are not applied routinely. If you say throwing snowballs in the classroom will lead to a spell in the Big House, mean it.

- Pupils try the old not-turning-up trick. (Ah, Moriarty, you escape my clutches again; will we grapple thus forever?) But the reason many kids pull the vanishing act is because they know, the little tinkers, that sometimes a tired, overworked teacher will forget about the detention, or cease to care about it and fail to follow it up. And I use the word "fail" for a reason, because the child then learns that sometimes ignoring the teacher's sanctions leads to ... well, no consequence at all. This is a dangerous learning experience.

- Some teachers - inexplicably - think a detention is not supposed to be unpleasant.

Most teachers do not enjoy punishing pupils; not many people would opt for making another human being uncomfortable unless they are, say, Jeremy Kyle or Donald Trump. I would be worried if a teacher rubbed their hands together and said, "Oh boy, now I get to make some kids sit behind desks!"

But one of the most common questions I am asked on the TES behaviour forum is "What should I get pupils to do in detentions?", to which I always answer "Something 'orrible". And I mean it. Because if it is not, it loses all value as a deterrent. You might as well not do it. So, no matter how well-meaning you are, you must never turn a detention into playtime. Never sit with the pupil and have a "chat", asking them what football team they support. Never allow them to sit with their jackets on texting their pals while you tell them what a spanner you are. Punishment needs to chafe. Pinch, even.

So what does this look like? Nothing too draconian. Get pupils to write lines, the sanction that time forgot. It is boring and works beautifully as a metaphor for the intrinsic futility of being an arse. Or get them to copy out of a book. Or get them to complete some extra work (tasks need not be entirely useless). But do not let pupils do their homework, because all you have done then is give them an extra 20 minutes on Call of Duty when they get home. Do not let them talk to their mates or do something they enjoy.

I slap my forehead in frustration when I hear suggestions that teachers should come up with imaginative and creative tasks for children to tackle during detentions. This is pretty much the exact opposite of what detentions should be - do not forget, they are supposed to deter. If you give a child something useful to do, where he feels valued, empowered and engaged, that is a reward rather than a punishment.

What's more, new teachers (especially) are already paralysed with guilt. "Are my lessons engaging enough? Have I differentiated for everyone? Have I nurtured their human rights?" They do not need another reason to feel like failures: "Are my detentions engaging enough?" Give me strength.

Punishing children is unpleasant. It must be entered into with the cool, neutral attitude of a technician, not the ardour of a sadist. We don't do it because it makes us feel good. We don't do it because it makes them feel good. We do it because it is a tool to improve behaviour. We do it because we want children to realise that behaving like a prat will only damage their own long-term interests and those of others. There is nothing evil about it. We are on the side of the angels. And tough love is still love.

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