What do we want? No detention. When do we want it? Now

1st August 2014 at 01:00
Student poll suggests common sanctions are counterproductive

When children are misbehaving, it is easy to resort to a default setting of detentions and whole-class punishments. But new research reveals that such methods may be counterproductive, breeding resentment and damaging the relationship between students and teachers.

Instead, the study says, verbal warnings and letters home to parents are the most efficient way to elicit good behaviour and hard work from students.

But this advice doesn't originate with behaviour experts. Instead, it comes straight from the pupils themselves.

In a groundbreaking study, academics surveyed all 1,500 pupils at a secondary school in West Yorkshire to find out their attitudes to rewards and sanctions. The students were given a series of questionnaires and asked how they responded to a range of measures, and which steps were more likely to make them behave well or work harder.

Preliminary results suggest that schools should reconsider whether many widely used punishments are effective.

Ruth Payne, a former teacher and a lecturer at the University of Leeds who led the study, said sanctions that required pupils to stay in at break times or after school were not only widely disliked but did not achieve their goal of improving behaviour.

"They see that time as theirs and they resent teachers depriving them of it," Dr Payne said. "If they get a detention it doesn't make them work harder, it just upsets them.

"Not being allowed on a school trip doesn't make them work harder or behave well, it just pisses them off. Things that encroach on their time don't seem to work for anything."

The findings suggest that traditional punishments advocated by former education secretary Michael Gove - who called for a return to writing lines - may have to be rethought.

Strategies that the pupils felt had a positive effect on their behaviour included verbal warnings, feedback to parents and being spoken to quietly. Being told off in front of the class was seen as making behaviour worse, with the effect more pronounced among older students. Reward systems such as stamps or tokens were thought to improve pupil-teacher relationships but were more effective among 11-year-olds than 16-year-olds.

The study finds that feedback on work, even when negative, is the biggest motivator in encouraging hard work. Contact with parents - positive or negative - is also seen as an incentive.

Consistency across and within year groups suggested that pupils' answers were not just based on their likes and dislikes but reflected how they responded to sanctions and rewards in practice, Dr Payne said. Although the use of praise was widely supported by research, she added, there was little evidence on the effectiveness of punishment in schools.

She stressed that the survey, carried out in a school where behaviour was already good, was a pilot study and that future research would focus on schools where behaviour was more challenging. She said she hoped the results would form the basis of an article in an academic journal later this year.

Paul Dix, behaviour expert and managing director of consultancy Pivotal Education, said detentions should be a last resort and were often counterproductive. "In many schools it is just pure revenge," he said.

Teacher and consultant Hywel Roberts was not surprised at the survey's findings. "In my experience, detention just breeds resentment," he said.

But TES behaviour expert Tom Bennett, who teaches in East London, was sceptical of conclusions based on students' views. "Students don't like being punished. Very few people are going to say that makes them behave," he said.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that detentions were a useful part of a school's behaviour policy but should not be arbitrary or inconsistent.

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