Why punishment can bring its own rewards

28th March 2014 at 00:00
Rudeness and belittlement will get you nowhere - but when used appropriately, punitive measures do have a place in the classroom

Those who believe that punishment is a key component of behaviour management will find a passage from a recent book by Professor John Hattie from the University of Melbourne and Dr Gregory Yates, a senior lecturer in education at the University of South Australia, very contentious. In fact, even those with a more liberal approach to punitive measures are likely to take issue with this particular message.

The book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, states: "No major theory of learning recommends moving into punitive modes in response to students' lack of cooperation.the simple, thoroughly validated, proposition is that aversive control methods, such as punishment, criticism, shouting, sarcasm, belittlement or overt rudeness, are tactics that produce only a superficial level of student compliance."

Arguably, for the majority of teachers this notion would seem to go against common sense. It is widely accepted that behaviour management requires multiple levels of action, one of which is punitive measures.

Other levels include tactics such as trying to form positive relationships. A friend of mine at a challenging school was once involved in an incident outside the gates to which the police were called. When asked to move along by the police his students were hostile and defiant, but when he intervened they started to disperse. Far from breeding contempt, familiarity builds empathy, so positive relationships are important.

We should also encourage and reward the types of behaviour that we wish to see. Most of us might admit - guiltily - that we could do more of this.

But alongside these strategies, we should ensure that poor behaviour has consequences. This expectation is common to most teachers, parents and students, particularly when there is a victim - which could, of course, be the teacher.

Yet Hattie and Yates believe that punishment is ineffective. While I agree, as most teachers would, that there is no place for "shouting, sarcasm, belittlement or overt rudeness", to write off punitive measures as ineffective seems a step too far. The listed actions are not essential tools of a punitive approach. There are other ways, such as detentions, letters home, exclusion and many more that teachers may even view as non-punitive but which students will most certainly see as punishment.

For example, it is often suggested that an alternative to a punitive approach is a restorative one. This takes its cue from restorative forms of justice where wrongdoers meet victims to hear the effects of their actions and perhaps attempt to put right any damage that they have done.

A combined approach

Restorative and punitive approaches are not mutually exclusive. Imagine that a student drops rubbish in the school grounds and is therefore assigned to picking up litter. This may well be considered restorative - the student is making amends for his or her actions - but I know of no teenager who would not also consider it a punishment.

Likewise, discussion. Clearly, if a student is going to change their ways then they need to reflect on the consequences of their behaviour and discussion is a way of achieving this. But when will such a chat take place? We don't want the student to miss out on their education. Indeed, taking them out of lessons could well be seen as a pleasant distraction and we certainly do not want to reinforce the damaging behaviour by encouraging it. So we ask to meet at break or during lunch or after school. Again, this is likely to be seen as a punishment.

These methods are all viewed as effective tools by teachers, but in light of Hattie and Yates' comments, have they been wrong all along?

The research seems to back common sense. Robert Marzano, a leading education researcher, has spent a great deal of time trying to understand classroom behaviour. After summarising much of the research that has been done in this area, he seems to contradict Hattie and Yates, finding that "the guiding principle for disciplinary interventions is that they should include a healthy balance between negative consequences for inappropriate behaviour and positive consequences for appropriate behaviour".

Reviewing a key study, he notes that interventions that involve punishment are more effective than those that provide no immediate consequence. Those that involve punishment and reinforcement are even more effective. However, he cautions that - as most teachers and parents will tell you - students have an acute sense of fairness. "If they feel that the teacher is behaving inappropriately, they will resist efforts to monitor their behaviour," he explains.

So the use of sanctions is supported by the evidence. The common-sense approach does, after all, make sense. Hattie and Yates are right, sarcasm and belittlement have no place in such a system - we should avoid what might be called "cruel and unusual" forms of punishment that will simply alienate students. But this does not exclude punitive measures as a tool to tackle poor behaviour. Where we can, we should consider restorative approaches that allow students to put right what they have done wrong and reflect on their actions. And we must also implement any sanctions fairly and consistently if we are to avoid losing the trust of our young people.

Greg Ashman is a teacher at Ballarat Clarendon College in Victoria, Australia

What else?

Sanctions through the ages: what forms of punishment and positive reinforcement work best?


How praise can be as effective as punishment in guiding behaviour - as long as it's not overused.


Was hitting children effective? Former teachers recall the days of corporal punishment.



Hattie, J and Yates, G (2014) Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (Routledge).

Marzano, RJ, Marzano JS and Pickering, DJ (2003) Classroom Management that Works: research-based strategies for every teacher (ASCD).

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