Why our school has no sanctions or punishments

When this special school decided to abolish all sanctions, it felt like a leap of faith – but it has paid off

Steven Baker and Mick Simpson

Behaviour: Why we abolished sanctions and punishments at our school

A visitor to our school would probably identify a propensity to challenging behaviour as the most common feature in a complex and diverse student body. But we have chosen never to punish our pupils.

Kilgarth is a special school for key stage 3 and key stage 4 boys with additional social, emotional and mental health needs.

When dealing with events that are sometimes extreme in nature, it may seem counterintuitive that we do so without resorting to punishment. However, an approach based on reward, compassion, exceptional relationships and avoiding confrontation has seen us through consecutive "outstanding" inspections. 

A school without sanctions appears to work, at least for us.

Behaviour: Consequences, but not sanctions

We realised that, for the vast majority of the boys in our school, threats wouldn’t work, so we needed a different approach. Our school may operate without sanctions, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have consequences. 

When we stopped using sanctions, it felt like a massive leap of faith. We were stepping outside of everything that a lifetime – indeed, the cultural norms of millennia – had taught us: people who do “bad things” should be punished. 

We were all more than a little apprehensive, but we knew that science was on our side. Research shows that punishment, for a variety of reasons, is ineffective for a substantial minority of the general population. Upon investigation, we realised that this subset comprised 100 per cent of the students in our school.

There was simply no point using sanctions that had little effect other than to damage self-esteem and harm relationships.

Basic neuroscience tells us that everybody responds to reward. So we devised a comprehensive system to fill the void left by the abolition of punishment. 

Influencing our students' choices

If, over the course of a day, a student makes choices about effort or behaviour that are good, then their last session of the day is a choice of reward activities. If they don’t earn the reward, then they attend their timetabled lesson. Therein lies the basis of our ethos, and what allows us to focus on supporting students’ social, emotional and academic development.

Academic and social development can’t happen in a disorderly learning environment. Managing and eventually modifying behaviours is our primary function – so what does this look like, in the absence of punishment? 

The strong desire to earn a reward session gives us the leverage to influence our students’ choices. We do this using scripts that we’ve developed as a staff team.

These scripts are well-rehearsed, and are second nature to us all. They are so familiar to our students that they regularly finish our sentences for us. 

Concentrating on positives, we attempt to focus students on the behaviours that are likely to lead to reward. We remind them of how they will feel when they earn a reward, or encourage them to avoid the negative experiences they’ve had in the past, when they didn’t. 

Putting the student in the driving seat

All our scripts emphasise student choice. This empowers the students to take control, and does away with the confrontational aspects of, “You have to do it because I’ve told you to.”

For example, if a student is chatting when you really need the class to be concentrating on independent work, our teachers would say, “If you choose to continue chatting, you’ll be choosing to sit separately for five minutes.” 

The negative consequence here is not a punishment – instead, we're taking students away from a situation in which they're continuing to make poor choices.

The teachers frequently explain this while giving students the choice: "The last thing I want to do is to ask anybody to move. It will be the behaviours that I’m moving, because they're getting in the way of your learning."

They deliver the choice calmly, then walk away to give some time for compliance. Our students know they’re in the driving seat: good choices lead to positive outcomes, and vice versa.

At Kilgarth, our default position is to ignore poor choices when at all possible, starving them of attention. Instead, we relentlessly focus on positives, rewarding these with our attention and making explicit the behaviours that we are praising.

Catching students being good is the oldest trick in the book, and our most useful tool. We try not to miss an opportunity to praise students – or, indeed, colleagues – when they make the sort of choice that we want to see more of. Praise activates powerful reward centres in the brain, releasing hormones that make us feel pleasure.

The result: repeated positive choices and a boost to wellbeing. What’s not to like? 

If we can’t ignore the negative behaviours, then we, again, fall back on agreed scripts. Different scripts apply to a particular situation, or can be specific to a particular student. They have the advantage of predictability, ensure consistency, and buy us a few valuable seconds of thinking time. 

The importance of breathing space

Using scripts maximises the chances of our being able to respond to a situation instead of reacting to it. We are far less likely to say or do something confrontational if we’re not ad-libbing. 

Instead of reacting instantly to challenging remarks from students, teachers are encouraged to give themselves thinking time before responding, breathing in for five seconds, holding for five and then out for five. This dampens the threat response, meaning teachers will feel calmer, speak more slowly, and their heart rate will drop. It also gives them 15 seconds to plan their next move. 

We are conscious that most of the information people pick up about someone’s emotional state is from non-verbal signals. Teachers are encouraged to use a calm, even tone and open body language throughout every interaction they have. 

Another trick we advocate is to use “maybe, and” to swerve challenging remarks. Challenging remarks are often an invitation to a fight, and very effective in substituting diversionary conflict for your learning agenda. 

If a student challenges us by saying, “Mr Smith lets us sit where we want,” instead of being drawn into a debate, we’d simply reply, “Maybe he does, and I’d like you to focus on the text now, thanks.” 

Anything perceived as confrontational will provoke the threat response in our students, minimising the chances of successful emotional regulation, positive behaviour choices and learning. This is why we wanted to remove sanctions – to try and reduce the threat in our school.

Five years on, and each of us has faced doubts and challenges, but none of us would go back to the way things were. Not only has our approach allowed us to focus on developing better relationships with our students, but it has also reduced the number of secondary behaviours in school, and helped us to focus on the wellbeing of our students and our colleagues.

Steven Baker is principal of Kilgarth School, in Birkenhead, and Mick Simpson is headteacher of Olsen House School, in Liverpool. A School Without Sanctions, by Steven Baker and Mick Simpson, is published by Bloomsbury Education, priced £19.99

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