Why you need to think twice before 'punishing' a pupil

Payback should never be the motivation for a behaviour sanction, so make sure your decisions are based on what's best for the pupil rather than on raw emotion

Jarlath O'Brien

When students know the rules in the classroom, they can soar, writes Sarah Simons

One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with poor behaviour by a pupil is that it can generate strong feelings in us that we have to manage and process – often at the same time as dealing with the situation at hand.

These feelings can reduce our tolerance and blunt our skills. They can impair our ability to communicate well – I was quite the shouter when I first started teaching – and we all know that those are precisely the times when our communication matters most.

Yet I confess to struggling to manage these feelings in tough situations. The emotions are visceral. A child has done something bad, so there is a part of me that feels that something bad must now happen to them.

Is it really helping?

That feels like natural justice. That’s payback (the actual name for detention in a special school I once worked in). But is it effective in improving behaviour and reducing the chances of a recurrence? 

Now, whenever the topic of sanctions comes up, that is the first thing that I am interested in. 

But there was a time when, as a new headteacher, I didn’t think like this, and it was more important for me to appear tough and uncompromising (I failed at that, by the way) rather than consider questions of improvement, but that was because I was trying to hide my own insecurities. 

This can often lead to those moments where you choose a particular sanction because the main thing about it is that it is going to ‘sting’.

Depriving someone of what they love

For example, have you ever thought that a child should be prevented from representing the school at football because of poor behaviour elsewhere at school? 

This kind of approach has never sat well with me. I get the logic. It goes further than payback. It’s about the power, or so we think, that relies on removing access to something that is valued to the child in the belief it will prove to be a powerful incentive to behave better. 

This may well work occasionally but I suspect that it is more likely than not to entrench resentment and actually reduce the chances of behaviour improving. 

There is a bigger downside though, in my view, and that is that it reduces opportunities for a child to be successful. 

An argument can be made that it is a privilege to represent your school and I accept that there is something in that. A privilege, yes, but it is not a reward. 

Creating a sense of belonging 

We should acknowledge that and recognise that one of the drivers of motivation can be a secure sense of belonging - something that can help improve behaviour, which if taken away can do even more damage.  

As Carol Goodenow notes in her work on psychological sense of school membership (Goodenow, 1993), “for young people who feel unsupported or 'disinvited' by school...the appeal of peer groups with anti-academic norms may be strong and may result in gradual disidentification with the school and disinvestment from academic or achievement goals”.

That doesn’t seem desirable to any of us. This is why we must always make sure any sanction has at its heart a focus on improving behaviour and reducing the chances of a recurrence - and is not just payback to ease our bruised egos.

Jarlath O’Brien is a local authority advisor and author of Better Behaviour – A Guide for Teachers

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