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Behaviour management – No punishment works for every student

Those debating whether certain forms of punishment ‘work’ or not should be mindful that students at the same school can respond to the same sanctions in very different ways, says David Didau…

  • Behaviour management – No punishment works for every student

There’s been a fair bit of discussion around the role of internal isolation and detention in secondary schools of late, with some voices calling for an outright ban and others suggesting they are an essential part of a well-organised behaviour system.

When I was a student I was given lots of detentions.

After some particularly appalling behaviour on a French exchange trip I was given two months of hour-long after school detentions. This was a big deal, as I lived about 15 miles away from my school and needed to get two buses home.

Because I wasn’t able to catch the school bus, I had to walk to the nearest train station, wait for the hourly train shuttle to a larger town and then get another bus to within walking distance of my home.

What began as a one-hour detention usually ended up taking over three hours. You’d think this would serve as an effective deterrent, but being a very immature teenager with poor impulse control and an inability to think through consequences, it wasn’t.

Going with the flow

If we’re going to consider whether punishment works, we need to think about who it works for. As a teacher, my instinct was always that in the right circumstances, the vast majority of students behave well.

Very few will behave well in the most adverse circumstances, and a smaller group will misbehave even in the calmest and well-ordered environments. The majority will behave well given the right circumstances, and be just as likely to behave poorly given the wrong ones.

Here’s the thing – sanctions only work for those kids who go with the flow.

It would obviously be wrong to punish children who always behave well, while children like me, who always seem to do the wrong thing, are unlikely to be persuaded by consequences they routinely fail to see coming.

However, for those who can be influenced, sanctions such as internal exclusion or detention can be very effective if applied as part of a whole school system.

One effect of my two-month detention period was that a lot of the kids previously prone to going along with my silliness were suddenly very keen to avoid joining me after school.

It could be argued that even though the punishment didn’t make much difference to my own behaviour, it had a significant effect on theirs.

As well as having a huge impact on the length of my day, those detentions at my school were also purposefully unpleasant. I was given jobs that included scrubbing out the PE showers with a toothbrush, and if I was spotted loafing I’d be sent on a lap of the playing fields.

In this respect, things have changed for the better. These days, the worst that’s likely to happen to errant students is that they’ll be asked to sit in silence and get on with school work.

Had I been given the choice of spending my days in internal isolation, rather than adding three hours to the end of my day, I know which I’d have picked.

Risk and reward

Schools are now more likely to use ‘punishments’ as an opportunity to have some sort of restorative conversation, to try and get to the bottom of why the student has done wrong and put in place a plan for preventing further misdemeanours.

This is probably always worth trying, but – rightly – no one ever wasted time talking to me about what I’d done wrong. I never had a clue as to why I chose to misbehave, so the best I could have done was to confabulate an excuse.

In summary, punishment works sometimes for some students.

It definitely doesn’t solve the problems of the most persistent offenders, but punishment can signal to those members of the student body able to weigh up risk and reward that there are sanctions in place, and that poor behaviour will be met with predictable, proportional and fair consequences – a conclusion supported by research into social and cultural norms.

The key, as with all aspects of behaviour management, is not of severity when it comes to the consequences, but their certainty.


David Didau is an independent education consultant and writer. He blogs at learningspy.co.uk and is the author of several books, the latest of which is Making Kids Cleverer: A Manifesto for Closing the Advantage Gap (Crown House)

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