Q: Why do schools still rely on punishing students for misbehavior? Google “Does punishment work?” and you’ll find hundreds of articles showing that it doesn’t. When is enough enough for today’s over-punished children?
If you are seriously suggesting that today’s American child is more repressed and less privileged than in the past, I’ve got a $1,000 iPhone and some $300 Nike sneakers I’d like to sell you.
Despite what Google suggests about the high number of bloggers who are somehow able to perceive that punishment doesn’t work from the confines of their Starbucks barstools, science tells a different story.
R.L. Solomon, for example, in a landmark paper published in American Psychologist, affirmed the effectiveness of punishment in controlling behavior. Over and over, punishment has been empirically proven to change actions. Behavioral scientists and psychologists do not even seriously challenge the presumption. So to say that “punishment doesn’t work” is a laughable falsehood.
Some readers may be triggered by the term “punishment,” which has been culturally distorted to evoke images of physical abuse, iron maidens, and Chokeys. In deference to these readers, I will henceforth try to use the more acceptable term “consequences.”
You needn’t go to Google to find opposition to consequences. You can find an army of dissidents simply by surveying educational leaders, many of whom denounce punishment in all its forms (and who, strangely, teach no students themselves). Are all these well-intentioned people anti-science or do they just possess misunderstandings about what punishment is?
Consider that their preferred method of modifying student behavior is positive reinforcement. To prefer reinforcement over punishment in this way demonstrates a confusion about what each method does.
Reinforcement is used to increase behaviors, not eliminate them. If a child is working hard at an activity and you drop a small prize on her desk, it will reinforce her good behavior and help sustain it.
Punishment, on the other hand, is used to reduce or negate behaviors. If a child is running down the hall and the principal gives him detention, that’s punishment. If applied consistently, the child will eventually stop his habit of running. This is far more effective and efficient than giving every other student in the school candy for walking.
Thus using positive reinforcement to try to eliminate major disruptive behaviors in the classroom is like using a rubber glove to milk a tiger. It is unlikely to turn out the way you want it to.
But maybe what the educational flat Earth-ers mean is that “misapplied” punishment doesn’t work. This is indisputably true. In order to work, punishment has to be used with some precision. If applied incorrectly, it can even backfire. There are four reasons that frequently serve to annul its effectiveness (and parents take note: this is true at home, too).
The first is if the punishment isn’t applied consistently. People who get tickets for speeding often still speed. One big reason is that they don’t get caught very often. If they did, they’d slow down.
Second, the punishment must be suitable to the offense. You can’t suspend a kid five days because he was chewing gum. Likewise, you can’t give a recess detention for dealing drugs. In the former case, the injustice may incite aggressiveness. In the latter, the punishment is so light it will not deter him.
Third, punishment can be ineffective if not applied immediately. When a child is scolded for running down a hallway while in the act of running, it has a much stronger impact than if you scold him two days later. This is why schools must make it a priority to process disciplinary referrals promptly. In young children especially, delayed consequences can be very confusing.
Finally, the punishment must be targeted at the behavior, not the child. A child should be instructed that he is being given a consequence for talking in class, not because he’s a bad or disruptive person.
If those four precepts are employed in applying punishment (sorry, I keep using that word and I said I wouldn’t), over time the bad behaviors will change.
The reinforcement advocates make a good point when they complain that punishment doesn’t teach students what the right behaviors are; it only addresses the things they shouldn’t do. This is why good teachers always practice “disciplineship,” a combination of consequences and instruction together. Anytime a child is punished, he or she should be taught what should be done to improve.
In the end, the best practice for schools is probably a combination of punishment and reinforcement. If we utilize both, being careful to always practice disciplineship, we will find that even the most notorious schools can become safe havens where good behavior and learning flourish for all students.
However, if we give in to the misguided urge to eliminate meaningful consequences, we will find that the only kids being over-punished are the students whose right to learn is being unjustly snatched away from them by badly behaving students acting out with total impunity.