Punishment! To Rule or Not to Rule.

This is not a nice word. It conjures up personal memories
from our youth, I time when a teacher scolded you in front of a class or
unfairly gave you detention that impacted something else. I am sitting in the
warm sun eating breakfast right now, and I am willing to bet the warm,
delicious toast I am enjoying, that your mood just changed as you
remembered an incident of your own.

Punishment of old made us feel less worthy, it stripped us
of dignity and created resentment. It was often personal, or at least it felt
that way. Did it work though? According to research,
“Instead of changing behavior, these established punishments create
resentment and damage the relationship between student and

So what’s the big deal? Or more pointedly, why are we stuck
not knowing how to handle this?

Punitive actions are intended to encourage the child to
stop the bad behaviour. We then need to define what bad behaviour is. I did
this once, or should I say I started to define bad behaviour, by page 6 I was
still not convinced I had covered it all so I hit delete and instead wrote:
respect, choice and consequence.

In my mind the thinking behind punishment is broader than a
simple debate on what to do as punishment.  As I write this post I am
seeing just how big the topic is.

But what is clear is that we need to start with the
question: “what are we trying to achieve?”

At our school we have some simple principles and they seem
to serve us well. Firstly, we believe in respect, not the kind
that says you must call me ma’am but the kind that says ‘I see you and I
respect you and thank you for doing the same for me.’ Respect means you don’t
just leave the classroom, it means you put up your hand rather than interrupt
or you learn the art of joining a conversation. Respect means that teachers
come prepared and engage children as people with a contribution to make.
Secondly, we work on choice and consequence, which is a
powerful life principle we get to espouse daily. Thirdly, we use restorative justice as a way to make sure
that we don’t isolate and break down the children we are trying to build up,
but also as a way to acknowledge the impact on the broader community.

But does any of this actually work and is it understood by
the children, the parents and even the teachers. Some challenges we face is
that this type of work is not done in front of a class and it not usually
visible to others. This type of work is calm and thought out rather than rash
and emotional. This type of work respects the individual and fits in with a
larger plan. It is not knee jerk reaction to isolated incidents. This type of
work takes the whole school community into account and acknowledges that
everyone is impacted by all behaviours. This type of work is often unnoticed.
As a result it can seem as if nothing is being done. The only time a quick, on
the spot, instinctive reaction is called for is if someone is in danger –
emotionally or physically- or if it is part of the overall plan.

Having said this, the push back is not that the approaches
are not working, the push back comes from the greater school community (the
people typically not involved in the incidents or the solution) feel that they
need to see for themselves that there has been justice.

It is human nature to want to see justice. There are two
key factors in this statement: 1) justice, and 2) see. Not only to we want
wrongs to be righted but we want proof, we want to witness the trial and the
execution. Off with his head! We can’t keep our noses out of it – why bad news
always sells, why TV drama will always be compelling and why we are not happy
if our assailant is not, in some way, publicly shamed. This is not about
justice, I believe in justice (Restorative Justice), this is about perception
and human nature.

So what is my conclusion?

Punishment has a purpose. We cannot write up policies under
the heading of ‘punishment’, we must write up policies under the heading of
‘purpose’. When we forget what we are trying to do then we get lost.

Also, communication! Human nature won’t change so we need a
channel that enables the greater school community to get their justice.
Restorative justice, for me, is the key. This approach acknowledges that the
greater community is impacted even if the incident is far removed in time and

This article is by no means complete or all encompassing,
it is a conversation about discipline in schools and its purpose.

Author: Lauren Edmunds – Copyright

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Lauren Edmunds

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