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 teacher/parent.”

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 place.

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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