Traditional Discipline No Longer Works


Dr. Ruth Payne, a lecturer at Leeds University in the U.K. surveyed students aged 11 to 16 at a school in England to find out their attitudes to traditional punishments and rewards. One is that sanctions that require students to complete detention after class or making them miss all or part of their recess do not make them behave any better. Instead of changing behavior, these established punishments create resentment and damage the relationship between student and teacher, the study found. And, according to the academic behind the research, what is perhaps more surprising is that, despite it being used in many schools around the world, this approach to discipline has virtually no solid theoretical grounding at all.

They are a staple of school discipline policies everywhere but setting detentions and making pupils miss recess are ineffective ways of punishing bad behavior, according to new research. A series of questionnaires asked students how they would respond to a range of measures and what was likely to make them behave better or work harder.

Telling students off in front of the rest of the class or punishing the whole class for misdemeanors committed by a few students are also ineffective and ended up creating resentment and harming the student-teacher relationship.  Measures that did work included verbal warnings, contact with parents and being spoken to quietly, as opposed to in front of the whole class.

While discipline policies make no distinction between rewards and sanctions for hard work and behavior, in the students’ minds there are very clear demarcations.

And at a more fundamental level, the use of praise is widely supported by research. Students may learn that bad behavior has consequences, but they are not learning how to behave better. “It might make teachers feel good to put someone in detention, but children aren’t being taught to behave,” Dr. Payne adds.

Dr. Payne recognizes that as a pilot study, its findings will need to be confirmed and extended by further research. Her work should also be a siren call for more research to understand what works and why. She is also adamant that her work does not mean schools should rip up their behavior policies and start again. But what school leaders should do is look at why they hand out certain punishments, what message those punishments are sending to students and, more importantly, whether they really make a difference.