Blog 6: Classroom management: the use of detentions in schools

Over the last few weeks, I have been blogging about the effects that reinforcement and punishment can have on a child’s behaviour, wellbeing, and learning in school. In week 4, I focussed on the use of time-out in schools due to the sheer amount of debate and controversy on the subject, but with the constraint of word limits, I was unable to consider another crucial form of punishment in the classroom. Detention is a used in a substantial number schools and it is therefore imperative to consider this method of classroom management when discussing punishment. I will argue for the cautious use of detention and encourage a school environment built with positivity, as opposed to the constant focus on the negative.

I concluded my fourth blog by stating that time-out does have its uses, but the reliance on sending pupils out of the classroom can actually be positively reinforcing for the pupil. The same can be said for many other methods that teachers currently use, including detention.

During my first couple of years of secondary school, I received my fair share of detentions and it was always fun to see how far you could push the teacher before they gave you one. This was quite possibly due to the seemingly constant threats of detention, where it was used as blackmail to try and get us to behave. When we did end up in detention, it was pretty fun. The teachers on duty always knew that the ‘naughty kids’ in detention would never behave so we would all run riot in the classroom – it was certainly better than being bored in the rain outside at break!

Detention can be classed as punishment due to the fact that the aim is to stop bad behaviour from reoccurring. Within the definition of punishment, it could be referred to as positive, for example if a pupil was instructed to complete an additional assignment during detention, something unpleasant is added to the environment. However, it could also be classed as negative punishment as the pupil is being prevented from enjoying break times with their friends. Ultimately, detention serves as a method of ensuring that bad behaviour is not replicated, but does it really work?

Sometimes teachers may be tempted to use the threat of detention without actually following through on these threats (Latham, 1997). The use of threats in classrooms can be extremely damaging, with researchers finding that teachers who exhibited this behaviour produced pupils who would worry excessively about their grades, avoid school, suffer from nightmares, and demonstrate withdrawal behaviour (Krugman & Krugman, 1984). Clearly, this is the opposite of what teachers would want to achieve on a purely academic basis due to the negative relationships between anxiety (Seipp, 1991), school avoidance (Douglas, 2004), and wellbeing (Feshbach & Feshbach, 1987) on academic achievement.

Another problem with the use of the detention is that it is rarely successful in the extinction of undesirable behaviours and, in some cases, can actually increase them. Research by Atkins et al. (2002) looked at disciplinary records for 314 students in a low-income school and rates of disciplinary referrals were compared through splitting student records into three groups:

  1. Students who never received a detention (‘never group’);
  2. Students who received at least one detention in the fall, but not in the spring (‘fall group’);
  3. Students who received at least one detention in both the fall and the spring (‘fall and spring group’.

The researchers found that those who were in the ‘fall and spring group’ showed no decreases in subsequent undesirable behaviours and that disciplinary referrals for this group actually increased the following year. These findings suggest that rather than providing students with punishment, students are actually rewarded when given detentions.

Instead of punishing the behaviour, students may be receiving positive reinforcement for their bad behaviour. This could be happening because they are being given attention from teachers, which they possibly would not have obtained without misbehaving and attention from peers in the form of admiration for bad behaviour. Additionally, unacceptable behaviour can sometimes be a coping mechanism used by students who are facing challenges, for example bullying in the playground and/or low self-esteem (Donnellan, Trzesniewski, Robins, Moffitt, & Caspi, 2005). As a result, detention may serve as a negative reinforcer for bad behaviour, as the student is able to avoid the stressors associated with the playground, such as unpopularity or bullying.

Clearly detention is not an effective way of ensuring good behaviour in the classroom, with research demonstrating that despite teachers engaging in the active use of detentions, they admit that it is does little to encourage good behaviour (Caffyn, 1989).

In Latham’s (1997) eight skills every teacher should have, he notes that positive behaviour is often ignored whilst negative behaviour draws more attention from the teacher. As stated in my first blog on classroom management, this notion is the reason why students are currently being failed by the education system. Indeed, in Latham’s observations in schools, he found that 90% of acceptable behaviour went unnoticed by teachers and that they were between two and five times more likely to attend to unacceptable behaviour than acceptable behaviour.

So what can be done?

Clearly, far more focus needs to be on attending to acceptable behaviour in the form of praise and/or rewards than the unacceptable behaviour. Luiselli, Putnam, Handler, and Feinberg (2005) found that when acceptable behaviour was focussed on through improving instructional methods, formulating behavioural expectations, increasing classroom engagement, and reinforcement, office referrals and suspensions decreased significantly.

Over these past few weeks, I have come to realise, both from my own experiences and the current research in the area, that punishment is used in schools in a way that actually reinforces the behaviour. It is not until educators fully accept the research demonstrating that their current attitudes are wrong that we will see the use of more successful methods in classroom management. It is shocking that teachers receive relatively little training in this area and it is something that needs to be considered. Reluctance to do so could result in many capable students being left without an education.

Next week I will focus on the principles of reinforcement and punishment in higher education.


Atkins, M. S., McKay, M. M., Frazier, S. L., Jakobsons, L. J., Arvanitis, P., Cunningham, T., … Lambrecht, L. (2002). Suspensions and detentions in an urban, low-income school: Punishment or reward? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 30(4), 361-371.

Caffyn, R. E. (1989). Attitudes of British secondary school teachers and pupils to rewards and punishments. Educational Research, 31(3), 210-220. doi: 10.1080/0013188890310307

Donnellan, M. B., Trzesniewski, K. H., Robins, R. W., Moffitt, T. E., & Caspi, A. (2005). Low self-esteem is related to aggression, antisocial behaviour, and delinquency. Psychological Science, 16(4), 328-335. doi: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01535.x

Douglas, R. E. (2004). Research on school attendance and student achievement: A study of Ohio schools. Educational Research Quarterly, 28(1), 3-16.

Feshbach, N. D., & Feshbach, S. (1987). Affective processes and academic achievement. Child Development, 58(5), 1335-1347.

Krugman, R. D., & Krugman, M. K. (1984). Emotional abuse in the classroom. JAMA Paediatrics, 138(3), 284-286. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.1984.02140410062019

Latham, G. (1997). Behind the schoolhouse door: Eight skills every teacher should have. Utah: Utah State University.

Luiselli, J. K., Putnam, R. F., Hander, M. W., & Feinberg, A. B. (2005). Problem behaviour. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 25(2), 183-198. doi: 10.1080/0144341042000301265

Seipp, B. (1991). Anxiety and academic performance: A meta-analysis of findings. Anxiety Research, 4(1), 27-41. doi: 10.1080/08917779108248762

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4 Responses to Blog 6: Classroom management: the use of detentions in schools

  1. megscurr says:

    I found the Atkins et al (2002) paper particularly interesting as it highlights the variety of responses that can be shown to the same behaviour. It reminded me of how, one time in year 7 I was threatened with a detention, and after that I never got one ever again. (and managed to talk my way out of it anyway!) So i guess I would fall into the ‘fall’ category, where detentions serve as a punisher. The differences in how we respond depend on the function of the behaviour for each child (and teacher).

    Martens and Mellor (1990) pointed out that punishment us often used in the classroom because it can change behaviour rapidly in the short-term; this is reinforcing for them. However as you pointed out, this does not adapt the child’s behaviour in the long term, and does not solve the problem.

    To solve this problem, teachers need to be taught to look out for the basic indicators of whether the behaviour is increasing or decreasing to know how to deal with that individual problem.

    Martens, B.K., & Meller, P.J. (1990). The application of behavioral principles to educational settings. In T.B. Gutkin & C.R.Reynolds (Eds.), The handbook of school psychology (2nd ed.) (pp. 612-634). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

  2. Great blog! Meg has written exactly what I was going to write; to determine the effectiveness of detention you need to analyse the function of the behaviour. Only once this is determined can you say if such action will be reinforcing or punishing. Personally just the threat of detention was enough for me to stop what i was doing immediately! You mentioned that low self-esteem can result in detention being an escape mechanism for the aversive situation of the playground. Gecas and Schwalbe (1986) found self-esteem was significantly influenced by parental behaviour. Boys self-esteem was strongly related to the control parents had over what they did and did not do. Where as the self-esteem of girls was influenced by the amount of care and support their family provided. Therefore it could be said to improve behaviour, higher self-esteem needs to be instilled within out children and to do this we need to target the parents!

    Gecas, V., & Schwalbe, M.L. (1986). Parental behaviour and adolescent self-esteem. Journal of Marriage and Family, 48, 37-46. Retrieved from:

  3. Pingback: Comments I’ve made for Blog 6 | Sarah's Blog

  4. EmmaAlofs says:

    I really enjoyed your blog this week. As you have discussed, there is a considerable body of research that criticises detention as a form of behaviour management in classrooms. If this research is out there, then this leads me to ask the question: Why are teachers still using detention as a behaviour management tool? Teachers continue to use detention as a way of instigating punishments for inappropriate behaviour because it produces rapid, although often temporary suppression (Maag, 2001).Unfortunately, teachers often assume that “punishment” and “discipline” are synonymous but this is not really the case because attempting to suppress bad behaviour doesn’t guarantee that desired behaviours will be exhibited. Using detention as a form of punishment leaves the anticipated occurrence of desired behaviour largely to chance (Rutherford & Neel, 1978). I think instead of using detention as a means of trying to control behaviour by suppressing the bad in the hope that the good will occur, teachers should be taught skills that provides them with insight as to where the behaviour that a student exhibits has originated from, what the anticipated outcome of that behaviour is, and how to respond appropriately to that behaviour. Far too often, the reason why students decide to misbehave in class is to gain attention. It is inherent in human nature to crave attention and, in the absence of positive attention (in the form of praise and recognition from the teacher or peers) a student will seek negative attention by behaving badly. When the teacher responds by giving that student attention, it not only satisfies the student’s need for attention but reinforces that behaviour as a means to gain attention from the teacher. In order to educate teachers on how to respond to this kind of behaviour it is important to provide skills associated with behaviour analysis in their teacher-training; something that at present is not given enough attention in the education system. I suppose, given the body of research that is out there, it is easy to tell teachers that detention doesn’t work. The real issue is giving them an alternative that does.


    Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Childen, 67, 173-186.

    Rutherford, R. B., & Neel, R. S. (1978). The role of punishment with behaviorally disordered children. In R. B. Rutherford & A. G. Prieto, (Eds.). Monogrph in behavior disorders, Arizona State University, Teacher Educators for Children with Behavioral Disorders & Council for Children with Behavior Disorders.

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