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:
- Students who never received a detention (‘never group’);
- Students who received at least one detention in the fall, but not in the spring (‘fall group’);
- 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