Behaviour’s Three Rs – punishment, reward and something different. Part 1

Part 1; Punishment

 Looking at behaviour in detail

A websearch of primary and secondary school behaviour policies highlights the global dominance of the behaviourist reward/punishment approach currently being taken in schools. As misdemeanours grow into more seriously bad behaviour punishment becomes the main agent of change, together with the involvement of senior staff who will hold meetings with the student, including family members later on.

The script of the conversation in a meeting between the persistently badly behaving student and the adult is never specified, but with the focus being on the problem in practice the talking is about out what has gone wrong and on what the student must do to put it right. The opening gambit is often to look through the pile of incident reports on the table and to go from there. As behaviour worsens the strategy is maintained. Behaviour policies outline schools’ inclusive values and the aspiration that all children are valued, but in the end if the punishment regime does not produce the required change in behaviour the student will be more or less reluctantly excluded.

A policy setup to develop and maintain the good behaviour of all children appears to serve some children well but those who fail to make the required corrections from bad to good are progressively and intentionally pressured towards exclusion from their community. If that seems too harsh a judgement of school leaders doing their best to clarify their plans on what to do when children behave badly, the 5000 permanent exclusions point up the bluntness of the instrument. It is an intentional act because a policy based on punishment offers no alternative for those who do not or can not comply. Even though behavior policies might mention positive action and the active inclusion of children they also talk about the necessity of exclusion at some point, raising the question necessary for whom and on what grounds?

This paradoxical situation of schools developing a policy leading to exclusion in order to ensure inclusion has come about for two reasons.

The first is that the limitation of punishment as an agent of behaviour change is poorly understood by teachers and their managers.

The second is that schools as organisations and school staff commonly believe they have no alternative to punishment and reward as the sole strategy to rely on in managing behaviour.

Through my own teaching and research I have developed a different approach in supporting students at high risk of exclusion with great success in maintaining their inclusion. This approach does not include the use of punishment of extrinsic reward and at first sight is counterintuitive – maybe it makes sense to limit punishment but not using reward seems perverse until you get clearly in mind that they are both integral to behaviourism. When school staff experience it they are surprised that it is not better known and are enthusiastic about bringing it into practice in their schools.

I am hopeful and pragmatic about change. It is highly unlikely that the established way of managing behaviour will be overturned at a stroke, it is deeply embedded in schools and the behaviour experts we defer to are heavily invested in the advice-giving, detailed strategizing that is part and parcel of the behaviourist deficit-focused programme. Busy teachers and their managers pick and choose from theoretically incompatible approaches in a way that is modeled by experts doing the same in the name of eclecticism.

This is unsatisfactory, because the practice that students experience becomes a blur of mixed messages and practice becomes detached from theory making systematic critique and development unlikely.

In this article I will focus on the possibility of retaining elements of existing practice and adding something to it by looking below the surface at what drives the use of punishment and its limitations as a driver of behaviour change.

I will question the declared and hidden agendas that produce very different practices in schools.

I will propose that we adopt an honest clarity about why we do what we do.

Finally I will take a first look at what we can do when punishment fails to support children in school, guaranteeing their inclusion.

Looking closely at policies

A secondary head teacher recently posted his thoughts on his school’s ‘Behaviour for learning’ work programme called ‘Towards impeccable behaviour’ and its development over the last year.




He commented;

‘There’s always been a tension between our mission to challenge behaviour that is below expectations whilst maintaining the warm, friendly, relaxed atmosphere that many students, teachers and families value.  No-one wants the school to feel oppressive.  Whilst we may think we’ve done a reasonable job with this, it’s not been quite right.’

This highlights the tension created by relying on a punishment to provide the push necessary to bring about new learning and the need for a warm and friendly working relationship between those applying the regime and those experiencing punishment at first or second hand. If ‘no-one wants the school to feel oppressive’ why put in place a control system designed to be incrementally oppressive up to the final strategy of external exclusion? Because it could affect the good relationship and inevitably will do so as the severity of punishment increases. The key question; we don’t use punishment in any other curriculum area in school so is there any alternative in helping children in learning to behave well and if so what is it?

‘The neatness of a one-size-fits-all central detention has increasingly felt too unsophisticated.  A hard-working well-disciplined student who had a shirt hanging out sitting next to a student who had disrupted learning in a lesson sitting side by side in the hall? It’s been too crudely black and white. It’s not a binary world.’

Improving the punishment system relies on categorising students as either making genuine and minor errors or being intentionally bad. As the author says the real world is not an either/or place and but as long as it’s up to the teacher to diagnose the problem, assign the child to the correct category and the appropriate punishment, detention-lite or detention-max, that’s how it is being conceptualized, as a binary.

‘The next-day consequence has been problematic.  Very often, with so many separate issues leading to a C3, students would sit in the hall unable to identify exactly why they had been given that particular detention. Of course we’d have told them and their parents but, too often, for the repeat offenders it was all a blur.  In addition, they have had too much protest time.  For some students a default response to getting an in-class C3 has been to try to negotiate out of it.’

This comment exposes a difficulty in using punitive measures intended to stamp out a specific behaviour – punishment has to be specifically linked to a behaviour phenomenon and immediate in order for the link to be made between the unwanted behaviour phenomenon and the unpleasant consequence. When the rat touches the bar it has learned to press to get its favourite food and gets an electric shock instead, severe enough to hurt it but not enough to kill it, it might work to disrupt earlier conditioning. This electric model may be a good way to think about the use of punishment in school; enough to hurt but not enough to be fatal unless it’s necessary. Any lapse in time between the behaviour and the shock communicates to the student that this is a negotiable rule when what we are trying to make them learn is that it is non-negotiable. The difficulty in establishing an exact cause-effect fit between the specific unwanted behaviour and the consequent punishment is insurmountable. We can do all the telling in the world to students, the repeat offenders and their family members to no effect.

We can attempt to show that a rule is a non-negotiable either by the use of maximum force through punishment via the steps of increasingly unpleasant detention with permanent exclusion as the ultimate weapon or we can turn to dialogue, following the students’ lead. ‘Protest time’ is evidence that the student as a person is prepared to engage in dialogue and the ‘It’s not you it’s your behaviour’ behaviourist rule has been swept aside.

The student is engaging as a person with agency in hoping that change will happen. Maybe it is because capable students feel they have something to useful say and are prepared to work in the spirit of cooperation. Many badly behaved students have additional educational needs and have experienced a serious amount of disruption in their lives and are living in some form of care, institutional or otherwise and there are those who are distressed and have what are termed mental health problems; maybe they could join in a conversation too, as it is well known that talking helps.

‘The C4 Isolation.  This will now be reserved for much more serious issues. A six hour day in the Isolation room is gruelling and we need to be sure that this is given only when the behaviour warrants it: defiance, aggressive behaviour and so on.’  

Now we’re getting down to it. Things have got heavy and the next step in punishment is supposed to be grueling. The sharp shock has been replaced by a rucksack full of bricks. Six hours up and down the hill is intended to put a stop to disruptive, aggressive, defiant behaviour, a serious response to serious issues. And if all that happens is the offenders get fitter –

‘Our Behaviour Support Centre has been very successful in providing a buffer zone before permanent exclusion’, six weeks away from the mainstream on an alternative curriculum, the student diagnosed as having some kind of learning diffuculty that requires a modified curriculum to can fully correct it in half a term.

And if it that doesn’t work? The ultimate inclusive act, refractive students will be jettisoned, joining the five thousand permanently excluded every year.

A primary purpose of the behaviour management system is to combat low level disruption by establishing non-negotiable boundaries. Once boundaries are established they generate automatic compliant responses by all children, establishing better behaviour in general.

‘We’re prepared for quite a lot of students to be Exited every lesson in the first phase of the new system as they learn where the boundaries lie.  I want staff to set the bar very high.  We need the warnings to be given very clearly but no teacher should tolerate low level disruption at any point.  It’s in the classroom where impeccable behaviour is the most crucial.  Time will tell how it works out but I’m much more confident that this system will address the issues we face fairly, proportionately and effectively.’

This points up the sole dependence on punishment to correct the behaviour of disruptive students. This is boundary-setting, a mild response to non-serious behaviour where the student has constrained choice – behave conventionally, be unnoticed of suffer an inconvenience.

Why has punishment gained such a strong position in schools in the UK?

The idea of Impeccable Behaviour demands the highest level of vigilance and rapid correction of errors when they occur being done by someone.

Who is best-placed to do this? The teacher?

They have other tasks in class so how can they be sufficiently vigilant to guarantee full monitoring of all students at all times, even when they are only thinking of crossing boundaries.

The students themselves?

The ones who do best are self-monitoring and self-correcting, self-motivated to succeed. For the others, the few who cause all the problems, how do you get them to pay attention to their own success in learning and to provide their own feedback on success and error in the process of behaving well?

If we cannot come up with an answer we can only fall back on external motivation, reward and punishment.

Luckily I have an answer and you can read about it in my book, ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom’, published by Sage next February. If you scroll to the end of this article you will find something about the idea.

Have you got to be cruel to be kind?

In pre-scientific times the teacher was mistress or master and regulated the pupil with little or no oversight. There was a moral and religious drive in much of education and the use of punishment including physical chastisement sought justification on these grounds. The tradition of punishment became established in schooling and allowed the scientifically based behaviourist framework of punishment and reward an easy entry – it structured the existing practices based on the belief that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. The challenge thrown out by the person-centred educationalists of the 19th and 20th centuries in suggesting that children have agency and an innate drive to self-actualisation was deflected by Piaget’s rigid phased explanation of child-development and the growing influence of experimental psychology on education. Cause effect science reigned supreme then and still does, heedless and apparently largely ignorant of its own limitations in the field of education, a place where it sits uncomfortably as the means of explaining changeable, unstable and non-physical phenomena.

At the same time psychiatry blossomed, reconceptualising personal variations in behaviour as insanity and seeking to separate malingerers from the truly insane, providing scientific answers to philosophical and moral questions. With no organic cause for the vast majority of mental illnesses to provide a basis for diagnosis, differential diagnosis was invented and is in current use following Sherlock Holmes’ principle that “Once you’ve ruled out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.”

What we have now is the result of this, where as educationalists we defer to positivist science and to the medical and psychological professions even when we know these explanations are inadequate. The whole process is problem-focused, which means we pay attention to wrong-doing in order to eliminate it and expect right-doing to magically take its place.

Most behaviour experts’ advice about what to do with badly behaved children is centred on what has gone wrong on the grounds that it makes scientific sense and anything altrnative is written off as pseudoscience. The use of reward as a propellant of good behavoiur fits within this problem-focused paradigm and the superficially different restorative justice approach starts with the concept that a child has done incontrovertible harm to another. It is said that we have to know what has gone wrong to be able to put it right, to establish causality, to act as experimental scientists not as teachers.

But if we keep the idea of teaching and behaviour support being elements of practice based on educational theory as I have done in developing my own work, we widen the scope of our inquiry into what is possible and we come up with an interesting alternative.

Questioning the declared and hidden agendas that produce very different practices in schools. Adopting an honest clarity in explaining why we do what we do.

Schooling socially conditions children and educates them in the wider sense.

Where is the behaviour policy of a school intended to lie within these purposes of schooling?

If schooling is principally for the socialization of children then modelling behaviour management and the behaviour policy statement on the legal system might be appropriate. Children behaving badly are to be seen as offenders and forced to compensate their victims and the school community for the harm they have done and suffer due punishment for their crime. The twin purposes of the criminal system are punishment and rehabilitation and offenders who must acknowledge and accept the consequences of their choices and decisions and this can be seen paralleled in schools.

If this is the prime purpose of a school’s behaviour policy then it should be clearly stated, something like this:

‘Behaviour management and restorative justice is used in our school to ensure the punishment and rehabilitation of offenders. Harmful behaviour includes disrupting the education of other students, bullying, violence and name calling. Students who do harm to others must acknowledge and accept the consequences of their choices and decisions. Those who fail to do so will be subjected to further punishment and in the event they still fail to make an acceptable response they will be excluded.’

Alternatively if a broad education is the aim, then the purpose of the behaviour policy and teachers’ responses to identified needs is to enable children to learn more about themselves and their behaviour as a part of the overall curriculum in line with all the rest of their learning. It could be written like this:

‘In seeing behaviour as integral aspect of learning, the school’s behaviour policy focuses on students’ strengths and resources and their inborn drive to be successful and useful members of the school community. We take care to ensure that all students know and observe the Five Rules* and if they need additional guidance to stay within boundaries we provide this by fully explained penalties for infringement. If a student experiences continuing difficulty in adjusting their behaviour to match the community needs they will be able to take part in our individualized Behaviour Support Programme (BSP) as part of overall pastoral care in school.

If a student has additional needs which cannot be met within our BSP we will identify these and with parental/carer agreement call for additional external support.

If a student’s behaviour threatens their own of others’ safety they will be excluded from school once the behaviour support process has been completed and plans for their continued education drawn up and fully communicated.’

*or a number less than eight; the non-negotiable rules of the school community

Finally I will look at a practical approach to take when punishment fails to support children in school.

This won’t take long. It’s solution-support, the solution focused approach to behaviour change in schools. Fast and effective change without punishment or reward.

 Coming next;

Part 2; Rewards




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