After a discussion at a meeting at Island School, I was given to write down some thoughts about detentions and other punishments. Here they are. I don’t think any of it is earth shattering – fairly obvious really.
I start from the principle that any measure that we implement in response to a behavioural issue must serve to prevent the student from repeating that behaviour. If it doesn’t do that then it shouldn’t happen. This view stems from the idea that we are in the business of teaching children how to behave positively.
What is interesting about a lot of the literature about detentions is that the argument for their effectiveness often comes down to the fact that it is something students do not like. Phrases such as “Detentions at lunch time are particularly effective because it removes social time and they do not like that.” And “No one likes having their free time removed” abound. The argument goes that if the threat is something they do not like, then they won’t do it.
I think this view comes from a paradigm that is wrong on several levels. It is based on the idea that education over behaviour is a conflict that we, the adults, must win. We must make children feel worse as a consequence of what they have done. I have worked in schools where this atmosphere is very much the case. The conflictual nature of behavioural transaction between teachers and students has been so deeply engrained in the school and the prevailing community that it is very hard indeed to see a way to break that cycle. In that sort of school getting students to behave well, even for the wrong reasons, is a victory. I am lucky in that I work in a school that is not like that. We are lucky enough to be able to strive for more and aim for children to behave well for the right reasons. We want students not only to display responsible behaviour but to do so because they care for others and can take responsibility for their own well being.
The paradigm of retribution is expressed in many forms. We say, sometimes, that people must suffer the consequences of their actions. I do feel uncomfortable with an education policy based on people suffering or deliberately making then do what they do not like. Of course we all have to do things we do not like, and so should children, but that is different from making them do them because they do not like them. There is something inhumane and rather misanthropic about this viewpoint.
The next concern I have is that I have never seen evidence that this process actually improves behaviour. If the argument is that of a deterrent, then it becomes a deterrent to being caught rather than the behaviour. Getting away with it is therefore equated with success. The number of repeat offenders in any detention system would rather indicate that it has a rather low success rate. We have to ask why this might be.
Research and my own observations indicate that there is a strong correlation between students who feel connected to their community, feel valued and, crucially, liked and those who behave well or positively. Similarly, those who feel alienated, dissatisfied and unappreciated tend to behave worse, and take less notice of the codes of the community. They have less motive to behave well to and for others, if they do not feel respected by them and part of their society.
Now there could be a chicken and egg argument here. Does alienation lead to bad behaviour or does bad behaviour, and its suffered consequences, lead to alienation? Actually it doesn’t matter. If the former we need to work on the alienation, if the latter we need to work on the consequences.
We value the conversations that help students understand the harm their behaviour can cause to themselves, other individuals or the community. This is true whether they miss lessons, disrupt others’ learning, take drugs or act violently. The success of these conversations leads to a growing understanding of the effect their actions have on themselves and the community and their part in it. I would argue that the detention has a tendency to undermine all the good work.
We want students to believe we care about them, because we do and because that helps them see the truth of what we say and act appropriately. We want them to care that the adults close to them will be pleased by their good behaviour. We want them to want to please. If they feel we care, the guilt they feel about letting us down will be far more effective than the fear of a meaningless consequence.
If the attentive caring conversation is followed up by a detention, I suggest the default response is often to wonder how authentic the conversation and the advice was, to take another small chip away at the connection the student feels with the school, and to increase the chance of the not caring about the consequences of the next infraction.
This is why I talk about feeling the school code rather than understanding it. It is an emotional response rather than an intellectual one that will cause young people to change their behaviour. This is because it is an emotional response that causes their behaviour in the first place. Young people will transgress against the expected norms if they feel no emotional connection with the society. Note that I wrote “feel no connection” rather than think they have no connection. If it was a merely intellectual understanding, then a logical argument will explain to them why it is wrong and so they will understand and never repeat it. We know this does not happen. The logical explanation is never enough. They need to feel the meaning, feel the guilt and feel the need to change.
Any suffered consequence that takes away or reduces the guilt that they have been wrong, lessens the chance of the lesson being learned. If the student can possibly feel that the response is unjust, unfeeling or unfair, then they will grasp this straw as a lifeline to reduce their own guilt and replace it by the much more comfortable feeling of being a victim. Once we have got to that point, we have lost.
We are all victims of our own past. We are created by our own experiences. So, my views on detention and punishment in school are framed by my school experiences. I had numerous detentions, and I don’t think I ever thought that any of them made sense. It reinforced my opinion that the adults in the school were, with few exceptions, people who did not care for me. I really couldn’t care less if I upset them because they couldn’t care if they upset me. I was not an easy student and confrontation followed confrontation. I am now adult enough to see my responsibility in my actions. What has happened is that I have emotional distance and can see through the fog of feelings to apply my intellect. I also feel that the detentions did the opposite of help my feelings. If only someone had made me feel guilty rather than wrong, I might have been a better person.