Government statistics (Department for Education, 2013) show that the majority of fixed-term school exclusions are due to repeatedly disruptive behaviour and that for half of these students who are excluded, they will receive the same punishment more than once in a school year. Whether we like to admit it or not, punishment is the backbone of both school and society. It works as a reliable form of control for many people, and yet for a minority it seems to have very little affect. To understand this a bit better we need to understand the psychology of punishment itself.

The psychology behind it: This type of punishment system is based on an inequality of power between the teacher and the student, where the will of the teacher is forced upon the student using the threat of a negative experience if they do not do what they are asked (Kohn, 1993). It’s about saying to children ‘adapt to this framework… or else!’ The majority of schools within the UK use a system of punishments to manage the behaviour of their students and these methods are promoted by the government (Department for Education, 2014) and policy advisers (Bennet, 2015).

Most children and young people in schools are able to conform to school rules and follow instructions given by teachers quite easily – highlighting that, quite simply, punishment works to achieve its aims. However, whilst the threat of detention may appear to be effective in managing the behaviour of students who rarely stray from the rules, there can be negative effects for students who struggle with behaviour. For these students, the zero-tolerance policies employed by many schools do not help them to learn the skills that they need in these situations and have an adverse effect causing the student to feel resentment from the school and to feel unsupported which can cause their behaviour to become more extreme (Martinez, 2009). For these students school exclusion is often used as a punishment.

An understanding of the rules is not usually the cause of this, instead it comes down to a problem with a very early developed evolutionary function – adaption. Many of this minority of students often do not have the skills they need to adapt to the situations that they find themselves in (Greene, 2009). There’s split opinion in the academic world of what causes this stunted skill. They could include family and developmental factors, i.e. they’re exhausted from listening to their parents arguing all night or from caring for a younger sibling, they may lack concentration because their fridge was empty and they could not afford breakfast or they may be struggling with mental health problems. Or it could be related to other environmental or genetic factors that a relatively out of their control.

There are some alternatives used in schools, other than punishment. Many teachers will instead attempt to use praise and rewards in place of negative punishments to encourage their students to do what they are asked in the classroom. Whilst this may be a kinder approach to behaviour management, both rewards and punishments are extrinsic motivations (i.e. driven by someone elses agenda), which detracts from learning for the sake of learning. Evidence has been found to suggest that wanting rewards and praise can become the only reason that pupils complete academic work (Kohn, 1993; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Long story short – it’s almost the same as punishment – it relies on them adapting to the expectations in the room, and if they don’t have this capacity, it won’t happen. In an ideal world, students would be intrinsically motivated to learn new things which would lead to the students enjoying their studies and engaging better resulting in less disruptive behaviour.

So what alternatives are there to using punishment to manage behaviour within the classroom? Another possible option is restorative practice which originated in the criminal justice system and has been found to be more effective than typical punishment (Flanagan, 2014). Restorative practice is a method we commonly use with young people at One-Eighty and is based on building and maintaining relationships, repairing any damage caused and working together to find a way of moving forward (Thorsborne & Blood, 2013). Esentially, it’s a experimental way of introducing the concept of adaption, and offers opportunities (rather than forces) a person to make intrinsic changes. Whilst initially this process would take up a lot more time for teachers and staff, in the long term it could lead to far better outcomes for the students involved. Restorative practice could help students who struggle with behaviour to learn the skills they need to respond to challenges they face in school and in general life. As well as restorative practice allowing the young person to develop emotional awareness and empathy, some schools have already begun to implement this technique and have seen improvements in several areas including reduced school exclusions, fewer persistent absences and improved achievement in both English and Maths (Flanagan, 2014, Thorsborne & Blood, 2013). This suggests that it is beneficial for both the social and academic wellbeing of students.

Other alternative approaches have been suggested, including Glasser’s choice theory (Glasser, 1985), Greene’s collaborative problem solving (Greene, 2009) and strategies based on collaboration and relationships for students with attachment difficulties (Bombe, 2007; Geddes, 2006). These approaches all involve teachers and staff working with the students to solve their difficulties with behaviour, rather than forcing solutions on them.

A brief summary (for those that skim to the end): It has been found that choice and autonomy are important factors in developing intrinsic motivation in students (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Although it takes longer to teach this adaption skill to children who lack it, in the long run it achieves far better and reliable outcomes.

By Rosie Davies (Psychology Graduate, Oxford University, researching with One-Eighty).