Thursday, 12 May 2016

Crime and Punishment

Crime and punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is not a book I’ve read but rather a title that caught my attention. I’m not a fan of punishment, to be fair I’m not a fan of crime either. I worry about why our prisons are full to bursting and why our youth are indulging in so many risky behaviours that may affect them for the rest of their lives. What can we as educators do to stem the flow? Punish the bad behaviour out of them? I think we can do better ...

It’s frightening to me as an educator and as a parent that there was a need for Peter Gluckman (Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister) to write a report titled; Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidity During Adolescence, written from concerns that New Zealand youth have a high suicide rate, how scary.

I think that two of the reports summary findings are worthy of a closer look;
Firstly, the finding that set warning bells ringing for me was that NZ is too punitive to our learners and secondly the finding that gave me hope “the growing evidence that prevention and intervention strategies applied early in life are more effective in altering outcomes and reap more economic returns over the life course than do strategies applied later.” The report also states that “It is now clear that early childhood is the critical period in which executive functions such as the fundamentals of self-control are established.”

As an educator for the past 25 years and now as a leader in a school, I have often been faced with educators bringing learners to me, with what appears to be a need from the educator for me to ‘discipline’, however the body language says ‘punish’. While I understand that there is a need for the educators to feel that the people in positions of authority are supportive of them and that they can approach us for help when issues arise. I myself have many occasions over my years as a classroom educator and parent felt the frustration building, it takes a bucket load of self-control and repeating of mantra like “Who’s the adult? What’s the learning” to not resort to ‘punishing’ the learner - to be honest I wasn’t always successful, in fact I probably punished more than I disciplined, there was that one time when I left a learner sitting in the hallway for a good few hours without lunch, Christopher, I am truly sorry and I probably put you off education and/or teachers for life.

There is a huge difference between punishment and discipline. Punishment is not discipline. Discipline is used to teach and guide. Punishment is used for the purposes of controlling and retribution. What educators often call discipline could actually be revenge packaged as punishment: “You’ve made me look/feel bad, so I’m going to do the same to you” Real discipline looks less at whatever a learner did wrong and more at how they are going to make a better decision next time.

The aim is for the educator not to be a prosecutor focused on the crime but more of a coach who has picked up on something that needs working on. Young children do not commit crimes, they make mistakes or bad choices and I believe that their mistakes and bad choices call for a corrective coaching style.

Punishment is adult oriented, imposes power, arouses anger and resentment, and invites more conflict. Punishment can include isolation, embarrassment, humiliation, shaming and brute force. It makes the wounds worse rather than healing them because it is focusing on blame and pain. Punishment discourages students from acknowledging their actions because they might deny doing the behavior or place blame on anything or anybody other than themselves. When educators use punishment, good behavior is bought at a terrible price. Punishment leaves control in the educator’s hands and gives students the message that the educator is all powerful, accepts responsibility for student’s behavior and negates the need for students to develop inner discipline.

Faced with threats, domination, manipulation and control by someone bigger than themselves, learners will experience one of the following three things. One, they will experience fright and will do as they are told out of dependency and fear. In this case, the learners will obey the educator only until they are able to get what they need or want. Second is fight and attack or take their anger out on other people or things. Such a response can produce an equal or more severe response from the adult. The third, choice is flight, meaning they run away mentally or physically. Learners whose needs and feelings are dismissed, ignored, punished, or negated begin to believe they are of little or no worth.

Discipline on the other hand can be used as a coaching tool, the process of discipline does four things that the act of punishment cannot do:
  1. It shows learners what they should have done.
  2. It gives them as much ownership of the problem as they are able to handle.
  3. It gives them options for solving the problem.
  4. It leaves their dignity intact.

So if we don’t punish how can we discipline? I think you need to start with a belief that “Kids are worth it” a catch phrase and a book title by American author Barbara Coloroso. Educators must believe that learners and young adults are worth their time, energy and resources. Coloroso also believes that adults should follow the Golden Rule and ‘treat others as they want to be treated’. If educators feel uncertain about what they are doing to learners, they should place themselves in their shoes to see how they would feel. The educator should ask themselves questions such as: “Would I want that done to me?”, “How would I feel if someone did that to me?” or if you are a parent “how would I feel if that was being done to my child?”
Only discipline if it leaves a learner’s and your own dignity intact. Honoring the dignity of the learner should not be sacrificed in the name of behavior management.
If we don’t ‘punish’ then shouldn’t we reward…?
Please wait one moment while I pull out my soapbox...
I don’t believe that manipulative tactics such as rewards, bribes, and threats should be used. Which is why for years I’ve handed out stickers, had treat boxes and used any number of other ‘systems’ both in my classroom and with my own children. But stepping up to my soapbox or more likely onto my high horse I have come to the conclusion that learners should be empowered to trust in themselves and to learn self-discipline. The educator’s duty is to give critical life messages such as “I believe in you”, “I trust you”, “I know you can do this”, “You are listened to”, “You are cared for”, “You are important". Think about the this from the movie The Help

Rewards also send the message that kindness and positive behavior can be bought and bartered. Learners who are bribed and rewarded constantly will often start to ask questions such as “What’s in it for me?”, “What’s the payoff?” etc. Reward and punishment only teaches the learner to be “good” … as long as someone is looking

Alfie Kohn in his book Beyond Discipline states that rewards, like punishments, are extremely effective at getting us one thing and one thing only: temporary obedience. Where they fall short is teaching children how to become decent human beings. He refers back to studies showing that “rewards are strikingly ineffective at producing lasting change in attitudes or behaviours”. Like training animals, rewards and punishments teach your children that if they do as they’re told, they’ll get a treat. The danger being, they might only conform if there’s a treat in sight. They have done the research they know what they have to do to get a treat, conversely  there are those learners that don’t actually care about the treats, no matter what the reward they don’t buy into it.

What about when the crime involves hurt to people or property?

Consequences and Restorative Justice are are powerful tools.

Firstly let’s think about consequences:
The purpose of using consequences is to help the learner learn to make decisions and to be responsible for their own behavior. Consequences are learning experiences, not punishment. Consequences such as if you tipped out all the blocks you’ll have to spend time picking them up. It’s about helping a learner to solve their own problems, think things through, and learn responsibility. Change from saying  “when you”  to “as soon as you”
You also need to step back and get a bigger picture of the behaviour, to see not just the ‘offence’ but the reasons behind it and the learning that can come from it. What lies behind this behaviour? Do they understand social norms? Do they feel they aren’t getting enough attention? What about the Maslow stuff...Are they tired? Are they sick? Are they hungry?

Restorative justice focuses on accountability and meeting the needs of those involved rather than on blame and punishment. By working with learners and being respectful of diversity, will help them take responsibility for their own behaviour. The following tables may help...

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In closing and in short it’s about honoring the dignity of the learner, and it’s all about the learning


  1. Great insight, reflection and connections Caro. I agree it is all about the learning, and reciprocally, the explicit teaching so that learners and educators have shared, mutually agreed expectations using a language that is accessible (and created/co-constructed by) to all. Learners need to know what is expected of positive learning behaviour and have opportunities to learn how, be congratulated so that the potential 'what's in it for me' is never an issue. A learner focused learning culture is pivotal. Our challenge as educators is to seek opportunities to recognise progress in all learners starting with where they are at and the changes they are making- rather than the aspirational for all, all of the time.

  2. By definition a learner can't be wrong.
    A boy began school the year I was inquiring into "gentleness", Liam's reputation preceded him, he was not known for being gentle. Within a couple of months his new learning was highlighted when someone started school who had a similar reputation, then Liam could tell me "he hasn't learned how to be gentle YET". He hurt others and they were okay, how often do we see the grown up find the perp in favour of just being with the victim. Who do we make a fuss of?
    Yes Caro, do we truly allow experiential learning, do we really value student voice and do we truly embrace failure when it comes to behaviour? The school ground is another place where learners interact with others and their environment, not dissimilar to a school trip to the swimming pool, just staying put.

  3. Hi Caro,

    Bravo! That was an excellent read. Can I put this page as a link on my blog? My favourite part was when you said:

    The educator’s duty is to give critical life messages such as “I believe in you”, “I trust you”, “I know you can do this”, “You are listened to”, “You are cared for”, “You are important".


    What educators often call discipline could actually be revenge packaged as punishment: “You’ve made me look/feel bad, so I’m going to do the same to you” Real discipline looks less at whatever a learner did wrong and more at how they are going to make a better decision next time.

  4. Great read Caro. I am a firm believer in its not just what we teach but how we teach. Are we recognising and praising character and not just behaviours? "I know you can do this" is a powerful statement. Have you seen the video on Geoff Smith? He speaks of character coaching and recognising a quality such as courage or service. (Link attached) As educators we can make a positive impact upon all those we interact with. Lets keep up the good work at Ormiston!!

  5. This post has been on my 'to do' list for some time, and I'm really pleased that I have finally managed to read it! Like you, a few years ago I placed a child in a 'time out' zone and forgot about him for longer than I should have. However, the restorative conversation that we had together where I had a chance to apologise for my forgetfulness, did break down some barriers. So not all was lost. He realised that I too can make mistakes.

    I agree that in a learning environment punishment, bribes and threats are not the answer to undesirable behaviour. You have raised some questions and thoughts that are worth pondering and exploring further. I see punishment as the metaphoric 'bandaid'. It helps to cover up the 'wound' (behaviour), but without care and support, the 'wound' may get worse. Some questions to ask are: a) How did 'wound' happened? b) Is it an isolated 'accident' or something that has happened in the past? c) Was a third party involved?
    - and most importantly, d) Could I have prevented it?

    I was not surprised to read Peter Gluckman's statement that "it is in early childhood where the fundamentals of self-control are established". This aligns with Nathan Mikaere-Wallis' research about the development of brain between 0-3 years. It also highlights the need for the Key Competencies to be in the forefront of the learning both in ECE and the first few years at primary school.