Why Classroom Punishments (And Zero Tolerance Strategies) Stop Working

Why Classroom Punishments (And Zero Tolerance Strategies) Stop Working

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Summary

Are some of your pupils stuck in a never-ending cycle of negative behaviour? Does it feel like your classroom consequences are failing to have an impact?

Then it's time for a change. Join us as we explore the concept of punishment within the classroom, its limitations in behaviour management, and what you need to be aware of in order to foster positive student behaviour.

Important links:

Get our FREE SEND Behaviour Handbook: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/send-handbook

Download other FREE behaviour resources for use in school: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/resources.php

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Show notes / transcription

Emma Shackleton

Are some of your students stuck in a never ending cycle of engaging in negative behaviour and getting consequences as a result, and yet the consequences don't seem to make a difference. So your pupil just keeps repeating the same behaviour over and over. Well, today, we're going to reveal why that might happen and how to move pupils onto a pattern of success. So keep listening.

Simon Currigan

Welcome to the School Behaviour Secrets podcast. I'm your host, Simon Currigan. My cohost is Emma Shackleton, and we're obsessed with helping teachers, school leaders, parents, and, of course, students when classroom behaviour gets in the way of success. We're gonna share the tried and tested secrets to classroom management, behavioural special needs, whole school strategy, and more, all with the aim of helping your students reach their true potential. Plus, we'll be letting you eavesdrop on our conversations with thought leaders from around the world. So you'll get to hear the latest evidence based strategies before anyone else. This is the School Behaviour Secrets podcast. Hi there.

My name is Simon Currigan, and welcome to a brand new episode of school behaviour secrets. I've got a cat called Mittens, and the way she looks at me, I know she's constantly judging everything I do and not in a good way. It's stressing me out. I'm joined as ever by my nonjudgmental cohost, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton

Hi, Simon.

Simon Currigan

Kick off with a quick question?

Emma Shackleton

Obviously.

Simon Currigan

Perfect. Were you ever told off at school for something that you didn't do?

Emma Shackleton

Yes. And I could still remember it really clearly now. When I was in primary school and I was about 8 or 9 years old, I got sent to the head teacher for flicking a dried pea across the table at a boy called Steven, and it wasn't even me that did it. It was the girl next to me, and I was absolutely gutted about that. Anyway

Simon Currigan

Has it scarred you?

Emma Shackleton

Well, I was just gonna say I'm over it now. Okay. But only just. So what's the tenuous link to today's episode?

Simon Currigan

So today, we're gonna look at why punishments by themselves often aren't enough to change the behaviour of some individual students and why those students might persist with a negative cycle of behaviours despite being hit with consequence after consequence after consequences. And we'll be asking, why don't they just learn?

Emma Shackleton

Good stuff. But before we get to that, I'd like to ask you, yes, you, dear listener, if you are finding our podcast useful, don't forget to hit the subscribe button so that you never miss another episode.

Simon Currigan

And if you're interested in understanding why your students behave the way that they do, we've also got a really good free download that goes along with this episode that can help. It's called the SEND behaviour handbook.

Emma Shackleton

It's a simple tool for linking the behaviours that you see in class with possible underlying needs, such as trauma, autism, and ADHD.

Simon Currigan

Now, obviously, it's not there for us as educators to try and make a diagnosis because we're not qualified to do that. That's the role of medical professionals.

Emma Shackleton

But what you can do is start to get the ball rolling to help you get the right professionals involved and also help you get early intervention strategies into place because that's always going to benefit the child.

Simon Currigan

The handbook also comes with fact sheets containing key information and strategies about conditions like PDA, that's pathological demand avoidance, ODD, oppositional defiant disorder, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and more.

Emma Shackleton

So if you'd like to get a hold of your free copy, we'll put a direct link in the show notes to where you can download it from the website. All you've got to do is open your podcast app, tap on the episode, and that will bring up the episode description where you'll be able to see the link and click.

Simon Currigan

That said, it's time to reach into the oven, pull out the baking tray, and prick the piping hot sausage we call behaviour. So we're gonna think about why punishments work and why they don't work and how they fail to influence the behaviour of children. He seems to be constantly caught in this cycle of behaviour detention, behaviour detention, behaviour detention, and see how we can move on from that. And I think what we need to do is start by talking about punishment from a scientific perspective and think about what punishment actually is. And sometimes people confuse the difference between a punishment and negative reinforcement and kinda use the two terms interchangeably when they're not actually the same thing. If we start by thinking about a punishment, it's something that we add that's intended to reduce how often we see a given behaviour. So if you've got a child who's shouting out on the carpet all the time and you give them a detention or keep them in or there's some other form of consequence for that, the idea is by engaging in that extra thing by giving them that punishment or giving them that negative feedback, giving them that consequence, you see less of that behaviour in the future.

Now that is different from negative reinforcement. So negative reinforcement is something we remove that makes it more likely that we see a behaviour. Now that sounds sort of counterintuitive.

So I'll give you a quick example. Let's imagine you've got a child who keeps on doing badly with their homework and they they're failing to have their homework in day after day after day after day. And all the adults around them are continually moaning and complaining at the child. The student gives in their homework, and then suddenly, everyone stops moaning. Right? So now there's quiet. And that quiet, that removal of the moaning now makes it more likely that the child hands in their homework in future.

It increases how often they hand in their homework. So negative reinforcement is when we want to increase a behaviour by removing something. So negative reinforcement is something we remove that increases how likely it is we are to see a behaviour, but punishment is something that reduces how likely we are to see a behaviour. So let's imagine a situation where we've got a rat in a cage, and the floor of the cage has like a like a metal grill on it. And on the wall of the cage, there's a button. The rat goes across and it presses the button on the wall of the cage, and the floor gets electrocuted. The rat learns very quickly not to press the button.

That's a punishment because it's gonna reduce the number of times that the rat presses the button. He's less likely to press the button in the future.

Emma Shackleton

Yeah. I get the thing about the rat, and this is a really fake situation and a very high level of punishment. In the real world, now that corporate punishment in this country has been banned, the consequences are not going to be that severe. But if you think about it, all animals, including humans, will intuitively seek to avoid physical pain. So for example, if you wanted to stop somebody shouting out in class and you cattle prodded them every time they did it, they would stop shouting out. But, obviously, that's not humane because it leads to negative health outcomes and tends to lead to more violent behaviour from the child in the future. In fact, interestingly, studies have shown that witnessing parental violence in the preschool years predicted externalizing problems in boys at the age of 16.

So those boys who'd witnessed their parents in violent situations were increasingly likely to have angry outbursts or be aggressive towards other people. And actually for girls in the same early years situation, that predicted internalizing problems. So the way that that might show up for girls at around the age of 16 might be things like depression, social withdrawal, anxiety.

Simon Currigan

There was also a longitudinal study by Doctor Herrenkohl from the National Institute of Justice in the US. And a longitudinal study is where they take a group of people and study them over years years years. They track them throughout their lives. So this study tracked 450 kids into adulthood, and they found that abusive parenting was linked to criminal involvement later in life. Doctor Herrenkohl 's study also found evidence of a cycle of violence. So that meant that because those children were victims of violence in childhood, they were then much more likely to perpetrate similar violence towards their peers or partners when they got older. I think it's really interesting as well that when we think about punishment for adults, often we think about prison.

But when you look at the prison population, one of the problems is you see the same repeat offenders going to prison over and over and over. Prisoner hasn't dealt with the underlying causes causing the person to offend in the first place.

Emma Shackleton

Yeah. So in a school based level then, we imagine the child shouts out in class. They're not going to be physically beaten, which is obviously a good thing. So instead, the punishment that they're often given is a detention.

Simon Currigan

So I want to introduce a concept called the hedonistic treadmill from psychology and social psychology. Hedonistic treadmill is usually thought of in a positive way. It's the way we become accustomed to new rewards. A classic example is the idea of pay increase. So let's imagine you turn up to school and you suddenly find, as a teacher, you've been given a Ã500 pay rise. And to start with, that's really exciting. It's really motivating.

You're thinking, wow. Someone's finally recognized my talents and my skills, and they've awarded me this surprise pay rise. And when you open your pay packet at the end of the month, you see the extra Ã500, and that's exciting, and you feel valued by your employer. Then next month, you see that Ã500, and it still gives you a bit of a buzz, a bit of excitement. But 4, 5, 6 months down the line, it just becomes part of what you expect from life. It becomes part of what you expect to see in your pay packet, and it stops having that boost, that emotional boost you feel when you see it. And this is the idea of the hedonistic treadmill.

We become accustomed to rewards. So we're on this treadmill. We get one reward that's really, really exciting. But to continue with that buzz, that excitement, that feeling of motivation and moving forwards, you have to keep running and running and running on this treadmill to get more and more and more and more and more. And, actually, we're not going anywhere. We're just becoming accustomed to and acclimatized to the positive change. Once we absorb that into our general outlook on the world and how we feel about things, then we move on to the next dopamine fix.

But it can apply in the opposite direction to negative inputs as well.

Emma Shackleton

Yeah. Just listening to what you were saying there, I bet everybody can identify with children where they've put positive reinforcements and rewards in place, maybe like a sticker chart or something like that. And for the first two days, the child's been working their socks off to get their stickers, and they've been trying really, really hard. And everyone thinks, yes, we've cracked it. The sticker chart's working. And then on day 3, it's not working so much. And then on day 4, it's not working at all.

And then by the end of the week, the child doesn't give two hoots about getting a sticker, and everybody gets demoralized. So, yeah, we do get accustomed to it. You you kind of think, yeah, sticker's great. And then once you've had loads of stickers, it's not that great anymore.

Simon Currigan

And then you see that thing in school, don't you, where you get sticker inflation or house point inflation, whereas the teacher in the past could get away with giving one sticker or one house point to enthuse the kids. Now they're giving away 2 stickers or 2 house points and then 3 stickers and 3 house points to have the same effect because you're trying to overcome this treadmill effect.

Emma Shackleton

And it just devalues the point or the sticker, doesn't it? It makes it not that worthwhile. But, yeah, it it also goes the other way. So it can apply in the opposite direction to negative input. So let's go back to our child in class who's shouting out. They get a detention. And maybe the first time they get that detention, they're quite upset about it, like when I got sent to the head for flicking the pea.

You know, I was really, really upset about that. That was a big deal for me.

Simon Currigan

Move on, Emma. Move on.

Emma Shackleton

Well, had I been sent to the head every day for flicking a pea or some other misdemeanor, it probably wouldn't have been very enjoyable. But, actually, over time, you just get accustomed to it. You just get used to it, and you kind of think, okay. I've been to the head before. I've lived through it. It's not that great, but it's not that awful. So, you know, it doesn't matter if I get sent there again.

I don't care about that. So the child who's shouting out in class, they get a detention and then another detention and another, and they just get kind of used to it. And then it just gets kind of built in as an accepted part of their week. They kind of elongate their timetable and recognize that 2 or 3 days a week, they're gonna be in detention. So what? It just doesn't mean anything, and they've adapted to it. And then they're getting so many punishments that school's got nowhere to go.

So it's that age old thing where you, you know, you tell a child that they have to stay in for a minute at at lunchtime or 5 minutes at lunchtime or 10 minutes or lose their whole lunchtime or lose their whole lunchtime for the week or their whole lunchtime for the term. I'm sure nobody's doing that.

But you get the picture. There's only so far you can go with those punishments, and, actually, they are not changing the child's behaviour. They're not making a difference.

Simon Currigan

Reminds me of a story of a child that I met once who had ADHD in a secondary school, and he found it very difficult to sit still and he would often shout out in class and stuff like that. And he would find himself in detention, and the rule in detention was you had to sit still. Otherwise, you had another detention to kind of make up for the one that you didn't do perfectly. So this child, right, you had ADHD, h for hyperactive. He literally couldn't sit still. He would go to detention, squirm around a lot, find himself in another detention. In that detention, he still couldn't sit still, would have to squirm around a lot, would find himself in another detention, and so on.

He just now just assumed he would be in detention day after day after day. And at that point, what does he got to lose? It stopped having an impact on him. Equally, he's in a cycle where he can't escape the detentions. So you start to get a situation that looks a bit like learned helplessness, which is where someone believes that they can't change the situation they're in. So they don't even bother trying even if the opportunity for a better situation presents itself. There's some research done by, professor Martin Seligman, who was the father of positive psychology, But he identified 3 key features that are interesting, that are associated with this feeling of learned helplessness.

And they were, number 1, the child becomes very passive and of accepts that situation. 2, they have difficulty learning how to find their way out of that difficult situation, the series of punishments or detentions. And, ultimately, you get an increase in their stress chemicals, their cortisol, and their adrenaline. And over time, that can actually lead to anxiety or depression.

Emma Shackleton

Yeah. So punishment assumes that you're engaging in a chosen behaviour. So your ADHD example is perfect there. That person with ADHD is going to find it incredibly difficult to sit still. So they're actually being punished for something that they've got very little control over. It's an unreasonable expectation. We all engage in different types of behaviour, and it's important when we're thinking about how to change behaviour that we choose the right method for that.

So there's a difference between chosen behaviours, things that we actively decide to do, automatic behaviours, things that we're just doing without really thinking about it, and then emotionally driven behaviours. And those are the sorts of behaviours that you see when a child is dysregulated. And we all know that when a child's dysregulated, their logical thinking rational brain isn't driving the process. They're fuelled purely by emotion, so there's not much logic and sense there. And it's really unfortunate, I think, when children are punished for behaviours that they are exhibiting when they are dysregulated. Of course, those behaviours might be unwanted and unsavoury, but sometimes in that moment, well, definitely when they're dysregulated, the child has very little control over what they are saying or doing. So to punish them for behaving in that way, when you think about it logically, is really a bit daft.

Simon Currigan

Punishment tends to be more effective for people when they're making sort of those deliberate chosen decisions in a calm state. If you're highly stressed or emotionally charged, your emotions just start making those decisions for you. And they're governed by a part of your brain the amygdala that doesn't really care about consequences. It lives in the now. It doesn't care about tomorrow. It just cares about how things feel right now. So we're not saying take boundaries and consequences away because a lot of people spend most of their life in a calm, reasoned state, and it it helps people understand what behaviours are acceptable and not acceptable in school.

But what we're looking at here is children that are receiving punishment after punishment after punishment, and it's not reducing how often we're seeing those negative behaviours. And if they're in an emotional state, then the likelihood is it's not going to reduce those behaviours in the future. So it's the right tool at the right time, really. That's what we're saying here, isn't it?

Emma Shackleton

Yeah. And I think it gets very frustrating for adults, And there's an ongoing debate whether, you know, if it's a child with ADHD, for example, it's trying to unpick whether the behaviour was a consequence of their ADHD or whether it was chosen. And sometimes children with ADHD will make poor behaviour choices because that's normal. Every child does that sometimes, and it and it can be difficult to unpick. And sometimes adults get very hung up on saying, yes. Yes. Well, I know they've got ADHD, but they're doing it on purpose or they're doing it deliberately.

And sometimes they might be, but even chosen behaviours are happening for a reason, and it's more valuable to unpick what that reason might be and what's driving that behaviour rather than keep putting in punishments that are not working. If you're in a punishment cycle where you're putting in a punishment, the child's behaviour isn't changing, you're putting the punishment in again, the child's behaviour isn't changing again, all that's happening is we're increasing resentment and eroding that relationship.

Simon Currigan

Yeah. If punishments don't work fairly quickly, they tend to be fairly ineffective. And the other issue we need to think about here is a punishment is only an effective punishment, so it's gonna reduce how often we see that negative behaviour over time if the child cares about the punishment, if they're bothered by it. I remember talking to a pupil once. We were talking about his behaviour, and I was saying something along the lines of, you know, you're gonna be kept in 4 or 5 minutes at dinner time, and we'll talk about your behaviour, this, that, and the other. And he was like, I'm happy to stop in at dinner time. I hate it out there.

It's noisy, and it's busy. I argue with my friends. I'm happier in here. For him, what I consider to be a consequence was actually like a positive reward. It was acting as a positive reinforcement, probably increasing the amount of times I was gonna see those behaviours in the classroom. And on a more serious note, if you've got a child, say, who experiences high levels of abuse at home, being in detention after school, several nights a week might actually be preferable than being at home. If a child's got low resilience in maths, say, and shouting out results in being sent out of maths, then the punishment may be preferable to being in maths.

And the same is often true for children who have anxiety. Let's say they're anxious about going into a busy social environment, maybe into, say, like, a busy drama classroom. They might prefer not to be in that classroom in the first place and be sent out than joining in. A parent may offer a consequence to that child who's anxious about going into school, say, by threatening to take away their pocket money. But for that child who's got emotionally based school avoidance, who actively is worrying and fearing about going into school, the loss of that pocket money may be preferable to facing their demons.

Emma Shackleton

Absolutely. So to wrap it up then today, if solving complex behaviour problems were as simple as punishments, this podcast would have finished about a 195 episodes ago. We would have called episode 1 the punishment episode, dropped the mic, and then cancelled the podcast there and then because there was simply nothing else to say.

Simon Currigan

Consequences and punishment do have a role in maintaining boundaries, and that tends to work more at a group level. And remember here, we're talking about situations where those punishments aren't working. It's the old Henry Ford quote, isn't it? If you do what you've always done, you're gonna get what you've always got. And if they haven't worked fairly quickly, then they're for a child, then they're unlikely to work in the future.

Emma Shackleton

Yeah. And if you're solely relying on punishment to change the behaviour of an individual and that behaviour isn't changing, then it's time to switch things up. Look deeper at what the drivers behind that behaviour might be. And we're always talking about this, trying to ask why, why, why, why, why? What's the underlying issue? What's the root cause? And how can we skill up the child to be able to cope and be able to manage in this situation rather than keep punishing them for getting it wrong?

Simon Currigan

And, of course, you need to think about in those situations how you use positive reinforcement to encourage the child to replace the old unhelpful behaviour with a more positive one. If it was as easy as just punishing and reducing a behaviour out of existence, then what we haven't actually done is explained what we want the child to actually do, to be successful in that situation, and they might not have the social understanding or the emotional knowledge to be able to do that, or they might not be able to do it without support. So usually, punishment by itself is gonna be ineffective because it doesn't take a child from a before state where they're struggling to cope in a certain situation to a positive state where they have all the information they need to be successful.

Emma Shackleton

So that's it for today. If you are enjoying school behaviour secrets, don't forget to leave us a review and recommend us to your friends. Thank you very much for listening. We hope you have a great week and we'll see you next time. Bye now. Bye for now.

 

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)