Posted by: bwoof | November 17, 2009

Do punitive consequences work like they did in the ‘good old days’?

I’ve been thinking about this the entire time I’ve been a VP and have fewer and fewer definitive answers, and more and more hunches and inklings.

It ‘seems’ that students may be less and less respectful these days and it’s more and more common for them to give ‘attitude’ to teachers, VPs,  and others in authority, even the police. These moments of disrespect can be surly looks all the way up to ridiculously disruptive actions, vile offensive language, even things that look dangerous. I’m not kidding…if you haven’t seen this you’ll just have to trust me on this one.

The problem is this:  in the olden days when I was young, the mere possibility of a bad consequence in response to something bad I might have done would have been more than sufficient to corral my misdemeanors and wrestle my willful soul into compliance with just about any authority figure in the neighbourhood…teachers, parents, coaches etc.  I was a good girl, they say, and discpline, usually noted as punishment, did the trick. I learned not to commit the offense again. In other words, I was disciplined or trained into behaving well. Apparently I was a good learner and received relatively few major consequences.

But, I started out with ‘collateral’ in the bank so to speak. I had lots to lose if I didn’t behave—things like unity with my family, privileges, and affirmation, all of which were valuable. Further, I didn’t like pain and I can still see the strap up there on the principal’s desk. Yup…pain avoidance was a pretty good deterrance.

Now, let’s imagine I have nothing to lose in the first place…nothing! What’s to stop me from misbehaving? In fact, my ‘attitude’ and my insolence might actually get me something valuable. Let’s see…how about some attention, some power, some pent up anger that now has a convenient target (i.e., ‘horrible’ VP who insists that I do something), and some spite that makes me feel for a moment that I’m a somebody.

In this case, since there’s nothing to lose, who cares if I swear at the VP, or who cares if I spit on the police officer? Or who cares if I persist in disrupting a class?  Who cares? For a moment I might even get a high…a buzz of power…a fleeting sense of me, a somebody.

So, what have I learned today?

First, I need to learn more and explore more about the relationship between disrespectful actions and punitive reactions.

Second, I need to learn more about how to respond to any of us who have been so brutalized by insubordinate and rude teen behaviour that we are fed up…tired…worn out…and totally frustrated. I don’t blame us, but at the same time cannot 100% endorse suspensions, expulsions, detentions as I’ve noticed they rarely make a difference.   But what does make a difference? 

A wise colleauge once told me to always consider the intensity, duration, intent, and frequency of a student’s bad actions before jumping to conclusions. And another wise colleague taught me that it’s certainty of follow-up/consequence not severity of consequence that often makes the difference.

And finally, I have a hunch that grace and mercy have a positive effect and I should learn more about what this looks like in education.

Grace is what happens when I get what I don’t deserve. A kind word, an extra second for me to tell my story, a restorative consequence instead of raw punishment could all be things that I’ve not rightly earned. But someone surprises me with grace and it disarms my anger.

Mercy is what happens when I don’t get what I deserve.  Yes, I might have done something bad, very bad, but I’m given another chance or I’m spared some shame, or maybe someone else takes the punishment for me. Mercy can make a hard heart tender.

A very prelimary Google search brings me to the following disparate articles:

Punishment doesn’t work  (this article lands on the side of be cautious about punishment as it may not be everything I think it can be)

Does Punishment work to reduce crime? (this one says yes…bring on the punishment)

When punishment doesn’t work, a school changes course (this one’s a vote for seriously examining punishment as the only tool we’ve got)

Punishment does not equal discipline (a vote for be careful)

Discipline in schools: What works and what doesn’t (a vote for maybe there’s more to know about these situations)

Grateful for:

  • word-smithing which allows me to distinguish easily between the terms discipline and punishment…the first is for training and may include punishment, and the second is just punitive
  • my parents who relentlessly loved and corrected, rebuked and disciplined even during the times when I didn’t deserve it
  • book club, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and an introduction to Michael Pollen‘s book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Curious about:

  • Plan B farm in Flamborough
  • how to improve student behaviour and how to support all of us educators better….it’s a struggle because I ‘feel’ that the tools available for punishment are limited and lame. The kids themselves tell me so. I’m curious to learn more about how we can actually teach and provide opportunities for people to change their behaviour instead of us just responding to it. I do agree, however, that appropriate consequences are always important.
  • why does it seem  that general teen respect for authority is fading away and is there anything we can do about it?



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