Punishment - Based Systems Don't Work: Yet we're stuck with
Kathie F. Nunley
Research tells us that punishment is ineffective. Psychologists
are in agreement that punishment does more harm than good. Thousands
of studies and years of practice show what punishment does teach
- fear, aggression and avoidance. People who are punished do
not quickly learn to stop a behavior. What they quickly do learn
is next time don't get caught, or let's just avoid the whole
situation if at all possible.
So why does punishment persist in our society, in our homes
and in our schools? Is it because it's easier? Goodness, no.
Everyone knows if your number one goal is to change a behavior,
punishment would be the last thing you'd choose.
However, in situations where punishment is used, changing the
behavior is not usually our number one goal - taking care of
some uncomfortable or unpleasant emotion generally is.
We punish in anger. We punish in frustration. We punish in an
attempt to establish dominance. At the moment, changing the
behavior is not the priority.
So, if "non-aversive" (without punishment) methods
are better, quicker and more efficient, why are we not seeing
them in every classroom in the country? Just the opposite is
true. In fact, nearly all classrooms use some variation of the
biggest punishment-based system of all - the one where the game
is to see how many times your name gets on the board and how
many checks get next to it before you are out the door.
Those who are concerned with violence and aggression in our
schools should look to one of the big causes - the widespread
use of punishment-based management systems. How can we, who
are so genuinely concerned about children and America's future
allow such systems to persevere? Three main reasons:
1. In order for non-aversive techniques to work, the environment
inside the classroom must be more desirable than the environment
outside the classroom.
This is a tough issue but at the very heart of the matter. Ask
yourself, "do students want to be here?" If I send
them out, has their situation improved or worsened, in their
Being in the classroom should be the reward. Students who show
respect, participate and follow rules are "allowed"
to stay. If this thought causes you to chuckle, then you may
want to go back to the last question. If students feel like
being in a school classroom is punishment, then any behavior
they can exhibit to get out of that environment is being reinforced
when you "force" them to leave. Imagine how you would
feel if someone"forced" you to get rid of a bad headache.
2. Tradition tells us that rules come with punishment, not rewards.
Look at the rules in your classroom. Do you have rules, and
then a list of what happens if you don't follow the rules? When
was the last time you saw a list of rules and then a list of
benefits that come to those who follow them. Sometimes I've
seen lists of rewards but they are sitting next to the list
of punishments and I know from personal experience as the mother
of 4, that even in those classrooms, my children never experienced
the things listed in the reward category (despite them following
the rules). What would students think if all that was listed
were rules and benefits?
3. Punishment is negatively reinforcing to the punisher.
That means that the actual act of punishment makes us, the punisher,
feel better. Generally punishments are given out when someone
under our control has gotten out of our control. A child breaks
curfew, a student talks while we're giving instruction, our
dog chews our favorite shoes, etc. We are angry. Angry is O.K.
It is a natural, normal emotion. However, it is generally uncomfortable
and an emotion most of us seek to get rid of sooner rather than
later. So, punishment does that for us. When we punish, we feel
an immediate decrease in the anger emotion - instant relief.
And so, who has learned? The punisher has learned. The punisher
has learned, next time I feel this way, just punish and I'll
feel better. The punishee has learned, next time don't get caught,
next time don't come, this is not a place I want to be.
What does all this mean for the classroom teacher? Should we
never get angry, never lash out, always make sure the classroom
is full of fun at all costs so students are thrilled to attend?
Well that would all be nice in a perfect world. But that is
not our world. We are human. We get angry sometimes and so be
it. Classrooms can't be all fun. Work is not always fun, and
learning is work. But I think an important first step is an
awareness of these relationships and principles of classroom
management. Awareness helps us share these realities with students.
Awareness helps build and preserve the learning relationship.
Classrooms should be welcoming. Classrooms should be places
where students always feel valued and encouraged, not belittled
and degraded. When these relationships are solid, then students
understand us and we can better understand them. And things
will begin to improve - a lot.
article may be used in any non-profit print publication so long
as it is used in its entirety including the bottom author credit
F. Nunley is an educational psychologist, author, researcher
and speaker living in southern New Hampshire. Developer of the
Layered Curriculum® method of instruction, Dr. Nunley has
authored several books and articles on teaching in mixed-ability
classrooms and other problems facing today's teachers. Full
references and additional teaching and parental tips are available
at: http://Help4Teachers.com Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org