Why Punishment Is Ineffective Behaviour Management

Why punishment is ineffective behaviour management

Why Punishment is Ineffective Behaviour Management

Punishment/ Rewards; two sides of the same coin?

When I was in primary school, it was common for kids to get the strap if they didn’t do the right thing. And that could be something as simple as not answering the bell immediately or talking in lines.

I distinctly remember a boy called Roy, who sat next to me in Year 3, coming back from getting the strap from the principal: I can still see the tears in his eyes, his humiliation at crying in front of other kids and the unfairness of being hit repeatedly by an adult.

He was the kind of kid who was always in trouble and getting the strap, and though he could be pretty annoying, in that moment I felt really sorry for him and I knew that being hit would not help him change his behaviour. Even though I was only 8yrs old, I could tell he was a ‘wiggly’ kid- he could hardly sit still and he found a lot of the work really difficult.

The belief at the time was that children had to be physically punished so they would learn to behave correctly, ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’.

So, in the past, schools punished students for infractions of the rules, which often involved using the cane, the strap, public humiliation and shaming. While we have moved away from these Draconian behaviour modification strategies in our schools, some of the approaches we call ‘consequences’ are still punitive in nature.

It’s just like Shakespeare’s “rose with another name” …only not smelling as sweet!  For many schools, ‘consequences’ are still ‘punishments’ in disguise. As part of a punitive society, we still believe that young people need to learn right from wrong by experiencing an unpleasant consequence that is imposed from above i.e. a punishment.

Why punishement is ineffective behaviour management blog quote

Punishment literally means, to inflict a penalty as retribution for an offence. While consequences in school are still imposed, and designed to make the offender suffer in some way (miss out on something they enjoy or be excluded from school), then despite the name change they are still punishments.


This includes removal of a student from the classroom or playground, in and out of school suspension, detention and restitutional activities which can make the school safer for other students but do little to improve a student’s social skills or teach them how to behave appropriately.


Studies have shown that the predominant teacher response to disruptive student behaviour is reactive and punitive, rather than proactive and positive. The reactive approach does little to decrease disruptive student behaviour (Clunies-Ross et al., 2008; Kameenui & Sugai, 1993).


5 Reasons why punishment doesn’t work:


  1. Punitive responses and zero tolerance policies work by repressing inappropriate behaviour in most of the school population, but they foster resentment and increase violence, aggression and truancy. An Australian study found that students were 4.5 times more likely to engage in criminal activity when they were suspended compared to when they were truanting.


  1. Punishment does not teach alternative behaviour or give a student practice at using more appropriate behaviour. When a student lacks skills in reading, maths or science our response is not to punish them, but to provide additional support so that they can achieve. Students who struggle to behave appropriately, need prompts and scaffolds to learn how to relate to others and function productively in the school (and later work) environment.


  1. Punishment undermines relationships. When we use punishment or punitive consequences, we risk losing the trust and connection that we have built with a student. These students often have a history of fragile relationships with others and so do not trust easily. As Bill Rogers says, with consequences, it is about certainty rather than severity’. Dr Allen Mendler recommends connections not consequences.


  1. Punishment does not address the learning needs of the student. 80% of students with disruptive behaviour are lacking academic skills. What are the contributing factors in the environment that inhibit the student’s learning and ability to behave appropriately? Is the student failing school or is school failing the student?


  1. Jails are full of people who do not respond to the threat of incarceration so why do we think that loss of recess or suspension will change a student’s behaviour? To be effective we need a different approach:

a) Explicit teaching of expected behaviours with plenty of opportunities to practice in a variety of settings

b) supporting the student to exhibit the behaviours by providing prompts and reducing triggers

c) reinforcement of the positive behaviours through feedback and rewards and,

d) having calm, well-considered responses to the student’s inappropriate behaviour.

Alfie Kohn (Punished by Rewards, 1999) asserts that rewards and punishments are not that different, but simply opposite sides of the same coin.

He says that both seek to manipulate and control the behaviour of others, either by promising a pleasant outcome or threatening a negative consequence.

While I agree with his idealistic view of education and developing respectful responses to children’s behaviour, his insistence on throwing out reward systems has meant that schools have continued to punish students.

As John Maag states in his seminal article, Rewarded by Punishment, positive and negative reinforcement occurs naturally in the classroom, so doesn’t it make sense to reinforce strategically and purposefully rather than inadvertently reinforcing inappropriate behaviours?

Do you disagree? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below