Why Consequences Need to Change

In my last post, I spoke of how behaviour management policies, and how theories of behaviour management, don’t always work well in practice for all students. However, it isn’t just the behavioural management theories and practices that fail students, it is also the consequences that we employ to punish students.

One of the things that we learnt at university was that consequences needed to be logical, to relate somehow to the behaviour. That seems fine, in theory, but in practice schools tend to be limited to a few select consequences: yard duties or loss of recess or lunch time; afterschool detentions; withdrawal or focus rooms; banning from certain areas or extracurricular activities; internal and external suspensions; and exclusions (in public schools) or expulsions (in private schools, though I do believe it exists for public schools, but is exceptionally rare).

There may be a few others, but these are the most common that I have come across in the schools that I have been in.

The distinct lack of variety in consequences is one problem; however, that can at least be understood as a necessary limitation of the power teachers have over students that are not their own progeny. We can’t enforce or even suggest punishments at home because that is not our place, we can only ever inform parents or guardians about misbehaviour.

The message that these consequences send to students, either explicitly or implicitly, is more to the point of where I take issue with these consequences. Much like our criminal justice system, they seem to be more about justice and punishment than they do about rehabilitation and addressing what is making students see disruptive behaviours as an acceptable avenue to pursue.

If we were to look at yard duties as a punishment, there are different ways that yard duties or the loss of recess or lunch time can be enacted. The most common is for students to have to pick up papers; aside from that being an illogical consequence for anything other than littering, how does that actually correct a student’s behaviour?

Now, you might have a teacher who, instead of making a student pick up litter, may make a student write lines or an apology letter, or even stay into have a chat with the teacher in regards to their behaviour.

As an Early Career teacher, I made students write lines, generally something to do with their behaviour. I think the idea behind it is that if you make them write it enough times, it might sink in. At the end of that year, I had a large pile of lines, generally written by the same students. Instead of what they were repeatedly writing sinking in, I think it ended up making them turn off to what they were doing, or even potentially feeling like the victim.  Now, I admit that I am only speculating here, but I can recall even from my own education, that writing lines had this effect on me where I made myself out to be the victim (“everyone else was doing it” or “but I had a legitimate reason, can’t the teacher understand” or “the teacher always picks on me”). The more lines that I wrote, the more and more I rationalised my bad behaviour and made everyone else out to be wrong. As a teacher handing out lines to write, I remembered too late my own experience as a student, and so too did I realise too late that doing so had no corrective benefits; writing lines as a consequence of poor behaviour did not improve behaviour nor prevent subsequent disruptive behaviour.

Now, one might argue, quite reasonably, that getting students to write lines or have a yard duty as a consequence has more to do with being able to keep order in the classroom, by having a consequence for low level disruptive behaviour, like a student calling out instead of raising their hand one too many times. I would agree that some form of consequence needs to be in place for these low-level disruptions, but it needs to be logical, and I don’t think making a student write “I will raise my hand instead of calling out” however many times really counts as a logical consequence. It’s not corrective and my experience has shown me that making a student write these lines as a consequence for these behaviours doesn’t make them not do it in the future. Some teachers tackle this problem by giving students several items that they trade in to speak (which is aimed at both encouraging participation and decreasing disruptions) but you will always have students who continue to call out, and so still a consequence, such as lines, is given.

Some teachers, rather than making students write lines, instead hold students back for a conversation about their behaviour or make them write a reflective apology letter. These can be a very useful endeavour; however, much like the writing lines tactic above, students can very quickly become frustrated with the process, normally because they can justify their own disruptive behaviour. Writing a reflective letter can be useful in the short term but, with certain students, if the practice does not correct their behaviour, they will end up writing what they think you want to hear, rather than a genuine reflective piece. It quickly descends into an exercise in futility. The same can be said for conversations with students that you hold back; they’ll eventually just say what they think you want to hear so they can get out to recess or lunch.

These, however, are rather small behavioural incidences in the grand scheme of things; calling out is usually a result of a student wanting to demonstrate their understanding, and be the first to do so in the class, because they want that recognition. A student talking when you are is usually the result of adolescents being social beings.

I would argue these are signs of healthy development, even if they are disruptive. We shouldn’t punish students for these behaviours so much as we need a healthier way of addressing and modifying them to better meet our behavioural expectations in the classroom. I don’t have a solution because I am not a behavioural psychologist. These methods, properly enforced, certainly can modify behaviour for some students but I worry that for many students they may well disillusion them from the process.

The next step up, when a student continues their disruptive behaviour to the point where the threat of a yard duty or loss of free time is not enough, is generally to withdraw a student to a focus room or withdrawal room (if the school has one).  Essentially, the student is removed from the classroom into a smaller workspace manned by an on-duty teacher. I have been at some tough schools where a teacher can also be called to escort the students away from the class.

Whilst this can be good for the rest of the classroom, often little is done to actually address why the student was being a continual disruption. Sure, some students may be made to write something in effect to why their behaviour was bad, but we don’t really delve deeper into why they were exhibiting those behaviours, and in fact, may be doing them a disservice under certain circumstances by removing them from the classroom. For example, as I have seen many times, you may have students who do not have the foundational understanding to complete the task that you have set, don’t want to say as much because they see it as a sign of weakness or that would mean they get mocked by their peers, and so either disengage or disrupt, usually both.

You can’t help a student who is not in the classroom but, by that some token, it is not feasible to use all your classroom time to help one student because, as a teacher, you need to be supporting every student. So, you have a situation where a student clearly needs support but doesn’t know how to ask for it, and so they act up and get removed from where they could be receiving support.

Removing a disruptive student from the classroom, whilst beneficial for the rest of the class, is not beneficial to that student’s learning. We need to come up with a way to address the reason why that student is being disruptive as a better preventative measure, however, I admit that that is not an easy task. If we could catch students who are falling through the cracks now, we would already see less of these problem behaviours in the classroom.

Which leads us onto internal and external suspensions. Most schools I have been at use suspensions for violent behaviour or repeated and continual disruptive behaviour in the classroom. Now, from the outset, suspensions look reasonable as a consequence for these behaviours, and I agree to some extent that if a student becomes violent towards another person, there should definitely be a consequence. My issue, however, is that aside from the suspension and then the re-entry meeting (where goals are set by the year level coordinator in concert with the parent, student and maybe counsellors), nothing really happens to help the student address why they did what they did.

For most of us, we managed to get through school without getting into a fight or physically assaulting another person.  We were either able to keep ourselves removed from hostile situations or getting into a fight was never something that came up as a reasonable option. One thing I learnt about talking to people who are contemplating suicide is to never ask “you aren’t thinking of doing something stupid?” because in their mind it isn’t a stupid option and won’t see it as one when you ask. I think the same sort of holds true for students who physically assault someone; for a moment, it isn’t a stupid or unreasonable option.

Now, I am not saying that people who assault others are suffering from some mental illness comparable to depression or suicidal ideation, but I am saying that from a developmental perspective, it’s very easy for young minds to fall down a slippery slope of making antisocial behaviour normal in their eyes. Rather than simply punishing students by removing them from school, we should be addressing why they felt that their behaviour was a reasonable response to their situation.

Now, I am not stupid. Something like I am suggesting would require a huge investment to allow schools things like on-site psychologists in order to properly address these issues. If we are serious about combatting antisocial behaviours and even the rising prevalence of mental health issues, this is not as dramatic as it seems. Ensuring that students develop healthily not only is important to them and their mental health, but will also help them grow into healthy and mature adults who will have the tools to handle the changing social dynamics and turbulent economic times that they will be facing.

At the moment, our strongest behavioural consequences: suspension, exclusion, and expulsion, are all variations of what we do to adults when they break the social contract, we remove them. That is all well and good for adults because we expect adults to be reasonable and mature enough to make better decisions. The problem when it comes to students, however, is that when a student misses out because they are suspended, it takes them away from where they most desperately should be, in a classroom environment where they can learn.

I am not saying that students should not be punished when they break the social contract but, at the same time, I also believe that our punitive measures only really encourage repeat behaviour. It’s not the intention but I believe that it is the outcome because by removing a student, they fall behind the rest of the class because they miss out on the learning and the access to the teachers who can help them. If they fall behind far enough, they will no longer be able to engage at the level they should be at, which only encourages them to disengage further.

This is what we call a positive feedback loop, where the student exhibits bad behaviours that get them removed from the learning, they fall behind on their education because they were removed, and because they have fallen behind, find it easier to disengage from the learning, thereby getting themselves removed again. Sometimes, it gets to the point where students want to be suspended because it’s an easy way to get out of school. They are not afraid of the punishment because the punishment is better than being at a school where they have disengaged from the learning.

I think the first step in creating better behaviour management strategies and consequences is to really research into why students disengage, participate in disruptive behaviour, or move towards more antisocial activities like bullying and violence. We need to have ways to catch students before they fall through the cracks in our education system, and if that means having fully trained clinical psychologists in our schools, then I say it is worth that investment.

I am not saying that I have all or even any of the answers to addressing this situation, but what I can say is that the behavioural consequences we have now are outdated and were effective in a society and culture very different to the one we have now. As with all things, we need to be updating our practice and doing more thorough research into what should be the most significant and important investment in our economy.

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