Opinion
School Climate & Safety Commentary

The Problem With Punishing Emotions

By Luke Reynolds — August 07, 2012 5 min read

Once, I gave one of my 7th grade students a detention for being angry. Admittedly, I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing when the word sprang from my lips in utter exhaustion and frustration; instead, I saw myself as passing down a reasonable consequence for “misbehaving.” It wasn’t until later that night—as my wife and I discussed how important it is to release emotions so they don’t build into something unhealthy—that I realized what I had done and, possibly, what much of classroom management reinforces in our kids.

Punishment. It’s a word no one much enjoys contemplating. We did not choose to become teachers because we enjoy punishment, nor do we thrive on the prospect of having the chance to dish out consequences for bad behavior. However, classroom management invariably becomes a key topic as we begin (and continue) our teaching careers, and classroom management quickly devolves into a euphemism for punishment in many classrooms.

Some schools advocate “take a break” areas of the room, where students can go to catch their breath and calm down; others simply hand out detentions or force students to stay in for recess. Policies vary, but the nature of an approach that rebukes students for displaying uncomfortable emotions in uncomfortable ways is consistently deemed essential.

Erwin James, the author of the book A Life Inside, poignantly and powerfully portrays his years in prison. James, a convicted murderer, spent two decades in a British prison before being paroled. I recently had the opportunity to hear James read from his book, and the experience pushed against beliefs I’d held firmly, especially when James responded to one questioner: “I didn’t believe I’d been born bad, but I had behaved that way my whole life. In my cell, what I had was time to contemplate how I had become what I had become. I had the time to consider my dysfunction.” James went on to say that the goal of prison is always proclaimed as “rehabilitation,” while the reality is punishment. In essence, James claimed, what the system perpetuates is recidivism.

So, what are we really teaching our students when we punish them for feeling angry?"

While our schools are a world away from prisons, the notion of punishment still reigns supreme in too many of them. Is this because teachers—like me—are just so human that we break down and respond with detention when an angry kid tells us we’re stupid? In part, yes. But there are larger implications as well. To extrapolate from the scenery of bars and cells into open hallways and swinging doors, let’s say the educational promise isn’t rehabilitation but progress. In all areas, we strive to help students improve: as learners, as achievers, as citizens, as compassionate members of the human race.

Erwin James claimed that prisons don’t rehabilitate for two reasons: Forgiveness is hard, and change is expensive. It takes a lot of loving people working an incredible amount of focused hours to help a prisoner leave prison a better person than when he entered. It happened for James through the aid of a kind nun and a great teacher. In our schools, I daresay that we find ourselves facing the same two obstacles to student progress: Forgiveness is hard, and change is expensive.

When students act out, most likely they’re exhibiting emotions so intense that keeping them bottled up any longer just isn’t an option. So students yell. They throw things. They curse. They refuse to do the work. They work on the wrong things. Each action is an acting-out of an inner emotion—and, most likely, an emotion that has been consistently denied and repressed by previous teachers and parents.

But as teachers who have 30 or more students in a class and five or more classes in a day, we don’t have the time to process the bigger picture with each student who acts out. Nor do our emotional tanks have the fuel required to do so. Thus, forgiveness becomes hard for us as teachers (and administrators); it’s far easier to label the kids who act out more often as bad, deal with them as repeat offenders, and keep the larger classroom boat afloat.

The other reason we can’t deal with the emotional undercurrents of our students and process their behavior as symptoms rather than a disease is that change is expensive. There has yet to be as searing a call to action as Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. The premise is ultimately simple: More money helps create better educational opportunities. There are other factors, but to deny that foundational truth is disingenuous and cynical: More money often equates with smaller class sizes, more teaching help, better-equipped leadership, and better classroom materials.

In analyzing the emotional life of our students, more money could equate to more counselors, greater adult attention, and a better pathway for processing emotions with students so that a punitive approach isn’t always our only recourse. If schools are to be places where learning is held sacred, then spending on hiring social workers and group-activity leaders (like those found in many outdoor-challenge programs)—as well as smaller class sizes—will go a long way toward teaching students to handle their emotions and experiences in healthy, productive ways.

Spotlight on classroom management

Do our students really deserve punishment for letting us know how they feel? The admitted goal of most therapy is to somehow get us mixed-up, issue-crazed, unhealthy adults to reconnect with how we really feel—those emotions that we’ve learned so steadfastly to push down into the dark corners of our beings because they are “not nice” or “inappropriate.” Research suggests that such repression becomes the basis for bolstering long-term physical and mental problems.

In other words: The emotions we repress have got to come out, somehow.

So, what are we really teaching our students when we punish them for feeling angry? We teach them that anger is an unacceptable emotion. What do we really teach our students when we yell at them for not “working”? We teach them that it is not OK to feel sad (if this drives their inability to focus) or to feel exhausted—“Who cares? Just do the work anyway”—or to simply feel overwhelmed. Instead, we push our students to repress their emotions: “Don’t listen to yourself—and do not let those emotions out.”

If one goal of our schools is progress for students in all areas of life, we need to stop punishing their emotions and start promoting forgiveness, while providing more funding in this arena, to help us prepare adults who won’t become repeat offenders—a label to which many of them have already become accustomed.

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as The Problem With Punishing Emotions

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