Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

The Problem With Punishing Emotions

By Luke Reynolds — August 07, 2012 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

BRIC ARCHIVE

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety How Many Teachers Have Been Assaulted by Students or Parents? We Asked Educators
Some teachers and principals suggest student misbehavior could be associated with challenges related to returning to in-person learning.
1 min read
Empty classroom in blurred background.
Classrooms were empty during long stretches of remote and hybrid instruction. Some educators suggest student behavior problems are linked to the bumpy transition back to in-person learning.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School Climate & Safety A Sheriff Is Putting AR-15s in Every School. What Safety Experts Have to Say
The Madison County, N.C., school district made headlines for placing assault rifles in SRO offices ahead of the new school year.
6 min read
AR-15-style rifles are on display at Burbank Ammo & Guns in Burbank, Calif., June 23, 2022. Gun manufacturers have made more than $1 billion from selling AR-15-style guns over the past decade, and for two companies those revenues have tripled over the last three years, a House investigation unveiled Wednesday, July 27, found.
AR-15-style rifles are on display at gun store in Burbank, Calif. School safety experts say it's not unheard of for school districts to place such weapons in schools, but it requires serious consideration of the potential risks.
Jae C. Hong/AP
School Climate & Safety 3 Reasons Many Schools Don't Have Classroom Doors That Lock From the Inside
School facilities experts explain why what seems like a simple school-security is not so simple.
2 min read
A section of a classroom door from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is seen as Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw testifies at a Texas Senate hearing at the state capitol, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in Austin, Texas. Two teachers and 19 students were killed in the mass shooting in Uvalde.
A section of a classroom door from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is seen during a Texas Senate hearing on the deadly shooting there.
Eric Gay/AP
School Climate & Safety Alex Jones Ordered to Pay $45.2M More Over Sandy Hook Lies
A Texas jury has ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $45.2 million, adding to the $4.1 million he already has to pay.
6 min read
Alex Jones attempts to answer questions during a trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin on Aug. 3.
Alex Jones attempts to answer questions during a trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin on Aug. 3.
Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman via AP