New Thinking on the Costs of Punitive Discipline

By Anthony Rebora — May 23, 2013 1 min read
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On his blog, Daniel Willingham discusses a highly complicated but provocative new study on the effects of harsh punishments on children’s behavior. (Even he says it’s “convoluted” and he’s one of the most prominent educational psychologists in the land.) Just to give you a taste, the study involved questionnaires on childhood disciplinary experiences, written reflections on moral precepts, contemplation of “emotionally ambiguous” paintings, and performance of color-coded attention-regulation tasks. Good times.

The researchers’ conclusion after all that, in any case, is that harsh punishments can help students “internalize” moral norms, but that they do so at a dual cost. In Willingham’s words:

If further data support the theory, the upshot for parents and teachers would be that harsh responses to moral transgressions won't work. They leave subjects feeling ashamed when they transgress, but paradoxically they make [it] harder to resist the temptation to transgress."

Meanwhile, English teacher Paul Barnwell seems to have reached a similar conclusion without making anyone look at emotionally ambigious paintings (as far as we know). In a post on the “The Great Discipline Conundrum,” he notes that, “While teaching at various Kentucky public schools for nine years, I’ve rarely seen disciplinary action that deters or prevents repeat behavior.” In his experience, suspensions and detentions are particularly fruitless.

Instead, for Barnwell, the most effective approach to discipline in the classroom is prevention, funneled largely through attentive, personalized instruction:

Working at a variety of schools, I've found that if I focus most of my energy on building relationships with students, crafting engaging lessons, and practicing class procedures, then I've usually avoided major class disruptions. I take great pride in trying to connect with students across races and socioeconomic groups.

He adds, touching on another hot topic:

All I know [is] if I sit back and pass out work packets and expect students to comply, I'm putting myself in a tenuous position.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.