Stop Punishing. It Doesn’t Work.

One of the best articles I’ve read about the difference between discipline and punishment. Angela Watson is a classroom teacher who gets that punitive responses to a child’s bad behaviour don’t work. In many situations, there is very little that a classroom teacher can do to a child that has not been done (or worse) at home. Punishment humiliates, and makes a child pay for the mistakes of immaturity or neediness.

Discipline, on the other hand, is training. “‘Discipline’ comes from the Latin word disciplina, meaning instruction or teaching to correct, strengthen, or perfect.” That is, to follow.  ‘Disciple’ means “…a follower or student of a teacher, leader, or philosopher.” Therefore, discipline is …the practice of training disciples. Synonyms include control, training, teaching, instruction, regulation, direction, and order. As Ms Watson points out, there is no suggestion that consequences are not a part of this process.

All behaviour has a cause. That is, ALL behaviour. Whether 5 years old or 50, behaviour has a source. It doesn’t develop in a vacuum, meaning that when a behaviour is negative, it comes from a negative source. In the case of the 5 year old, it could be immaturity, lack of teaching/training, unmet needs, trauma, or an inherent disability of some sort. In the case of the 50 year old, the source is likely to be an underlying negative core belief caused by …immaturity, lack of teaching/training, unmet needs, trauma, or an inherent disability of some sort.

Punishment is defined as “…the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence.” Often, in the case of punishment, the penalty has little to do with the nature of the offence. In the classroom example provided by Angela Watson, the teacher’s frustration is evident in her treatment of James’ disruption of the learning process. When we as teachers (whether in a classroom or some other position of authority) resort to punitive, frustrated responses to another’s bad behaviour or poor performance, we lose the opportunity to train, to teach, to model, a better way. Behaviour that is controlled or changed by fear of punishment does not generalise. When the source of the fear is absent, the compliant behaviour disappears, and the negative behaviour returns. Punishment often shames and humiliates, produces little more than resentment or fear, and does nothing to model or teach a better way to handle childish problems.

Let’s not confuse training or discipline with a lack of consequences. Life teaches – often quite harshly – that there are consequences for every behaviour. As my father was fond of saying, “For action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Nature demonstrates quite ably that choices have consequences, sometimes from which there is no recovery. The micro version is the situation between me and my student. When James misbehaves, a productive response is required. One that will benefit James’ opportunity to learn, allow other children to learn by example, and foster an environment of acceptance and grace. People, particularly children, make mistakes. A lot of them. If the thing that they learn from making mistakes is that they are the problem rather than the lack of learning/experience, they form an internal picture of themselves that may be reflected in the 50 year old’s negative behaviour. When this perspective is reinforced by their home lives, it should be no surprise that the child grows into a dysfunctional adult.

If you haven’t already heard of Discipline by Design, check them out. The techniques provided, and the information found on the website are really helpful. Additionally, I’ve found that distilling the underlying principles and reworking the techniques for use with adults can also be very productive. The goal is training, not punishment. Punishment has no goal other than stopping the offending behaviour. While this might seem fine, unless the behaviour (and underlying causative factors) are addressed and alternatives taught, modelled, and practiced, negative behaviour is only extinguished in the presence of authority. Not a good recipe for a healthy maturing process.

More about discipline & punishment here, here, & here.

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