The Good, The Bad and The Ugly #Behaviourism and how it fails

The irony about my last post is that I wrote it because I felt my blog was altogether too negative and ultimately, therefore, not very helpful. This was a good story, I thought. Unhappy students who hated each other at the start of the day; happy students who were friends at the end; lots of learning in between. A good story.

How wrong could I have been? For many, it was in fact a despicable tale. Its protagonists came to represent the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ kids within our schools. ‘Good’ had been mistreated whilst ‘bad’ was indulged. The girls (Good) should never have been asked to reconsider the withdrawal of their acceptance of an apology – this was bullying. The boy (Bad) a ‘violent’, ‘abusive’, rampaging aggressor, should simply have been punished. Without doubt, it was this lack of a clear punishment (preferably exclusion) that readers found most disturbing with the reconciliation at the end of the narrative providing neither comfort nor catharsis.

Setting aside for now some of the attitudes towards children with autism which this post aggravated, the view that punishment is the only correct way to respond to misconduct is clearly open to challenge. Indeed, it is high time we reflected much more critically on our commitment to behaviourism in the UK; to the tactics of Skinner, a scientist who did most of his research on rodents and pigeons but who wrote most of his books about people.

If one of the goals of education is to ensure that children grow as responsible decision-makers, then motives matter. We want those who bully, for example, to desist because they learn that it is wrong and hurtful to others, not simply to avoid a punishment. Behaviourist school policies do not promote reflection and personal growth of this kind. Indeed, a student punished for harming another is much more likely to feel angry and self-pitying than thoughtful and empathic. As Morrison put it, “punishment makes one think only of oneself rather than the consequences of one’s behaviour on another.” (Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 2002) Restorative practice (RP) is in fact much more challenging, harder work, than mere punishment because it requires the wrongdoer to accept full responsibility, to listen to victims and their parents, and to find a way of repairing the harm their behaviour caused. None of this is easy. RP is not a fluffy bunny.

Another problem with punishment is that unlike a restorative conference, which I have never had to repeat, it breeds the need for more punishment. In Sears’ landmark study, cited by Kohn in ‘Punished By Rewards’, children of mothers who used controlling, punitive measures were significantly less likely to comply with requests, either at home or in a laboratory situation:

The unhappy effects of punishment have run like a dismal thread through our findings … Mothers who punished aggressive behaviour severely had more aggressive children than mothers who punished lightly. They also had more dependent children … Our evaluation of punishment is that it is ineffectual over the long term as a technique for eliminating the kind of behaviour toward which it is directed. (Sears et al)

As Kohn so succinctly puts it, “Control breeds the need for more control, which then is used to justify the need for control.”

There is an argument too that whilst espousing a philosophy of care and respect, traditional behaviour management policies prescribe an approach which is entirely inconsistent with these values. Advocates of RP ask whether inflicting further pain on someone when pain has already been caused by them is either an effective “or indeed a morally appropriate response.” (Hopkins, Just Schools, 2004) Our current DfE guidance on behaviour policy, which recommends that misbehaving students are made to run around a field, is surely perfect exemplification of this problem. The message for the learner is that, when you are more powerful than someone else, you can use that advantage to force the other to do as you wish. Returning to Hopkins, “It is no surprise that we see young people everywhere doing or saying threatening things to each other.”

Many school leaders understand this and have been persuaded by a growing volume of research that highlights the efficacy of RP. Evaluations from Australia, the US and more recently the UK identify benefits such as a reduction of bullying and interpersonal conflicts as well as fewer detentions, fixed term and permanent exclusions. Staff also report greater confidence in dealing with challenging situations. (Hopkins) It is greatly to be regretted, therefore, that not a single sentence within current and exclusively behaviourist DfE guidelines acknowledges the existence of this flexible, inclusive and essentially problem-solving approach to behaviour and relationship management.

Indeed, what the guidelines tell us is nothing very helpful at all about behaviour but everything about the punitive, child-despising culture that we have become. Just reflect on some of the facts. Whilst 23 countries in Europe have outlawed smacking, Sweden being the first in 1979, no law in Britain prevents parents from physically chastising their children – even though we can be prosecuted for striking other adults or our pets. It was only a little over 20 years ago, after impassioned debate and a hairs-breadth vote, that legislation banning corporal punishment in British schools became law. At 10, the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is the lowest in Europe with other European member states setting the age between 13 (France) and 16 (Spain). Not surprisingly, the rate of imprisonment of young people in England and Wales is the highest in Europe. And as widely reported in the press, often in connection with a suicide story, the vast majority of those offenders are held in appalling conditions that differ very little from those found in adult jails. Ours is a punitive, punishing country.

Sir Aynsley-Green argued as children’s commissioner that even normal youth behaviour, such as gathering in public places and playing ball games, is demonised in the UK. Hence the introduction of those dreadful youth dispersal devises that emit sounds piercing to the young ear. Hence too the frowning ‘NO SCHOOL CHIDREN’ signs that we see in so many shops. The commissioner rightly described “demonisation and lack of empathy for young people …a major issue for England.” One that causes “anger and alienation”.

This then is the cultural climate in which sit our avidly behaviourist school policies; inflexible ‘do this and you will get that’ regimes that only alienate our most vulnerable children – those who have social and emotional difficulties or who rely on adults for support, care and guidance that isn’t available to them at home. I read a shattering report recently, ‘These Kids are Desperate. Please Don’t Exclude Them’, in which Ms Brooks, Governor of Scotland’s only YOI, makes an impassioned case for more solutions-focussed and inclusive approaches to problematic behaviour. Her statistics reveal that the vast majority of young offenders at the institution have lost loved ones and were barred from classes before being permanently excluded: “Please don’t exclude them from school if you can possibly not,” she said. “The figures in Polmont are absolutely stark. About 90 per cent of young offenders have had a bereavement …and about the same number have been excluded from school in the past.”

We need to end our love-affair with punishment. The evidence is clear – it is more likely to exacerbate than to correct troubling behaviour and it only reinforces social disadvantage. It is, therefore, irresponsible not to consider alternatives, especially those like RP which have been proven to work – as illustrated, I thought, by my last post. I should add before closing that if any readers remain fearful for the safety and wellbeing of the girls, they are now friends with ‘Tom’. He had a great week following the conference and there have been no further meltdowns. The three are currently devising a piece together in drama.


Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

3 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly #Behaviourism and how it fails

  1. “We need to end our love-affair with punishment. The evidence is clear – it is more likely to exacerbate than to correct troubling behaviour”

    Have you a link to research, comparing two minimum, ideally a double figure number, of schools with similar pupil demographics, half with a “punitive” regime i.e. bad behaviour is immediately sanctioned, and the other half with more touchy-feely restorative practice ? Comparisons of attendance, results, staff turnover, absences and sickness as solid measurables, maybe self-reported stress / enjoyment levels ? I didn’t know anything like that had been done.

    “Ours is a punitive, punishing country”

    I start to wonder if there’s some kind of agenda here. Put it this way, it’s not the least punitive it’s ever been (that would be around the early 90s), but we have to be living in one of the least punitive periods in our recorded history, both in education and in wider society. An early 1960s primary or secondary was far more punitive.


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