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The Dark Side of rewards and punishments in the classroom part II

Written By: Soizic Le Courtois
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Punishments and unintended consequences

Many schools advocate the use of praise over punishments, but sanctions are also common for dealing with misbehaviour and typically part of schools’ behaviour policies. In this article, I explore some possible unintended consequences of punishments.

‘Never punish except in anger’

When dealing with misbehaviour and giving punishments, teachers are often told to keep calm and not be reactive (Cowley, 2014). But Sanderson, famous headmaster at Oundle school 100 years ago, was once reported to have instead said ‘Never punish except in anger’:

“ [It] came back with a query : Did he not mean, ‘Never punish in anger’? He was much struck by the difference in outlook revealed by this inquiry. As if I could say anything so silly. To wait and collect evidence and weigh the facts and pronounce judgment in cold blood was, he held, to make a crime of what might be only a thoughtless misdemeanour.”

Sanderson of Oundle, p173

Ultimately, educators want children to do more than just comply with threats; they want children to regulate their own behaviour and internalise social norms so that they make the right choices even in the absence of carrots and sticks. But some approaches to punishment might in fact impede this natural process of internalisation (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Manning and Butcher, 2001).

Controlling teaching and intrinsic motivation

Like rewards, punishments can sometimes fail in the long term because they damage children’s (and adults’) internal motivation. Humans have three basic needs that have to be met in order for them to feel internally motivated: the need to feel in control and to have agency over their actions (‘autonomy’), the need to feel like they belong by having positive relationships (‘relatedness’), and the need to feel they are capable of achieving the task at hand (‘competence’) (Deci & Ryan, 2000). This theory, backed up by hundreds of studies, predicts that thwarting these needs will have negative effects on children’s inner motivation to learn (see for a recent selection).

Supporting these needs, and in particular the need for autonomy, makes space for inner motivation, deep learning and well-being (Boggiano et al., 1993; Ryan and Deci, 2000). For example, parents who are more autonomy-supportive have children who are more internally motivated for academic endeavours, such as doing classwork or answering questions in class (Grolnick and Ryan, 1989). These parents are more likely to value their child’s autonomy, provide space for their child to choose the direction of the activity and use methods such as reasoning and encouragement to motivate their child.

Punishment and classroom climate

As mentioned above, a feeling of strong relationships, or ‘relatedness’, is a key component of intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000) and the relationship between a teacher and a child is key to establishing a positive classroom climate. But some approaches to punishment and negative comments can risk damaging the relationship between the teacher and the student.

Children need to be able to take social and academic risks in order to learn, and this requires feelings of safety and belonging (Buyse et al., 2009). In early years classrooms in particular, teacher-child interactions are important to children’s development. Children who develop positive close relationships with teachers are more prosocial, engage more in school activities and have greater academic success (Birch & Ladd, 1997). By contrast, children who are frequently in conflict with teachers in early years classrooms are more likely to have poor relationships with teachers as they go through school (Jerome et al., 2009). They are also more likely to develop negative attitudes about school (Hamre and Pianta, 2005) and disengage from learning (Portilla et al., 2014). It may be that these children develop poorer relationships with teachers because of their behaviour and lack of self-regulation (Portilla et al., 2014), regardless of teachers’ practices. Nonetheless, these children may need environments that are more supportive, not less (Hamre and Pianta, 2005). By providing an ‘emotionally insecure environment’ (McNally and Slutsky, 2018), punishment is unlikely to lead to better relationships with the teacher.

“As with rewards, sanctions can shift the reasons why individuals feel they are behaving in a particular way, and it might lead them to cooperate less, not more.”

When punishments backfire

Punishments may not only have a negative impact on people’s motivation, they can also sometimes be counter-productive. As with rewards, sanctions can shift the reasons why individuals feel they are behaving in a particular way, and it might lead them to cooperate less, not more. In one study (Gneezy and Rustichini, 2000), schools that began fining parents for picking up their child late saw an increase in late pick-ups. Being on time was something parents had previously done out of good will, but fining parents had changed this to a transaction where parents could pay to pick up their child late. Experimental studies have replicated this finding, showing that small sanctions tend to decrease cooperation rather than increase it (Houser et al., 2008). Although these examples come from outside the classroom, students may similarly see misbehaving under the threat of punishment as ‘worth the price’ and their cooperation may be lost (Manning and Butcher, 2001).

Other studies show that punishments such as detention do not work equally well for all students: it is in fact those students with the most disruptive behaviour who seem to improve the least (Atkins et al., 2002) and who maintain these problems throughout school (Tobin et al., 1996). Instead, it is thought that for these students, some punishments can act as a reward – for example, the student does not have to stay in class. And in other students it has the opposite effect to what is intended: their reaction to punishment is to become increasingly defiant (Mitchell and Bradshaw, 2013).

What this suggests is that students do not always learn from punishment, which clashes with the internalisation process, and this might instead lead to an escalation of the problem (Lewis, 2001).

Control or chaos – a false dichotomy

That is not to say that classrooms do not need explicit rules, routines and structure, and these are considered important in establishing a safe and stable atmosphere in a classroom (Hospel and Galand, 2016). Setting limits does not necessarily undermine intrinsic motivation or creativity: in one study (Koestner et al., 1984), children were given a painting to do; some children were told to be neat using controlling language (such as ‘must’ and ‘have to’), other children were told in an informational style about the importance of being neat for the task, and other children were not given any instructions or limits on neatness. Only the children who had been imposed limits using controlling language were subsequently less interested in painting in a free-choice period and their paintings were less creative, using fewer colours and strokes.

So, what’s the alternative?

Research into autonomy-supportive pedagogies and alternative approaches to discipline provides examples of what teaching that respects the needs of students might look like.

Although this research is still ongoing, existing findings suggest that the following teaching practices, amongst others, can support students’ feelings of autonomy (Reeve et al., 2004):
– acknowledging students’ feelings towards learning activities
– providing rationales for activities
– providing informational feedback rather than controlling praise
– making space for students’ questions to be explored and for students to pursue their own interests.

In addition, activities can be planned that aim to foster intrinsic motivation, for example, by stimulating interest and curiosity, or providing a meaningful context that creates a sense of purpose. As Reeve (2006) suggests, instead of asking ourselves “How can I motivate my students?”, we should be asking “How can I provide the conditions under which my students can motivate themselves?”.

That being said, even children who are engrossed with their learning will at times come into conflict with each other or with the needs of a large group, whilst some students will lack important self-regulation skills. Disruptive students can quickly leave teachers feeling like punishment is the only option. But even when punishment is effective at maintaining discipline, it can risks teaching that misbehaviour is fine when the threat of punishment is not there. Other approaches – which might also be used alongside punishment – might focus on teaching empathy and moral responsibility.

For example, restorative approaches involve a conversation between the individuals involved and seek “to understand what happened, who has been affected and how, what is needed for things to be put right and what has been learned from this incidence of conflict to reduce the risk of further harm” (Bevington, 2015). Other approaches have been proposed, such as Confronting-Contracting methods (Wolfgang and Brudenell, 1983) or the High Scope Conflict Resolution Approach ( What they have in common is that they rely on dialogue and problem solving, and they provide the child with avenues for making amends.

Unfortunately, none of these approaches offer a quick-fix. It is about the kind of language used, the kinds of relationships that are developed, the kinds of activities offered – things that are often much harder to pin down than rewards and punishments. But if we are serious about helping children flourish as individuals, we need to explore these avenues as well. Changing practices, especially when they are deeply embedded, requires the time and structures in place to allow them to develop (Deci et al., 1982; Bevington, 2015), and senior leaders can play a decisive role in providing the necessary vision and support.

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