Detentions – a necessary but imperfect solution for schools?

Tougher Minds Head of Education, Andrew Foster, is pleased that corporal punishment is no longer permitted in schools and discusses suitable alternative methods for supporting discipline.

When did Dennis the Menace and the Bash Street Kids stop receiving the slipper and the cane?

Corporal punishment used to be accepted as an essential part of parenting and schooling till more recently than we sometimes suppose. And I would argue that we have failed to adequately replace it.

I oppose corporal punishment – I think it is harmful to children and harmful to relationships between children and the adults tasked with nurturing them. However, I also think it is harmful for children to grow up in an environment where there are not immediate consequences for unhelpful behaviour.

Our brains are built to pursue fast rewards and minimise the expending of effort on anything that does not provide it. Think Xbox over homework and the sofa over the gym. When a child misbehaves, it is because he or she has opted for the instant gratification certain behaviour offers without assessing the long term damage it does to their prospects. This is the equivalent of frivolously taking out a loan from Wonga. Enjoy now, pay later, and pay big time.

The government’s behaviour adviser Tom Bennett has advocated the more widespread use of detentions. He rightly argues that these should not be pleasant experiences. The discomfort is necessary in order to get our short-termist brains on board: listen to the teacher in your maths lesson in order to get better at maths, but as that is a carrot a long time in coming, here is a stick while you wait.

We should not underestimate the administrative effort required to produce an effective detention system. Running them after school causes issues regarding communication with parents and safe travel home; lunchtime affects quality of learning in following lessons; delay often results in children being unaware of what behaviour has led to the sanction.

Detentions are a necessary but imperfect solution to the problem of pupils being insufficiently motivated by the intrinsic benefits of behaving well. They must be coupled with instantaneous rectifications, delivered by the teacher – and the pupils themselves.

We know that some pupils will behave better for some teachers than others, and that the former often find they have little need to use their school’s formal sanctions. The cost of poor behaviour in their classrooms is the teacher’s displeasure and they have succeeded in making this a price their pupils do not wish to pay. The rewards are also made apparent and valued, the pupils’ attention is often drawn to the benefits they are accruing through persistent effort.

If we go one step further and teach our pupils to join in what is a behaviour management process – to self-watch, manage their concentration and motivation – then we will have between twenty and thirty times as many brains in each classroom on the job as we do at present. Tougher Minds’ work at Quintin Kynaston is setting out to achieve just this aim. We are implementing our successful programmes for education at the North London school, in partnership with teachers, pupils and parents.

People will always stuff up. And detentions should be there for when our pupils do. We should be glad that the cane has been consigned to the yellowing pages of cherished collections of comics but still mindful of the sophistication of the work required to create successful systems of consequences in our schools.

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