In life, as in school, there are consequences for the wrong kind of behaviour. Or at least there are if you get caught. Imagine this: you’re driving along the motorway and for once it is empty. The weather is good, and you are driving a fast new car. You are in a rush to get home, so your foot presses down on the accelerator and you ease up to 90 miles an hour. You are breaking the law – behaving in the ‘wrong’ way. But, hey, no one gets hurt and at least you get home ten minutes earlier than you would have done otherwise. Now imagine this: as you speed along the motorway, you see a police car up ahead of you, waiting on the side of the road. You hit the brake, and by the time you reach the police car, you are doing the right speed. You heave a sigh of relief as you check your rear view mirror and realise that the police are not coming after you. As soon as the police car is out of sight, your foot eases down on the accelerator again and you speed off into the distance.
If we want to change behaviour, it is always worth thinking about why we behave as we do. Speeding is a very useful example, because it is something that a lot of us do. For some people, it is about the thrill of driving fast, of being a rebel or seeing how fast their car can go. For others, it is because ‘everyone else is doing it’, and that must mean it’s okay. For some people, it is because they see the rule as ‘stupid’ – a speed limit of 70 miles an hour seems antiquated, especially given the safety of modern cars. And for many of us, speeding is a risk predicated on the fact that it is unlikely we will be caught. Points and fines have been in use for years, but many people do not drive on motorways at 70 miles an hour. Punishment does not often change behaviour, even if it does, to an extent, control it.
While the punishment for speeding is one we want to avoid, the consequences of misbehaving in school can feel meaningless (hey, put me in detention, what do I care?) This is not to say that schools don’t need rules and consequences – even if I don’t agree with it, I understand the thinking behind the ‘no excuses’ talk. Rules and consequences make things fair, and reflect the way that society works. But we should not fool ourselves that a punishment based approach changes behaviour – if detentions ‘worked’, then we wouldn’t have to give so many of them. Punishment controls behaviour, but that is not the same thing as changing it. The other issue with a focus on consequences, rather than on motivation, is that you can get sucked into a negative spiral. Fear of punishment becomes the point rather than the point being to address what’s going wrong.
Interestingly, as the focus in educational debate moves back towards punishment, the police are trying something different instead. The idea of speed awareness courses is that, as an alternative to punishing people for breaking the rules, you get them to think about why they did it, and the reasons why it was inappropriate. The police have realised that this is the best way, in the long run, to change driver behaviour. In this example police got children to speak to drivers who were not observing the 20 mile an hour limit past schools. When a small child asks you why you were speeding past their school, you are reminded in no uncertain terms about your moral duty to behave.
When young people get caught misbehaving in the most serious ways, they will often end up in a young offenders’ setting. These young people suffer the most severe consequences that society can think of to give them. But the statistics show that even the consequence of being incarcerated is not enough to change behaviour. This website gives some deeply shocking statistics about re-offending rates, not least that 68% of young people re-offend within twelve months, and 88% (of males) have been excluded from school at some point. We can bury our heads in the sand, and pretend that punishment solves all the problems that society faces. Or we can try to do something different instead. If we genuinely want to encourage young people to behave differently, our real focus needs to be on positive motivation, an understanding of why we behave as we do, and why we need to change. And fear of punishment, of suffering the consequences, is a damn poor substitute for that.