Suffer the Consequences

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.

This entry was posted in Behaviour, Children, Consequences, Rules. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Suffer the Consequences

  1. inco14 says:

    Have you read a book called ‘drive’ by Daniel Pink? Our ‘no excuses’ culture exists within the wider context of the ideas set out in this book… it is an interesting read! The carot and stick way of motivating people to behave in certain ways – rewards and sanctions/consequences – is so ingrained that it is almost automatic and our natural way of i.e. managing children in schools. Pink, though, argues that society is ready to move on to a new form of motivation, one that is based on our intrinsic desire to do right because… well, it is the right thing to do. Because we want to be good. I think the scheme you mentioned where children talk to people who break the speed limit fits into this concept; motivating them to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Those children are neither a reward nor, really, a threat! They’re some other kind of motivational strategy. We have tried to move away from the traditional ‘rewards and sanctions’ approach to behaviour management and aim to motivate the students to be good intrinsically… because it feels good to be good. This, surely, instills a deeper and more thorough basis for doing the right thing than would be achieved through external factors. The only ‘rewards’ we have really are verbal praise and appreciation… we do have trips and treats but these are more surprise or last minute; the children are not behaving because that’s the way to get on the trip, because it isn’t. They have to behave because they want to learn, because they want to be succesful… because they want to be good. Similarly, we do have ‘corrections’ which are, to all intents and purpose, 30 minute same-day detentions. These are structured in such a way that they incorporate personal and private reflection, discussion with the staffmember that issued the correction and repetition of the same behaviour (i.e. several corrections for the same thing) is then managed separately as, clearly, the correction didn’t correct the behaviour. I suppose these are, basically, rewards and sanctions! They’re both pretty low key though… they wouldn’t motivate a child to behave or scare them into behaving if that was the only technique we were using. The culture of intrinsic motivation – doing the right thing because its the right thing to do – seems to be doing the trick. I’m under no illusion that children… and adults… will continue to do things when they can get away with it and modify their behaviour when there’s a fear of getting caught. We all do that, don’t we? And maybe for things like speeding, leaving your car on double yellows whilst you nip into a shop, chewing a sneaky piece of chewing gum in lessons or passing a quick note in class when the teacher’s back is turned… is all pretty harmless? The bigger things like the ones you have alluded to in your last paragraph, the stuff that might land you in proper trouble, maybe we need to look at intrinsic motivation to bring down those re-offendor rates?


    • suecowley says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve not read the book, but what you explain about it is very much the way that I see the subject as well. The whole area of intrinsic motivation is something I explore in detail with teachers when I do behaviour management sessions. I suspect part of the reason I’m uncomfortable with the phrase ‘no excuses’, is because it sets a standard for children that the vast majority of adults never attain. When we get ‘caught’ usually the *first* thing we do is try and excuse our behaviour! The very word ‘excuses’ sets my teeth on edge, because it’s such a negative word. There are often reasons, I think we all accept that, it’s just that what we need to focus on is solutions. I also sense a kind of enthusiasm about a punishment based approach (I don’t mean from you). It’s so very easy to focus on the negative, and to forget that focusing on the positive is typically far more successful when working with children.


      • inco14 says:

        Intrinsic motivation is the way forward, I think! I’m sticking with no excuses too though, or at least my school’s version. I do worry that the term actually represents a range of approaches, not all of which I’m happy to be associated with! Ultimately, we want the children to be successful… To have the tools – skills, motivation, confidence, opportunities – to do the thing that they want to do. Not be held back. Accountability, responsibility and motivation are all part of that. Out in adult society there’s still scope to be learning about those things, I think, but ultimately we are out living the reality of it. For our children we are teaching them about those things in a controlled environment in preparation for the big bad world. It’s a training course version so it may start off a little simpler, a little more black and white. It may be a mock up version. It’s the practice run, though, isn’t it? Today I’ve been teaching a group of low ability students about the value of water as a commodity… To teach them about dehydration, thirst, scarcity et cetera, I didn’t actually inflict those things upon them, we used words, images, conversation et cetera – we did the schoolroom version. Most of what we do in school is mock up pretending and practicing for reality! The carrot and stick stuff, I think, prepares them to deal with adult society in one way and intrinsic motivation in another, and I think better, way. In school, both are just strategies for learning… They don’t have to – and shouldn’t! – mimic adult expectation and reality exactly.


  2. Daniel J. Ayres says:

    Reblogged this on Education Web Gems.


  3. jillberry102 says:

    Have recently done a speed awareness course, Sue, and I can honestly say that it has changed the way I drive! I realised that the two main reasons I speed are because:
    1. I don’t leave enough time for journeys (a throw-back to my time as a head when I was always so busy – arriving early for anything always seemed a waste, so I timed everything to arrive ‘just in time’ and if I met an unexpected delay I then ended up risking being late), and
    2. I don’t always concentrate when I’m driving and so don’t realise I’ve exceeded the limit – this was what happened on the most recent occasion I was caught by a speed camera. I know the road/those cameras very well! But it was a Sunday, the road was quiet and I wasn’t restricted by the traffic flow. I was miles away and had passed the first camera before I realised.

    The speed awareness course I thought was VERY well done (excellent teaching strategies in evidence!) and it really made me think. I’ve changed my habits as a result – I leave more time for journeys (it helps that I HAVE more time since finishing full-time work) and I do my best to pay attention.

    So my behaviour has changed because I’ve thought about it, and what’s at the root of it, and I’m motivated to do things differently. I know it’s the right thing to do.

    When you said “Punishment controls behaviour, but that is not the same thing as changing it”, my first thought was that if we behave differently as a result of the threat/fear of punishment, then that HAS changed our behaviour. But, of course, I recognise that if we calculate that we can get away with it because we don’t think we’ll get caught, then we revert to the poor behaviour, so we haven’t really changed at all.

    Thanks for the post!


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