If Detentions Worked

One of the ‘problems’ for schools with the use of punitive measures to control behaviour is that they are not exactly armed to the teeth with options. In the (bad) old days, when I was at school, the threat of violence was available. A lot of us did as we were told because we were scared of being caned if we didn’t. The moment the cane was banned, schools were basically left with one main punitive option to help them manage behaviour: detentions. Unfortunately for schools, some young people aren’t particularly bothered about being given a detention, or even about being given lots of detentions. What tends to happen is that you end up with the same young people getting detentions over and over again. The detention hasn’t ‘worked’ in the sense of changing the child’s behaviour, although it might to some extent have controlled it or stopped it getting worse. I remember once years ago asking a child to give me his planner so I could write in a detention. He told me that he couldn’t “fit me in” that day, nor the next, but he had a space I could book on Friday week. It struck me that it was no wonder the child had so much excess physical energy in my lessons; he barely ever got a playtime to expend it in.

In some instances, and for some children, detentions work perfectly fine as a deterrent or as a control measure. When my kid started at secondary school, he was a bit disorganised, in the way that many tweenagers are at transition. He forgot his PE kit on two occasions, and on each occasion he justifiably got a detention and some negative behaviour points. After two times of suffering the consequences, he learned his lesson and he hasn’t forgotten his PE kit since. But if he was still forgetting his kit and getting detentions for it two years later, it would seem obvious that something else might be worth a try. From his teachers’ reports, his behaviour is fine in lessons, but this is not because of any fear of getting a detention. It is because we have brought him up to know how and why to behave. In schools where there are lots of children who haven’t been taught how or why to behave, there may be a lot of problem behaviour, and therefore a consistently applied system of consequences may mean that a large number of detentions have to be given. But if these detentions were ‘working’, in the sense of helping you to manage and change behaviour, you would normally hope to see the number gradually tail off.

At preschool, we don’t have any ‘detentions’. For a start, it is totally inappropriate at this age. The parents wouldn’t stand for it, and there is no time in the preschool day when it could happen. But more importantly, the children wouldn’t understand it, and it would make no difference at all to their behaviour. We don’t believe that a system based on rewards and sanctions is the right way to help young children learn to regulate their behaviour; we prefer to analyse the behaviour and come at it from the direction of the child’s needs instead. Clearly this is far more difficult to do in a larger setting, such as a primary or secondary school, but in the end the goal will always be to change behaviour through helping the child learn how to behave, rather than simply trying to manage it. If there was a simple answer to behaviour, we would have alighted on it years ago. In the 20 or so years that I have been writing on and talking about behaviour, and working with schools in this area, I have never come across a ‘solution’ that was easy or straightforward to put in place. The complexity of behaviour in schools is caused by the complexity of human beings. And although consequences can be useful, they cannot take account of that.

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5 Responses to If Detentions Worked

  1. Claire says:

    I think the problem with secondary schools is they aren’t taught about attachment and in the run of looking at results and results forget that behaviour is a message it is telling you something.
    It s hard in a big school as the emphasis is often on the results not on the child. Even send adepartments may not have updated training.
    For me the key is attachment and having time and space to decode it.


    • N says:

      On what basis do you say that secondary schools aren’t taught about attachment theory? That is categorically not true in my experience.


  2. flimey says:

    This might be true. There are a very small minority whose behaviour doesn’t change – maybe 4 or 5 in my whole school (of 800). So you change the support for them so that they can meet expectations.

    For the 80 or so others who wouldn’t meet expectations without there being a detention system, particularly with homework, and this is my experience in two schools now, the detention system absolutely works. You appear to have forgotten the majority who are not in detention, and the significant minority of them who meet expectations because of the framework for behaviour.

    And sadly, you propose to exhaust teachers rather than solve it.


    • suecowley says:

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think I proposed anything here, I just explained how we approach this in our preschool. As I said in the blog, if detentions ‘worked’ to change rather than manage behaviour, you would not expect to have to keep giving the same number of them. If you keep getting 80 kids in detention for not doing homework, then could I ask how that is actually changing their behaviour as I’m not clear what you mean.


  3. Sue you speak my language. Brilliant.


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