Development Discipline Growth Learning Psychology School Teaching

Exerting Control – The Nature of Disciplinary Action at Primary School and the link to Emotional Development

This post briefly explores the ways in which primary schools sometimes use punishment to induce ‘good behaviour’ in children. It is a very emotive topic, naturally, and rather divisive in that there appear to exist two quite different camps of opinion on the topic. I will consider the scientific knowledge from psychological theory and child development to discuss some of the main points of what is known about the effects of punishment.

‘It is much safer to be feared than loved… for they are entirely yours; they offer you their blood, their goods, their life, and their children’ (Machiavelli, 1903; 1935, p.90).

I often hear parents and school teachers desperately exclaim ‘why is my/that child so out of control?!’  And trust me, there is no judgement coming from here because I know the feeling! But let’s face it, that someone is ‘out of control’ more or less means that they do not fit our own rules or the unspoken rules existing in the culture, society or family we live in. Of course, there are some rules that are very important to keep in order for people to stay out of danger, and not to put anyone else in danger. I get that. I am talking about a different kind of control. A type of implicit conformity that is more socially, culturally, and personally imprinted than the rules in place for keeping people from breaking the law. I am not aiming to go all Cultural Anthropologist here, that would be beyond the scope of this article, but I do feel inclined to mention a few cultural differences in the ways adults stay ‘in control’ of the youngest in society. Having been brought up in Sweden, with socialist values, the school system is very different to here. At least it was back then when I attended primary school, I am not sure how it is now. Perhaps some of you people living in Sweden can inform me on this one? For someone like me, who didn’t start school until I was 7 years old, spent the first years at school mostly learning through play, with regular breaks outdoors, and lessons that focused more on ‘doing’ than sitting for long periods of time, listening and supposedly absorbing stuff, an English school can at times seem a little like a military camp to me. Of course, there are things that are great about the English school system, but I believe some fundamental differences exist lending to my feeling of confinement with regards to the English school system. One of those differences I have observed concern the kind and use of punishment.

Here is how I see it… A military camp analogy is a very strong comparison of course, but in terms of the sense of authority and hierarchy in schools here, I can’t in this instance think of a more fitting one. Strict hierarchy and authority of teachers are not necessarily bad. Having clear rules and a set routine is very good for children, essential in fact for a strong sense of security in the child. But authority and hierarchy can be utilised in different ways. What can backfire is having 4- to 11-year-olds conforming to adult rules, conveyed through adult language. How does that work? Does it work in fact? When I hear of a 5 year old being brought into the head teacher’s office to be told he or she is perhaps ‘naughty’, or even ‘engaging in disgusting and disgraceful behaviour’ because they did not stand in line well, or had trouble concentrating and felt like running around, thus disrupting the rest of the class with ‘the other well-behaved 5-year-olds sitting quietly listening’ – that does not sit well with me. Now, what would child psychologists say that a child learns from such encounters with other significant adults in their life? These adults are role models whom the children spend most of their time throughout the day learning from, and what they do will have an impact on not just their learning but their emotional wellbeing.

Well, I will tell you what I think. First of all, I believe there often exist unreasonable expectations of such young children to be sitting for too long listening. Second, there is no sign of understanding that a child’s world is different to the adults, their perspective and language are different and they need to be heard and spoken to in a way they can understand and learn from constructively. Third, and in my opinion very important, is the emotional aspect of such an encounter. That child might start to internalise those messages, that s/he is a ‘disgusting’, ‘naughty’ and ‘disgraceful’ person, perhaps they will develop negative self-esteem, feel that their input does not matter, but most of all they might learn to be afraid, embarrassed and feel invalidated. Indeed, it is widely recognised in psychology that repeated encounters of this sort, although negative and aimed to work as a deterrent for ‘bad’ behaviours will have the exact opposite effect since repeated reprimands will work as reinforcement because the child is getting the adult attention that he or she naturally seeks. A punishment is an easy way out, but it does not address or challenge the behaviour they are trying to change. Positive regard is more time-consuming. When a child ‘misbehaves’ it is often because he/she does not have the necessary skills, e.g., poor self-expression skills or difficulty in inhibiting impulses (indeed, very normal in the primary school age group), and need to be guided rather than punished. The child is not ‘naughty’, he/she is simply in need of extra adult guidance and support.

Even worse, should that child be sensitive or have a learning disability such as Autism or ADHD, who often find school more difficult and frustrating than other children the effects could even be more dire. Maag (2001) mentions an incident where a child with a learning disability frequently “forgot’” to bring his reading book to class, much to the teacher’s frustration. In this example, the teacher punished the child by having the student write ‘I will not forget to bring my book’ 100 times. This fails to teach the child why they need to bring their book, but rather succeeding to induce embarrassment in the child over their learning disability. Although an extreme example, punishments of this kind are sadly not that rare. More important than labels and fear, is to help a child understand what s/he did that was not helpful for his own development in a way that a child can process and reflect on.

Personally, I believe that children that age can understand much more than we perhaps think, and I would say to a child being punished by labelling, isolation from peers or via punishment by action as in the example above, that that particular teacher is not very good at their job or at understanding children. And to tell them that unfortunately there are a lot of people out there like that in the world, and even more unfortunate is that he/she is the one making the rules at that place at the moment, and you will have to try to ‘stay out of trouble’ and ‘stick to their rules’ for now. I understand however that this is problematic as you risk undermining the teacher, and getting the child confused about the teacher’s authority and rules in general. But, what is worse? The possibility of confusing the child, but making them feel loved, heard, and validated than risking a blow to their self-esteem and healthy emotional development overall?

That is a very short article on a topic that can be explored and written on extensively, this barely scratches the surface. I will come back to the topic and discuss the effects of positive rewards at school later, and I would love to hear from people their experiences of punishment, or indeed positive rewards at school, so please comment below. I will finish with a quote from my son a couple of years ago after a somewhat rough day at school ‘Mamma, when I grow up and become the boss over my teachers I will make the rule that when you stand in line you will have to wiggle and dance, that you are not allowed to sit down for more than 15 minutes and that everyone will have to play outside at least every hour!’. I couldn’t agree more my son!

1 Comment

  1. Sophie

    February 13, 2019 at 7:41 pm

    Thanks for posting. I really enjoyed reading your ideas and can really relate to the them on an deep and intuative level x

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