Punishment and Behaviour Modification

You know I just don’t get punishment!  To be honest with children it seems relatively ineffective or if not ineffective not always that long lasting which begs the questions how reasonable was it to use punishment in the first place.  Punishment, that lets our children know they have made a bad choice, done a wrong deed or said something they ought not to have, simply seems a short term method with little long term consequence and yet, for so many parents, school teachers, community leaders and indeed society as a whole there is a huge huge emphasis on how we should punish our children!

Now, in saying I don’t get it, I don’t advocate that there should not be consequences for inappropriate behaviours, but does punishment actually modify behaviour?  B F Skinner, the father of behaviourism, suggested that aside it being unethical it was “relatively ineffective as a means of changing behaviour”1 He felt that it could only really be justified in a life-threatening situation but now in schools and in many homes across the country we see it banded about as a cloud under which so many children operate.

Let me explain.  The problem with a focus on punishment means that two things:

1.  That the child lives in fear of being punished and therefore only operates to avoid punishment rather than work out of a more autonomous centre and

2. Other behaviours can develop that cause further problems, issues.

As an example of this, consider a child who has homework set.  They may be struggling to complete this for a number of reasons.  Agreed laziness might come into it, but what if part of their struggle is based on lack of comprehension, ability and knowledge as to how to complete the task or even insufficient support systems elsewhere.  Now, human nature might lead them to leave this homework festering until the last moment – a moment in time say that means it is too late to get the help they need to complete it and so they either don’t do it, or do something that comes over as a half-hearted effort which to the onlooker (ie. the teacher) will not be up to scratch.  Why would the child do this?

Firstly, it takes maturity to learn that when something is understood or when something is going to take time to conquer the worst thing to do is shelf it.  There is an element of fear involved and an element of anxiety.  And so that work is pushed to one-side – the head in the sand ostrich approach.  A child doing this then is already experiencing negative emotions – fear, stress, anxiety which compound their homoeostasis before they have already started.

Secondly, it takes determination and focus to succeed at something that isn’t going to come easy.  On the back of this, they need to fully understand why a set task is important.  What purpose does it hold?  Why is it going to be important to them (personally) to conquer this?  What end is it going to meet.  A child who has that focus, will be motivated and determined to see a task through, whether or not they like it.

Thirdly, children’s brains as well as their whole physiology, psychology and emotions are developing through childhood and adolescence.  They do not process things the same way as an adult and to this end adults cannot expect them to have the same perspective on life as they do.

Children then have a whole plethora or reasons why they behave in a way that compounds success in a task and yet if we, as adults, take time to unravel their needs and behaviours, it becomes easier to take up their perspective and work with them to a positive end (ie. completed work).  However, in a classroom situation (and often at home too) this simply does not happen.  For instance, going back to the homework example, a child will shelf the homework, panic at the last minute and either complete it to a poor standard or not do it at all.  Both of which in the system they are in then, can lead to a “punishment” (say telling off or even detention) which in the eyes of those giving out the punishment believe will reinforce in the child the need to behave differently in future.  Of course, what it actually reinforces is unlikely to be anything like that and reinforces the beliefs that their fear, anxiety, stress and panic were justified leading onto to other problems meaning that future problems will be faced with fear, anxiety, stress and panic.  The short term strategy of punishment therefore has limited effectiveness in the longer term and it is the longer term that surely should be of key relevance in nurturing children.

Consider, however, the outcome could have been altered with a different approach. The child hands in what can only be perceived as a poor effort.  The teacher considers what has happened?  The consequence of that could be that they refuse to mark it but they get alongside the child and go through what was firstly good or what they can find to praise the child about even if this extends back to a time when they contributed well in class, or indeed presented acceptable work.  This does two things, it brings the children alongside them and it gives them worth.  If a child feels worth then they will want to do things for themselves and that will include homework!  It will also build up a trust bond between child and teacher/parent breaking down the parameters of fear and anxiety will rescind simultaneously.  The stage is then set to discuss the homework; to work out why it wasn’t completed to a good standard and to work through the prevailing issues and I guarantee the child will then either want to have another go or will put in new behaviour markers in future.

Positive reinforcement then can go a long way to modifying behaviour and indeed has been shown to improve the frequency rate of positive behaviours.  Skinner’s message to society adopted the same principal demonstrating the a lot of the problems in the world, such as violence, vandalism and alienation come about because there has been too little emphasis on this.  As adults we can try it for ourselves.  Challenge yourself to a week of seeing the good in people generally and shaking off negative thoughts about them.  Put a focus on what can be done and not what can’t or hasn’t been and just see what happens!

Clearly there will always be consequences for negative behaviour but using punishment, in the longer term, will not necessarily decrease such behaviour and so the behaviour leading to these consequences will continue.  This post has looked at any a small part of a complex system, but surely then, it is better to strategize and to focus on positive reinforcement as a way to increase good and acceptable behaviours thereby reducing the propensity for deviant behaviours to occur on the back of this.

1 Littleton, K., Toates, F., and Braisy, N., (2007) ‘Three Aproaches to Learning’, in Miell, D., Phoenix, A., Thomas, K., (eds) Mapping Psychology, Milton Keynes, The Open University

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