Teachers, stop using collective punishment – it makes you look weak and lazy

I have given up on collective punishment. Don't get me wrong, I have been that teacher. It was many years ago, but I can still feel the sheer desperation and the feeling of vindictive hatred towards the pupils who had wrecked my well-intended, well-planned lesson. Eventually, I realised it was wrong – or perhaps I got better at managing my classes and seeing who was misbehaving.

A couple of weeks ago, it happened in my child's school for the umpteenth time this term. My daughter texted me to say that she couldn't face another group detention after school, having missed lunch days before thanks to one from a different teacher. I called the school, livid. I was determined that they help the offending teachers to understand why it is a stupid technique, and guide them towards other methods for getting students to behave.

The school said they would work with these teachers, deploy more mentors for the class in question, reissue the school behaviour policy (which forbids group punishment) and meet with the well-behaved students in the class to discuss what they see going wrong.

Teachers, if you are ever tempted to use this technique, please think about the reasons not to do it. It makes you look weak and too lazy to get to the bottom of who is misbehaving. It probably isn't allowed by your school's behaviour policy, which means you are breaking the rules and the contract that each child and teacher signs up to. It also demotivates well-behaved students and doesn't make sense – we don't close entire roads because some people drink and drive, or shut down libraries because some people damage the books.

Good behaviour management requires a change in behaviour from you, the adult, first and foremost.

There is a Spanish teacher at my daughter's school who is a great example of this. He commands respect from all the students and we often hear about him over the dinner table. This teacher seems to know a key fact about each student and uses it to draw out a level of engagement that is stunning.

One boy can't sit still and often loses concentration, but he is a great artist and the teacher asks him to summarise the key points of the lesson in a series of drawings which are distributed to the other students to complement their notes. He is riveted and gets stuck in. His own understanding has increased and he is proving to be a great Spanish student (where, in other classes, he is disruptive and disengaged).

Another student always shouts out things that cross his mind, sometimes answering questions without permission, over the top of other students. So now, at the start of the lesson, he is given a vocabulary list of phrases and words in Spanish like "how interesting" and "ridiculous". He must make remarks appropriately using these words when classmates are speaking. It's fun and it keeps the others on their toes. They want to get things right because it's hilarious making him interact with them, while he bristles with concentration, not wanting to miss an opportunity to shout out.

Finally, when the teacher is telling them a story or explaining and uses the word that means "but", the class must catch him and call out "Pero means but"!

With such engagement, it's probably not surprising that he rarely encounters behaviour problems. This might seem like an energy-intensive method but it works and I bet he will never give collective punishment in his life.

If you need other ways to punish those that misbehave, here are some people with a few ideas:

Learning Spy deploys an approach which involves gradually releasing students until the right person can be identified and dealt with. Larry Ferlazzo, in The Happy School, advocates a gentle approach that happens more discreetly than the public display of anger and disappointment in front of the whole class that often takes place with collective punishment. Playworks advocates six ways that teachers can build a collaborative contract with their students so that collective punishment doesn't have to be an option.

Collective punishment is as much of a punishment for those who behave themselves as for those that don't. It seems perverse; they are taught that there is no reason to behave well. If a teacher doesn't recognise – or even disrespects – these students' efforts to follow the rules, they may start wondering what the point of behaving actually is.

This is an edited version of a blog originally posted here.

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