Adam Voigt: Punishing student behaviour has results, but it’s exhausting

Most of you reading this article will have arrived at work today by car. That trip is an event in itself. For some it’s bedlam – a manic period of dropping children off, fixing hair at the traffic lights because you didn’t get time between brushing the hair, teeth and attitudes of the little people in your homes. For others, it’s respite – a couple of quiet songs and a newsbreak before the mayhem of the school day begins.

Amidst the madness, is it possible – even remotely – that your vehicle slipped momentarily above the speed limit? Think hard. For many of us the answer is a sheepish ‘Yes’. Equally, there’s a very high likelihood that you also didn’t get caught and punished for your crime. You got away with it! And for this reason you are likely to make the occasional trip above the limit again in the future.

But what if your car were today fitted with a device which transfers $200 from your account to the State Government every time you speed? Would this change your behaviour?  The answer is probably a resounding ‘Yes’ this time around.  We’d be so much more careful if we knew with absolute certainty that we would be caught every time we broke this well intended law.

This is the Punishment Code. For behaviour to change, we must be caught and punished EVERY SINGLE TIME, else we just can’t resist the compulsion to occasionally test the system. The good news is that the Punishment Code works. The bad news is that it’s utterly exhausting.

Think about AFL football for a moment. At it’s inception, it had only 10 one-sentence rules for play. There was no umpire, such was the ease with which the rules could be applied. Across the decades, dozens more rules, sub-sections and interpretations have been added. What is the result? There are now nine umpires controlling a top-level match, such is the effort required to control the game. Those pesky players just keep trying to get away with stuff … unless we commit to catching them every, single time.

There’s a lesson in this for us in schools. Rules are fine, and in fact part of the reason you didn’t crash on the way to work today was because of an intermittently enforced speed limit. But choose them wisely. If you are going to punish students for breaking rules, you are best to have a small number of rules, lest you’ll be completely drained of all energy by the end of each day. You’re also risking doing little else other than rule enforcement.

Think hard about your own needs in the learning environment. What are the 2-3 behaviours that you can’t tolerate. Once identified:

  • Creatively foster and encourage the opposite of that behaviour.
  • Explicitly state the behaviours that you are targeting and the rules attached.
  • Make utterly clear what the punishments for breaching the rule are.

And …

  • Prepare for the boundaries to be tested.

No matter the best laid plans (and rules) there’s always something within us that yearns to touch the park bench with the wet paint sign; to touch the stove even though we’ve been warned of its dangers; to walk across the road just a few metres from the zebra crossing.

Breaking rules and testing boundaries is a normal part of growing up. Forgive the breaching of your rules and have some faith that your students will eventually turn out fine just like you … unless you plan on self-reporting the next time you creep over the speed limit.


Adam Voigt

Adam Voigt is the Founder & Director of Real Schools. Built upon years of experience as a successful Principal, Real Schools helps schools to build and sustain strong, relational School Cultures. A speaker of local and international renown, Adam has delivered a TED Talk and is the schools/education expert for The Project”.

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