Educators Need to Rethink Punishment

04/22/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

In my former career as a school counselor at an alternative high school, I worked with a 17-year old female student. She was forced to attend our alternative school after being expelled from her comprehensive high school mid-way through her junior year.

A good student with no prior disciplinary history, this student had been sexually abused by her stepfather for several years. The incident that caused her expulsion was this: she was embroiled in a conflict with another girl that escalated to a physical fight.

In the course of attempting to break up the fight, the male assistant principal accidentally grabbed the student's breast. Reacting instinctively, she punched the assistant principal, and was promptly expelled.

Had she experienced the new approach to discipline in use at a school in Walla Walla, Washington, the outcome might have been much different. This approach uses a counseling approach that seeks to understand the problem behavior rather than simply punish the offender.

This approach resulted in an 85 percent drop in suspensions in the Walla Walla high school the first year it was implemented. The principal assumed that the misbehavior came from internal struggles students contended with, and instead of berating them, he talked with them about those problems. Essentially, he used counseling techniques to help the student understand the source of the behavior and plan how to manage his or her emotions.

An influential pioneering psychologist, Alfred Adler, explained in his theory of psychotherapy that all behavior is goal-directed, including misbehavior. Determining whether the goal of misbehavior is attention, power, revenge, or a display of helplessness is a critical component of treatment.

Once that is understood, the child can learn more acceptable and effective ways to achieve those goals and the counselor or teacher can devise appropriate strategies to work with the student.

While Adlerian counselors focus on the individual, another approach considers the context of the problem behavior. Restorative justice is a relatively new approach that originated in the criminal justice system and has expanded to schools in recent years.

The basic principles are repairing the damage to relationships, making amends to those who were hurt by the behavior, reintegration, and inclusion in the community. It is a cooperative process involving everyone affected by the crime or misbehavior.

Another helpful approach used for very young children whose behavior is harmful to others is to employ early childhood mental health consultants to help teachers work with these children so that they can remain in the classroom and learn to change their behavior. These mental health interventions have been found to have excellent results.

It would seem prudent for schools to learn about and consider implementing restorative justice and early childhood mental health consultants in their institutions. And counseling can only make a difference if there are enough counselors provide needed services, rather than just triage.

This is needed as the use of exclusionary disciplinary practices (suspension and expulsion) has increased dramatically over time.

Expulsions of pre-school children are triplethe rate for students in grades K-12. These children are typically three and four years old. Black boys received a disproportionate share of these disciplinary actions.

National data from 2007 indicated that about 22 percent of children in grades 6-12 had been suspended, and 3 percent had been expelled. Here too, suspensions and expulsions are more likely to be meted out to students with disabilities and other under-represented minorities.

Research has consistently found that these students are more likely to drop-out and have reduced chances for meaningful employment. They are also more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system -- and to be incarcerated as adults. This phenomenon has been dubbed the school to prison pipeline.

Why might suspension and expulsion not be the best strategy to address the problem?

The excluded child loses the opportunity for positive socialization. One cannot learn from positive role models if there are none present, and children cannot learn how to manage their behavior in school if they are not there.

The punished child learns what not to do, but does not receive counseling or coaching on alternative, appropriate behaviors that might make a real difference. And what many learn not to do is get caught.

So they become more secretive about the behavior or more adept at hiding.

Importantly, the punished child may have unidentified mental health needs, which are not likely to be addressed as part of the punishment.

And the context or situation in which the punished behavior occurred is rarely taken into account. It may be that understanding (and perhaps changing) the context of the behavior might result in elimination of the problematic actions.

Rather than feeling remorse for the actions that led to the punishment, many children become angry and resentful at the school or teacher or classmates they believe are responsible for their punishment and may seek to retaliate -- which is in no one's best interest.

Many believe punishing misbehavior deters others, and teaches the offender a lesson. But the data show otherwise.

Our reliance on punishment is just not working.