When I was a student I was given a lot of detentions. After some particularly appalling behaviour on a French exchange trip I was given two months of 1 hour after school detentions. This was a big deal as I lived about 15 miles away from my school and needed to get two buses home. Because I wasn’t able to catch the school bus, I had to walk to the nearest train station, wait for the hourly train shuttle to a larger town and then get my bus to within walking distance of my home. What began as a 1 hour detention usually ended up taking over 3 hours. You’d think this would serve as an effective deterrent, but, being a very immature teenager with poor impulse control and an inability to think through consequences, it wasn’t.
Or at least, not for me. But if we’re going to consider whether detentions work, we need to think about who they work for. As a teacher, my instinct was always that in the right circumstances the vast majority of students behave well. A very few behave well in the most adverse circumstances and another small group misbehave even in the calmest and well-ordered environments. But, the majority will behave well in the right circumstances and are equally likely to behave poorly in the wrong ones.
So, here’s the thing: detentions only work for those kids who go with the flow. It would be obviously wrong to punish children who always behave well (see my thoughts on collective punishment here) and children, like me, who always seem to do the wrong thing are unlikely to be persuaded by consequences they routinely fail to see coming, but for those who can be influenced, detention, as part of a whole school system, can be very effective.
One of the effects of my 2 month period of detention was that a lot of the kids who were prone to go along with my silliness were very keen to avoid joining me after school. It could be argued that even though detention didn’t make much difference to my behaviour, it made a lot of difference to theirs. Not only did detention at my school have a huge impact on the length of my day, they were also designed to be unpleasant. I was given jobs like scrubbing out the PE showers with a toothbrush and, if I was spotted loafing, I’d be sent on a lap of the playing fields.
Things have changed for the better. These days the worst that’s likely to happen to an errant student is that they’ll be asked to sit in silence and get on with school work. Whether or not this changes their behaviour, it at least sends the signal that school work is important. But it’s more likely that a teacher will use a detention as an opportunity to have some sort of restorative conversation, to try to get to the bottom of why the students has done wrong and to put in place a plan to prevent further misdemeanours. This is probably always worth trying, but, I think rightly, no one wasted time talking to me about what I’d done wrong. I never had a clue why I chose to misbehave and the best I could have done was to confabulate an excuse. I would often say to myself, why the hell did you do that? Answer came there none.
In summary, detentions work some times for some students. They definitely don’t solve the problems of the most persistent offenders, but they do signal to those members of the student body who are able to weigh up risk and reward that there are sanctions in place, that poor behaviour will be met with predictable, proportional and fair consequences. This conclusion is certainly supported by research in social and cultural norms. (See here.) The key, as with all aspects of behaviour management, is certainty not severity of consequences.