The following blog was written for Teachers Register – the online solution to supply teaching.

Punishment is a bit of a dirty word for many teachers. There often seems to be a presumption that children are naturally good and that any attempt to control or impede their impulses is somehow akin to child abuse.

I’ve seen enough cruelty and cynicism from children to inure me against the belief that being ‘good’ and ‘kind’ is in any way natural. Children are capable of being as mean-spirited, spiteful and selfish as any adult. William Golding’s depiction in Lord of Flies of children left to their own devices to indulge their natural inclinations is a compellingly plausible account of a pattern repeated throughout history. Human beings generally pursue the course of action that leads to the most reward for the least effort. If behaving well requires less effort and produces greater rewards, they’ll behave. But if it seems easier and more socially acceptable to muck about, then they probably will. Children’s poor behaviour is a choice, and telling them otherwise just undermines their ability to get on in life.

The Romantic meta-belief that children are all little angels corrupted by the adult world is a dangerous but powerful anchor. It prevents us from seeing children as they truly are, and makes us feel that if children are not well-behaved it must somehow be our fault. If instead we saw children honestly as the complex but immature beings they are — full of soaring beauty and commonplace ugliness. To excuse children’s poor behaviour is to deny them any sense of agency, and to suggest they are incapable of exercising self-control.

Some years ago I taught a boy, let’s call him Ben, who had been diagnosed with ADHD. He behaved well in my lessons but was hell on wheels for various other teachers. In particular, his relationship with his French teacher had descended to a running feud and his attitude towards her was appalling.

Instead of holding him responsible and punishing him, the school decided to confront Ben’s outrageous shenanigans by offering him a mentor. And because I got on with him, Ben nominated me as the teacher he most wanted as his guide. After one particularly horrific low I confronted him about his behaviour:

Ben: It’s not me, sir, it’s my ADHD.

Me: But how come you don’t have ADHD in my lessons?

Ben: That’s ’cos you’re alright, sir.

Ben was exercising a choice. He chose when and where to behave and pay attention. The school’s expectation of his behaviour might have been low, but in the end he was permanently excluded after committing one atrocity too many. But, if, the expectation had been for him to jolly well do as he was told, we might have done him a far kinder service. At the very least he’d have had an early lesson about consequences and had more time to settle in to a new school.

Some schools have banned any form of punishment altogether and ‘behaviourism’ is roundly dismissed and has become a touchstone for anyone wanting to argue that children’s natural impulses should be understood rather than punished.

BF Skinner, the psychologist most closely associated with behaviourism, developed the theory of operant conditioning. Basically — if behaviour is rewarded it is more likely to be repeated and if it is sanctioned it’s less likely to be repeated. The classic carrot and stick. Skinner described both reinforcements and punishments as being either positive or negative in character. A positive reinforcement is simply the giving a reward, whereas a negative reinforcement is the removal of a constraint — maybe a student is allowed to leave a lesson early or doesn’t have to do their homework. A positive punishment is the active application of a sanction — maybe a good telling off or a simple glare. A negative punishment is the removal of a privilege: maybe a phone is confiscated or a student is detained after a lesson.

Surprisingly, despite his reputation, Skinner was against the use of punishment in schools. He believed that, even where punishments are consistently applied, they only temporarily suppresses undesirable behaviour. If you remember the scene in Kes where the smokers are caned, you’ll understand his point.

But maybe punishment is a bit more complex than Skinner believed. Tversky and Kahneman’s research into loss aversion — the asymmetry between the effects of positive reinforcement and negative punishment — show that, on the whole, most people would far rather avoid a loss than make a gain. It seems likely that this effect might also apply to the sorts of merit systems often used in schools. The threat of negative sanctions may be more motivating than the offer of positive rewards.

Further, Balliet and Van Lange’s meta analysis found that punishment appears to effectively promote cooperation in societies with high levels of trust. Members of these societies adhere to norms that encourage both cooperation and the punishment of those who defy cooperative social norms. Punishment seems a less effective deterrent in societies where social norms may be less strongly shared and enforced. The implication is that if students perceive schools as benevolent and trust that teachers have their best interests at heart the proportionate use of sanctions to support cooperative social norms is likely to be effective.

Maybe if we tried to strip punishment of its more negative connotations we might feel less squeamish about using it.

This topic is explored in more detail in Nick Rose and my new book, What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology.