Discipline and punishment are not the same thing

4 April 2018

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

In 1998, Tom Herner, an academic working in the area of supporting students with challenging behaviours, wrote this: “If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach; if a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach; but if a child doesn’t know how to behave, we punish.”

It’s no secret that the industrial model of schooling was built on ensuring students comply. Over the decades, we’ve used all sorts of ‘carrot and stick’ approaches. It was only around 25 years ago that corporal punishment was banned. Fortunately, those days are gone but dealing with difficult behaviours in schools remains very challenging.

Many schools overseas and in Australia are using an evidence-based strategy called Positive Behaviour Support (PBS). Developed by teachers, it is a common sense rather than a carrot and stick approach to teaching young people about what is appropriate behaviour. Under this framework, discipline becomes more than just punishing the young person – it means working closely with the young person and teaching them appropriate strategies when they feel unable to manage their own behaviour.

The first step is to understand what is driving the behaviour. For example, if a child is disrupting a maths lesson, is it because the work is beyond their level of ability or is it because they are seeking adult attention, or something else? Once the teacher observes the behaviours, understands the drivers and gets feedback from the student, they will have a better chance of intervening in a way that is more useful and effective to the student than detention and demerits.

One of the key elements of PBS is that the teacher is looking at maximising the chance of students doing the right thing by making changes to the environment, modelling positive behaviour and using feedback to guide effective interventions. This is not about ignoring consequences and rewarding everything. It is about teaching students about the consequences of their poor behaviour and re-teaching more positive behaviour.

PBS is not a quick-fix but schools that have adopted the framework are seeing incredible results not just in behavioural outcomes but also with student learning. We know the thing that teachers do best is teach. Managing student behaviour more effectively means adopting the same level of rigour and understanding that is applied to improving student learning.

Greg Whitby AM

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta


Greg Whitby is the Executive Director of Schools - Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta
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