Famously, the behavioural psychologist Ivan Pavlov highlighted the importance of punishment in shaping behaviour. In it’s simplest form, whether it be removal of a reward or implementation of a sanction, punishment is often issued in order to discourage a negative behaviour from happening again or being repeated.
While in the short term, punishment seems to have an impact in stopping undesirable behaviour, research has outlined that the long-term effects of punishment are poor. Unwittingly, punishment is in fact driving our young people out of school.
The reason as to why punishment is forcing young people out of school and damaging their future prospects is very clear; this was the argument forwarded by the Educational psychologists whom I worked for during my recent university placement. Crucially, the young people who end up dropping out of school, end up suspended or end up being excluded are young people who lack the “Soft Skills” which are needed in order to thrive in school. Soft skills are emotional and social skills that are fundamental to a person being able to effectively interact, manage their behaviour, make good choices, deal with challenges, communicate and negotiate successfully. These skills must be nurtured through the adoption of an empathetic approach. All too often, however, an empathetic approach is not employed.
Instead of empathy, punishment is employed due to some teachers perceiving the child as being ‘inherently broken’ or ‘disaffected’. Research has outlined that this belief that (‘the child is broken’) drives an over reliance on punishment. Punishment is a crippling device, as it primarily places blame on the chid for their social and emotional deficiencies. It is essential that teachers are able to effectively listen to young people and communicate in a way which builds rapport, trust, empathy and motivates engagement.
Young people often assert the view that punishment makes them feel ‘disliked’. For a child to be born into a damaging environment which does not promote good social and emotional skills and for that same child to then go to school and be punished for their absence of emotional and social intelligence, is it any wonder that these children feel inadequate and disliked?
In 2018/19, 438,265 young people were handed fixed period exclusions. By excluding young people, we are detaching them from our systems when our focus should really be on strategies for increasing engagement with our systems.
For the child to feel valued, teacher’s must be able to communicate effectively and with a great degree of empathy. It is presumed that teachers can offer this, however in research carried out by Rosemary Sage at Leicester university, it was found that of the sample- one half of teachers and three quarters of support staff expressed that they did not feel confident communicating with young people and they particularly disliked interactive learning. These findings matched those of the educational psychologists whom I worked with during my placement, a concern of theirs is that some teachers lack the necessary skills for effective communication.
To solve the issues, it is essential that there is a paradigm shift away from discipline in our schools. The view of Dr Richard Majors, an award-winning author and counselling psychologist, is that we as teachers must improve our emotional literacy skills if we are to help young people achieve optimal outcomes. There has been a presumption made that the focus should be placed upon the emotional literacy of the young person, the emotional literacy of teachers has often been overlooked.
Teachers need to be emotionally literate in order to understand the behaviour of their students; being emotionally literate will mean that teachers can effectively diffuse and tackle issues that arise in the classroom, without making use of over-punishment. Communication and positive relationships will help to drive the behaviour.
Emotional literacy is a tool which involves growing an understanding as to how emotions shape actions. According to Maurer & Bracket, someone who is emotionally literate is able to “understand, interpret and manage their own behaviours, as well as the behaviours of others”. Having such an insight means that a teacher is better able to draw alongside a young person and turn negative experiences or energy into a profoundly positive step forward. Emotional literacy helps teachers know what to say, when to say it and how to say it in order to diffuse and motivate behaviour. In being emotionally literate, a teacher is able to anticipate how certain stressors may affect a child and thus should be able to adapt their approach in order to avoid unnecessary conflict. This skill helps teachers communicate more effectively, engage young people who are at “risk” and build better relationships. This should reduce the need for punishment, decrease behavioural issues and raise academic achievement.
It is often the case that teachers turn to punishment through their tendency to personalise conflicts in the classroom. It is commonplace for teachers to go into an offense or defence mindset when they believe that an outburst has been aimed at them and that the child’s behaviour is an attempt to simply provoke them personally. However, this is not usually the case. Behind every behaviour is often an emotional catalyst. It is important that teachers are able to be introspective and look at the part which they may have played in escalating a conflict.
In terms of the teacher being able to depersonalise when a provocation arises, it is essential that the teacher is able to ‘forgive’. Dr Majors was one of the first to introduce “Forgiveness” as a key area of emotional literacy. Forgiveness is one of the key competencies which an emotionally literate individual should be able to convey. One day we end up losing our temper and shouting at a young person, we lose control. After a period, we would expect that an emotionally literate person would be comfortable to say something like “Your behaviour was not appropriate earlier, but neither was mine. I am sorry that I lost control and shouted at you. How can we both now move forward? In being able to do this, the teacher is showing respect to the child and is partnering with them to resolve the conflict; this is a good example of how emotional intelligence helps to mediate issues for both parties. Furthermore, with a greater focus on forgiveness it is much less likely that the teacher will adopt a punishment mindset. Through emotional literacy, a profoundly negative situation is being turned into a positive step forward. Instead of the child feeling that the teacher is trying to get ‘one up on them’, it is demonstrated to the child that we all ‘fall short’ and we can all ‘do better’.
“Forgiveness” is just one of the competencies which Dr Majors highlights as being essential for developing emotional literacy. His award-winning ‘Teacher Empathy Curriculum’ is a programme which builds emotional literacy, by guiding teachers through nine competency areas including “Forgiveness, enthusiasm, compassion and many more”. For teachers to earn course continuous professional development credits, teachers are required to go into the classroom and use strategies which they have developed on the course and put them into practice, in order to satisfy each competency area.
The programme makes use of a 150 page toolkit which highlights all the competencies, assessment tools, exercises, case studies, strategies, suggested approaches and techniques to build positive relationships between teachers and students. The programme also makes use of The Emotional Literacy Reflective Interactive Tool (a software package) which facilitates reflection of classroom crisis events, via a series of prompted questions. This tool takes into consideration a range of factors to help identify, analyse, better understand and interpret the teachers and their student’s behaviours. The programme also makes use of a Teacher Emotional Literacy Scale, which plots the teacher’s unique communicative style/interactive profile- the tool assumes that some styles are more effective than others for engaging and motivating students.
Dr Majors’ programme also focuses on the importance of cultural competence and emotional wellness to ensure that we are optimising our effectiveness in the classroom. Cultural competence is essential in ensuring that we are able to understand how some individuals may emotionally process and respond in unique ways due to their attitudes, traditions, customs, history, language, beliefs and experiences. Emotional wellness regards the ‘macro structures’, systems and/or policies which improve emotional wellbeing for young people. Dr Majors believes that in order for Emotional literacy to have an optimal impact on young people, cultural competence and emotional wellness must be integrated into social and emotional training.
We must shift our focus from discipline and ‘punitive strategies’ to greater social and emotional provisions because in the long-term punishment does not work, as study after study demonstrate.
As I said earlier, our focus must shift. As a young person, who has in recent years finished full time education, and as someone who has seen friends turn to misbehaviour as their circumstances have left them confused, frustrated and bewildered- I understand the divisive force which punishment can be. I know that I have found myself saying “if only the teacher knew what he/she was going through”, and I know that there have been pinnacle moments in my period of education where a moment of sincere empathy could have changed a child’s trajectory drastically. If we are to reduce exclusions, decrease behavioural issues and secure better outcomes for our young people we will need to engage with emotional literacy for not only the child but also for teachers. We must look to make social and emotional training a priority within our education system.
By Sam Gallagher