"Positive Reinforcement Versus Punishment in Schools"
Written by: Ashley Johansen
Imagine you're back in a classroom, eight years old. A student near you does something that you know he shouldn't be doing; throwing a paper airplane, or making silly noises to make the other students laugh. When the teacher catches him, what happens? If it's his first offense, he probably gets scolded and nothing more. But after multiple disruptions, the whole class knows that the student is going to be sent outside to sit in the hall, or, if the student's actions are really terrible, to the principal's office for suspension.
This scene is familiar to most of us. If you were a goody-two-shoes like me, you might have been irritated by Disruptive Kid and been grateful to see him go. But is punishment really the best way to deal with challenging students?
The battle between positive reinforcement advocates and punishment advocates is relatively old, but the argument gets even more interesting when applied to older kids, like high school, or even university students. Punishment is dealt more quickly and severely for bad behavior in higher education, but positive reinforcement is practically non-existent. As small children, we were taught to expect a gold star, or even a special treat when we performed well in school. Why does this same principle not apply to older students? People wonder why students who were so talented in elementary school seem to sink when they reach high school and college, but the answer seems relatively obvious. In elementary school, kids are immersed in a culture of positive reinforcement and minimal punishment, but high school forces them into the complete opposite environment, and students are expected to instantly adjust.
Some people attribute this problem to the fact that tenured teachers are older and won't change their ways, and some still hold to the old "spare the rod, spoil the child" mentality. Whether or not this is true, many teachers and administrators claim they simply don't have the time or the patience to focus on rewarding good behavior. Unfortunately for them, that excuse is no longer valid. Some studies* have shown that reinforcing positive behavior works, even if you don't reward EVERY good behavior, whereas punishment only proves successful when you punish EVERY bad behavior. So positive reinforcement would actually take less time.
On the other hand, punishment seems to be the only way to get through to some students. How can a teacher possibly cater to every child's individual needs, especially with the size of a classroom growing as quickly as it is. Maybe punishment is the best way to deal with a larger group rather than each individual.
What do you think? In your own experience, which has been more effective, punishment or positive reinforcement? Should teachers try to cater more to individuals, and if not, which side is more conducive to a healthy learning environment for the majority?