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Punishment or Positive Reinforcement: Which One Works?

Punishment or Positive Reinforcement: Which One Works?

Dr. Rebecca Bell

“Penny Pingleton, you know you are punished. From now on you’re wearing a giant P on your blouse EVERY DAY to school so that the whole world knows that Penny Pingleton is permanently, positively, punished!

Well that’s a bit harsh, don’t you think? Well this is clearly something that only happens in Full Feature Film Turned Tony Award Winning Musicals Turned Full Feature Film.


Sorry, there were photos here, but they had to go for privacy reasons. They were hideous, trust me. They were of a student’s desk, which the teacher had covered with shameful sayings about the child’s lack of self-control and how it was the child’s fault for everything.

Now I’ll be the first to warn my dear readers that I am not one for posting anything in the genre of “Lets Blame the Teacher for Educational Problems!” Most teachers I encounter are surprisingly positive given the fact that teaching pays $1 and teachers are bearing the brunt of the blame for public education under the No Child Left Behind law. I realize that there are millions of desks across the nation that do not have the proverbial “Scarlet P” on them.

But, I do feel compelled to discuss a phenomenon that does occur frequently in our schools, and that is punishment.

As many of you know, I’m a big fan of positive reinforcement. There are times though, that teachers must implement the rules and positive reinforcement is not sufficient: “Johnny, I like the way you only brandished the scissors and didn’t actually stab me. Good job!” “Judy, thank you for only calling me a b…. and not a f….ing b….”

There are times when punishment is appropriate. I prefer to call it “discipline” because the latin root of discipline is “discere” which means “to learn.” In a sense, the punishment should be a learning opportunity. The learning experience should fit the “crime.” If a kid tags your desk with graffiti, they get to clean it off. If they threatened another student, they must go through some sort of corrective learning experience. The main problem with punishment and blame is that teachers rapidly run out of consequences for actions. To illustrate, here’s an interaction I saw daily at Haides Middle School.

Teacher: Sit down.

Student: No!

Teacher: Please, just sit down.

Student: No!

Teacher: If you don’t sit down, I’m going to call the office.

Student: I don’t care.

Teacher: You will get detention then.

Student: Fine, whatever.

Teacher: Well maybe you’d care if I called your mom!

Student: F… You!

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