The trouble with detention in schools
Updated: Mar 24
For decades detention has been the go-to disciplinary measure to correct children when they misbehave in schools. But does detention really work? What does it really represent if you dig a little bit deeper, and are there alternatives?
Firstly, I want to say that I am writing this while fully acknowledging how hard it is for teachers, educators and school administrators worldwide to maintain order in education establishments that can have as many as thousands of students. I am not pretending to know everything, I am also not pretending to teach the pedagogues their job.
However, I am here to shake up the system a little bit on a topic that I feel strongly about in the hopes of changing minds while aiming to improve children’s sense of self-esteem, and ultimately, their behaviour. As a conscious parenting coach, it’s my job to do so.
What motivated me to write this particular blog post today is my 12-year-old son. Last week he was given not one, but two detentions (not great for my marketing campaign as a parenting coach, I know!).
His first detention (1 hour on a Wednesday afternoon) was given because he opened his Sharpie pen and sprayed the ink on a locker, another student then used the broken pen to draw on the lockers.
His second detention (3 hours on a Saturday morning) was given because he actually sawed the back of his plastic chair with the elastic band of his disposable face mask. You read this correctly, he sawed his chair, with a piece of mask! In case you were not familiar with it, this actually is a trend that started on TikTok and went viral.
So what is detention?
Detention is a form of punishment. Nothing more, nothing less.
And punishments are rooted first in a hierarchical model, where one group (the school) gets to exert power over another group (the student) in the hope of improving behaviour.
Punishments are also rooted in the erroneous belief that in order for one to behave better, one must first feel bad. This widespread belief is outdated and unfounded. In fact, studies and experience have shown over and over that the worse a person feels about themselves, the more likely they are to act up and behave badly. And this is particularly true for young children, unless you take the control to the degree of instilling fear, in which case the behaviour may improve but at the expense of the child's emotional well-being.
What does detention consist of?
Detention is essentially a set time, in a classroom, where we send kids who make mistakes. Whatever they did, they will be assigned to a number of hours in that classroom. But does it make sense that all errors made by students be treated the same? Every error is different, every “bad behaviour” has a distinctive reason, does it not make sense then, that consequences be individualized to teach the child the skills they need to not repeat these mistakes?
How can this simplistic approach of being locked up in a classroom, under the overseeing eyes of a bored supervisor actually teach the child anything?
This teaches children absolutely nothing. In fact, it usually only increases the child’s resentment toward the school and makes them feel even more isolated and misunderstood (and who in this world feels more misunderstood than a teenager anyway?).
Every behaviour is communication
We need to take a step back to understand that with children, even teenagers, every behaviour is communication. So even in the example of my son who used his sharpie on a locker there was communication, or a need, expressed. It could have been impressing other students, expressing boredom at school or even rebelling against a school that is still very controlling over its students, and this was a way to express his own need for control.
That is not to say that this way of communication is acceptable from a 12-year old, but taking a bit of time to acknowledge that and addressing it can go a long way towards making sure that the kid will not do it again. If the child is in fact expressing a need to control in the context of an overly suffocating authority, detention will only make matters worse.
What children need is to learn to take responsibility for their actions.
And the truth is, if we just open up our minds and change our perspective on their misbehaviours, we would see two very important things:
We would gain insight into why the child is behaving this way.
We would see the opportunity for learning and growth which only comes from making, and then repairing mistakes.
Using my son’s situation as an example, in both cases, the school threw the detention card as a punishment and the threat of going into his permanent record and potentially kicking him out of school at the end of the year.
All I see here is:
Teaching is nowhere to be found in this response.
Here is what I would have preferred to see from the school:
Situation 1 (the stained locker): My child should have been held responsible for the mistake he made, and he should have been asked to come to school with cleaning products to clean his mess on the lockers. What happened instead was that the cleaning was actually done by the janitor (why should he have to clean after our kids?) and my son was given 1-hour of detention. I feel this breeds a sense of entitlement and not of responsibility.
Situation 2 (the sawed chair): My son should have been asked to show up at school with the right kind of glue or resin and a plan for repairing his chair.
The why behind the behaviour
The thing is kids do a lot of really silly things. They do it without thinking clearly, without necessarily having any real bad intention. It doesn’t make it ok, and it doesn’t mean we leave this unaddressed, but approaching it with curiosity can help us understand why they behave this way and actually guide them towards proper repair.
My son was truly fascinated by how he could cut through a thick plastic chair with a flimsy elastic from a face mask that tends to break off his face at the slightest pull! Frankly I was so curious I googled it myself and watched the videos on YouTube in disbelief. Being 42 years old and not 12 I know better than to actually try it on a piece of furniture. My point is the kid did something silly (to say the least) but he didn’t do it with bad intention.
What we need to do is understand the curiosity behind his behaviour and instead of making him feel bad for it, teach him to fix it! He has an opportunity to learn to be resourceful: Google how to repair the chair, pick the right product to fix it, use his allowance to pay for it and actually learn a lesson! This way, the child feels empowered; he repaired his mistake, and the school has a usable chair.
But instead, he got 3 hours of detention. That’s 3 hours spent answering written questions about how to behave better and witnessing kids sneaking into the bathroom to play Clash Royale on their phones, once more pushing the envelope and defying authority in any way they could (because once again, control doesn’t work!). Not only this, the majority of kids in detention are regulars, proving that the system isn’t working, the students are simply not “learning their lesson” and the gap between the school administration and these spirited kids is only growing.
School leaders should really look deeper into what these punishments they are handing out to students really communicate. Children want to feel heard; they want to feel understood; they want to feel respected.
The examples used here with my son are really straightforward because they involve him physically repairing the damage he caused. But with an open mind we can find solutions for all sorts of other behaviour problems.
Workshops instead of traditional detention
Imagine circles of students and a really engaged leader who can help kids communicate what is going on and discuss options for expressing themselves in better ways. Finding means to really connect to the kids and make them feel valued.
And let’s not forget positive reinforcement! In the same week that my son got detention twice, he found a $10 bill at school and rather than keeping it to himself, he gave it to the school secretary. A gesture that he should be proud of but that was completely overlooked by the school while they were too busy focusing on negative behaviour and punishing him.
Let’s drop the idea that forced isolation does any good to any human being. It teaches nothing and only grows resentment. We all know that our prison system unless accompanied by meaningful rehabilitation only leads to more recidivism. Detention is simply the school version of this broken prison system.