Newsflash: Punishment Doesn’t Change Student Behavior


I’m a new teacher, and while reading my first batch of research papers, I’m struck by one student (let’s call her Jane) who uses unusually high-register prose and analysis.

I copy a few of Jane’s sentences into a Google search, hoping nothing suspicious will appear. Unfortunately, I’m directed to a word-for-word match from a Wikipedia article on America’s Revolutionary War. The next day, I confront Jane after class and ask her to come clean. Contrary to all logic, as well as incriminating evidence against her, she professes her innocence.

Jane goes before the dean, and eventually the honor council. She receives an “F” on the assignment, and she’s also placed on academic probation for whatever remains of the semester.

For a short while, Jane shows renewed determination. But before too long, I hear word that she’s involved in another cheating incident—this time on a science lab.

It’s seven years later, and it takes Alan E. Kazdin, the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University, to make me rethink whether punishment is an effective deterrent.

“When it comes to parenting, the first thing to bear in mind is that most of us rely too heavily on consequences—punishments, especially, but also rewards—when trying to change a child’s behavior or mindset,” writes Kazdin in his brilliant and accessible new book, The Everyday Parenting Toolkit: The Kadzin Method for Easy, Step-by-Step Lasting Change for You and Your Child.

I recently spoke with Kazdin, who also serves as director of the Yale Parenting Center, to learn about behavior modification. It’s not long before I realize that even though Kazdin writes about small children, his reasoning holds as much water for teens or adults.

In fact, his work should be required reading for teachers, coaches, administrators, and disciplinarians. He tells me that there exists a natural tendency to react to the negative, all in an effort to stop a certain behavior in its immediacy.

“You scream at your child, you reprimand your child, you hit your child, you shake your child—whatever you do to punish, leads to an instantaneous stopping of that behavior,” says Kazdin. “Whatever it is, they just stop. What the research shows, is that after that stops, it doesn’t change the rate of that behavior for the week, for the month, for the year. It has no really enduring effect beyond that moment.”

I still think it’s critically important to hold students responsible for their misdeeds and to penalize accordingly—especially to maintain a sense of academic fairness. I am far less certain, however, that any consequences deemed appropriate by deans or honor councils have a lasting impact on changing offenders’ behavior. I think of Jane, my former history student. Even after facing disciplinary action, she continued to demonstrate academic dishonesty.

It’s foolish to think that punishment will ever induce enduring change in one’s behavior. As Kazdin shows in his book, there exists a much more effective way to help not just children, but students of all ages to embrace genuine transformations.

As one example, Kazdin and I chat about antecedents and challenges—especially with respect to encouraging kids to try new things.

You say, “You’re a little too young to brush. Actually, I bet you can’t brush your teeth because you’re so young.” What the child does then is he smiles and says, “I can brush my teeth. I can…” “No, no, you don’t have to. Wait until you’re bigger. When you’re bigger child, when you’re bigger, a little more grownup, you’ll be able to.” “No, no, I can do it. I can do it.” “OK, let’s just try it once, but I don’t think so.”

I also coach cross country, and Kazdin’s example reminds me of how I sometimes use negative suggestions to empower my runners. Three years ago, I told a talented athlete, Luis Asensio, that he wasn’t developed enough to sustain a 5:40 per mile pace. Of course, we both knew that this wasn’t the case. I had every confidence in him. But all the same, he needed an edge to prove to me that I was wrong, that he could indeed compete with the best.

Guess what? It worked. He finished at States with an impressive 5k time of 17:30.

I’m also reminded of Jane, my former history student. Certainly, she committed a serious offense, but I wonder if I’m also to blame, at least partially, for not offering a clearer antecedent. Prior to the paper’s due date, I should have explained what constitutes plagiarism, as well as encouraged students to avoid it. Instead, I falsely assumed that Jane’s behavior would change after the fact, and that immediate consequences would definitely set her straight. Put simply, I thought that she would get the message.

But as Kazdin tells me, getting messages does not change behavior. “There are a bunch of myths. One of these is the teaching moment—it’s a myth. Three strikes and you’re out—the effectiveness is a myth. All these things don’t change behavior. I wish they did. I would love it if they did,” Kazdin says.

Teachers can learn plenty more from Kazdin, including how modeling and pointing out effective behavior has a positive impact on others.

“Parents have this very effective tool that they’re not using as well as they could, and that is modeling,” Kazdin says. “We know that when you model things, it changes the child’s brain. . . . It’s a very powerful tool parents have, and they kind of carry a hammer around not realizing it’s a hammer.”

This psychology is supported by “massive research,” Kazdin says, and I can’t help but wonder if enough schools are trying to adapt this scientifically proven way of instilling real, deep change in student behavior.

This academic year, I aim to make a more concerted effort to highlight effective student work. If a student composes an especially strong essay, I hope that my sharing it will motivate others to reach similar mastery—and encourage more students to seek my help.

Of course, it’s important to realize that behavior modification takes time. It’s impractical to think that one’s mindset will change overnight. As educators, we should rethink how disciplinary action helps students learn and become better people.

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

1 Comment

  • Reply December 3, 2016

    Rewarding Students…

    […] reason I share these are two-fold. First, research has shown that punishing students is not the best way to change behavior.  Second, as a building we recognized that students who are well-behaved and do the right things […]

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