By Peggy Barrette, IIRP instructor and retired principal
Punishment, according to a quick search, is defined as “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.” (source, retrieved March 3, 2021). The words associated that appear with this search are penalizing, punishing, disciplining, retribution, damnation, and chastising – YIKES!
I have always been uncomfortable with this idea of “punishment” – a feeling that was amplified when I began working in education.
When I was a student in school, my crude understanding of punishment was that the imposed act was to be so uncomfortable (and yes sometimes even physically painful) to ensure it was a deterrent for that “punishable” behaviour. For example, while in an early primary grade, I recall being sat in the corner, on a stool, facing the wall, because I constantly spoke out of turn at carpet time. Did it work? Maybe for a short time, but this extrovert had difficulty refraining from blurting out answers throughout her school career. Did that punishment result in a change or an understanding of the behaviour? No. What it did do was create resentment toward the punishers, my teachers – why could they not just “get” me?
Examples of traditional punishments that were practiced during my time as a student include: writing lines, copying the dictionary, missing recess, standing in the corner (either indoors or outdoors), missing a field trip, being chastised in front of the class … The problem with these types of punishment is threefold. Firstly, they were in no way connected to the problematic behaviour and therefore no new behaviour learning occurred. Secondly, the response to these punishments was strategizing about not getting caught to avoid “painful” punishment again. And thirdly, these types of punishments often harm the relationship between the punished and punisher.
When I was introduced to restorative practices some thirteen years ago, the thing that impressed me the most was the way that an incident was resolved. As a new administrator, I had spent some time thinking about the desired outcome of an incident investigation – which was to ensure that the behaviour in question wasn’t repeated – and doling out “punishments” was not working. If a consequence was going to be successful in changing behaviour, then the person who was responsible for that behaviour needed to be involved.
And that is the beauty of restorative practices. It meets the needs of the person responsible for the harm, in several ways. Leading the person responsible for a harm through a series of open-ended questions, it creates a safe space for that person to tell his/her story, to think about the impact of his/her actions on others, to accept responsibility and to form a plan to “fix” it (consequence). Additionally, when the deed (incident) is separated from the doer (person responsible for the harm), the doer is often in a better space to do this work.
The following is an example that I share when training. Two students of late primary age were sent to my office for fighting on the yards during recess, again. Time was spent with each student separately, working through the open-ended restorative questions. It was clear through this process that both students wanted to “fix” the situation. The students were brought together and led through the same questions a second time. They were then given time to think about what needed to happen to make things right. Lo and behold, this is what they came up with: The students thought that the root of their conflict was, in part, because they did not know each other. They asked if they could spend the next 4 recesses together, in my office, playing chess (there was an upcoming school chess tournament) to get to know each other. I agreed. Does this count as a consequence? Some would say (and indeed said) no way. However, for the rest of my time in that school, I did not see those two students in my office for that repeat behaviour. In my opinion, the “consequence” did what it was supposed to – deter a behaviour. The consequence was connected to the incident and was fashioned with the two students involved. It met their needs. And that is powerful….