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Geoff Johnson: Punishment does little for problem kids

A big, strong boy for his age by Grade 6, Leonard was given to unpredictable fits of rage in the middle of a lesson.

A big, strong boy for his age by Grade 6, Leonard was given to unpredictable fits of rage in the middle of a lesson.

Fortunately in those days, the frequent and relatively informal meetings between me, the area social worker, the local pediatrician and even the local police constable were not so fettered by bureaucratically devised protocols as they are today.

What I did not know about why these kids were the way they were, another professional did.

I learned, for example, that Leonard’s dad was a seaman who had done time for attempted murder, a very violent man. When he burst in the door, home from a voyage, the second thing he would do, as the social worker delicately put it, was to “take off his hat.”

Leonard knew that he needed to quickly get out of the apartment to leave dad alone with mom for the rest of the evening. He often spent the night wandering the streets, doing the occasional break-and-entry and sleeping where he could.

Darren, another student, one with an angelic outward appearance, would sometimes not show up at school. Phoning his home I learned, was a fool’s errand. I would phone Constable Bob instead.

“Do you guys have Darren?”

“Yes, Geoff, we do.”

“What did he do?”

“Last night, he broke into an apartment and stole three bars of gold bullion hidden in a suitcase under a bed.”

Many more questions than answers there.

Then there was 12-year-old Lacey, who, according to the social worker, was more than likely working the streets when other kids were home watching TV.

Too old way before their time and too wise in the ways of the world, there was no way these kids would respond to the usual teacher expectations about student behaviour in class or “consequence-based” methods of modifying unacceptable behaviour.

Traditional assumptions, based on B.F. Skinner’s reward/punishment systems of modifying behaviour or Ivan Pavlov’s conditioning techniques, might have worked for dogs and white rats in mazes. But they didn’t work for kids for whom life was a day-to-day maze of bizarre and sometimes dangerous adult behaviour when they were not inside the relative calm and safety of the school.

Fortunately, the experienced teachers at that school understood all that and patiently worked with Leonard, Darren, Lacey and many others like them in a way that is only now gaining general acceptance as an approach to working with troubled kids.

Psychologist Ross Greene, who has taught at Harvard and Virginia Tech and has written two widely read books, The Explosive Child and Lost at School, explains that these kids “are habituated to punishment.”

Under Greene’s philosophy, punishing a child for yelling in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly is self-defeating. Talking with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst, then brainstorming alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way is more likely to get to the root of the problem.

What does not work, says Greene, is disciplining a kid for the way his or her brain is wired or for things that have happened to him or her over the previous 24 hours.

Russell Skiba, a psychology professor and director of the Equity Project at Indiana University, also advocates an approach that focuses on problem-solving instead of punishment. His research is now seen as leading to successful behavioural changes.

Back in my principal’s office, Leonard and I met with his teacher and agreed that when Leonard felt an anger episode coming on, he would get up, give his teacher a pre-arranged signal and come to my office.

Instead of being out of control and subject to somebody else’s expectations, Leonard was now gaining at least the beginnings of control. At the age of 12, he was, in the term used by Greene, Skiba and Canadian Stuart G. Shanker, distinguished research professor of philosophy and psychology at Ontario’s York University, beginning to self-regulate.

“Could I go outside and walk around the school?” he’d ask.

“Promise to come straight back?”

“Yes, I will.”

And he always did.

Imagine, at 12 years old, when he had learned to mistrust the adults upon whom he was most dependent, how it felt for Leonard to be trusted just to walk around the school unsupervised and come back to class all by himself.

Big steps forward that likely never would have been accomplished through “crime and punishment,” which would have only sparked more anger.


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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