A critical evaluation of the role of punishment in the classroom

Essay, 2000

5 Pages, Grade: 3

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Essay: Critically evaluate the role of punishment in the classroom.


Punishment still plays a role in today's schools all over the world. As we see in an example of an Israeli school, there are very hard methods of punishment. But on the other hand you can find such a useful methods as early intervention as is shown with an example how to prevent pupils from marijuana use. But the quality of the school lessons and behoviour of teachers plays another important role.. Stress in classrooms can be minimized through smaller classes, higher qualification of the teachers and use of better and more interesting learning material like school books. If we take a closer look at a developmental theory, for example the theory of the Russian psychologist Galperin, we see that punishment is wrong because it interrupts the process of harmonious learning. Especially when you take a closer look at how children learn to read, you can understand why punishment for deficits in learning is wrong. It is sad that punishment still plays a role in the classrooms though there are other more human methods of decreasing misbehaviour. The teacher is no judge who is allowed to punish children for misbehaviour. According to the law it is forbidden to beat the children as a teacher. The code of law of a country is the basis for the whole society - outside and inside of schools.


The behaviour of teachers plays a central role in the classroom. On the one hand you can have dominant teacher behaviour, you can also call it autocratic behaviour. It consists of reproof, warning, threatening, punishment and strong rebuke.

On the other hand you can find the features of a social integrative behaviour of teachers: approval of spontaneous activity of the children, help for the children for the formulation of thoughts and problems ( Tausch/ Tausch 1998. Erziehungspsychologie).

The pupils play the other central roles. They can learn or refuse to learn. They can exhibit appropriate or inappropriate behaviour. The teacher has different methods to make the pupils learn and behave adequately. There are different methods of reprimanding pupils, such as extinction, that is the systematic ignoring of misbehaviour, time-out, punishment, satiation and reinforcement of incompatible behaviours ( Walker/ Shea 1988, pp.129-156 ). To avoid too severe methods of decreasing misbehaviour, the extreme being corporal punishment: The teacher can exert control, commanding appropriate behaviour of the pupils. He can use early interventions, an example for this is given later in this essay, furthermore prompts, modelling, physical guidance, fading, chaining and shaping. A kind of shaping is desensitisation ( Alberto/ Troutman 1995, pp. 257-291 ). So we can see there are a lot of methods to influence the pupil’s behaviour besides that extreme punishment.

But punishment is on the agenda of nearly every school all over the world. You only have to ask pupils if they have ever eyewitnessed punishment. I want to give different examples for the hypothesis that punishment is wrong. Through the examples the sensefullness of punishment is put into doubt.

Main part:

The reasoning of punishment is lead ad absurdum when we take a closer look at a well-known learning theory: the theory of the development of mental acts, according to the Russian psychologist P.J.Galperin ( Cole/ Maltzman 1969 ). This theory says that there is a connection between the outer live activity and the interior psychological activity. A human being is determined by his environment. Galperin differentiates his theory into task orientation and the level at which a mental act is fulfilled. During this so-called task orientation, you make clear what the aims of your action are. You try to work out what the ways for reaching your aims are. You analyse the reality or the field you are devoted to. The basis for your task orientation can be a sheet of paper where you put information on or an abacus or even your fingers when you learn to count. The better your task orientation is, the better the results of the later learning process.

On the other hand you have got the fulfilment level, the level at which a mental act is fulfilled: Here the stages are divided into three: first, the material activity, that is the handling of material that is in front of you. You learn to handle or to work with it and later on to describe it. You become an expert in handling it. You reach the second stage when you build the first notions about the thing you handle or work with, for example an abacus, and about the things you can do with it. You learn to talk about the thing and its use. This second stage is called externalised speech.

Then you can reach the third stage and it is called the formation of mental acts. Now the child is able to think about the use of a tool and he or she can make plans in his or her mind. Children learn how to generalise the mental acts and also learn to abbreviate them. Also the formation of images takes place now. During the three stages you often look back on your task orientation, it is a kind of control while you are learning.

The connection between this developmental theory and punishment is the fact that punishment always interrupts the single steps on the way to the formation of mental acts. A child is a very sensitive being that learns step by step through fulfilling each single stage: the material activity, the audible speech and the formation of mental acts. When this chain of activity or chain of learning is interrupted by punishment it harms the child. On the other hand an adult can support the child when he or she has got difficulties with any of the stages. So an adult or teacher can help the child with the creation of a task orientation or during the work with tools and things or during the audible speech. But I believe that they should never be punished because that is no help or support. It is a step back for the child and can have severe consequences like for example childhood post traumatic stress disorder as we see later on.

We can go further into detail when we focus the process that takes place when children learn to read. Children have to learn to translate print into speech. They have to make connection between meaning and print ( Funnell/ Stuart 1995 ). In their mind children produce so called logogens that consist of word meaning and word pronunciation. This is a very sensitive process. It can happen that a child has got a reading difficulty or a so-called dyslexia. The cause for this can be poor word identification skills. It would be wrong to punish a child for its lack of reading skills. Punishment can have severe results and cause harm to the child. The child can also become defiant and in extreme circumstances end up as illiterate.

The correct thing to do when a child refuses to read or has got dyslexia is to start early intervention through teaching programmes. The teacher can train for example single word reading, nonword reading, sublexical recoding or train the phonological awareness ( Funnell/ Stuart 1995, p.125 ).

A very severe situation is reported in the journal “School Psychology International” about the maltreatment in Bedouin schools in Israel ( Elbedour et al 1997 ). According to this report the teacher’s violent behaviour towards students is influenced by school climate and by the ideology of the student control. At Bedouin schools verbal and physical violence is used as educational tools. According to Bandura children learn to imitate violent behaviour ( Bandura, Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. 1961 ). In many cases injuries that result from physical abuse include bruises, welts, hematomas and death. Furthermore the article states that another result can be post traumatic stress disorder. Examples of physical punishment recorded for Bedouin schools through a questionnaire can be seen in the following: throwing something against the pupils, grab and push, slap, kick or hit with fist, grab hair, twist wrist, stand on one foot, hands up, twist ears. Psychological punishment: yell or insult, sulk or refuse to discuss, kick out of class, shout, swear, threaten to hit, detention during break, prevent the child from going to the restroom, detention after school day, stand outside in heat or rain, make clean classroom or floor, stand up in corner, punishment assignment, lower grades, writing punishment composition, memorisation, send student home, order parents to come and force the pupil to apologise in front of class.

The problem often is that children are still considered to be the property of their parents and the family. The article furthermore says that even in the USA more than half school principals use corporal punishment for control of students. There is an explicit rule of the Israeli Ministry of Education that prohibits such practices. The article states very clearly that punishment is destructive.

But what can you do when a pupil really breaks the law? He or she has to be punished according to the law. The school is required to preventing the pupils from their devious behaviour. They can do it through early intervention. One example for early intervention is given in “School Psychology” International. It is called “ Some responses to Marijuana Use “ ( Sharp et al., 1999 ). The article states that much child and adolescent drug abuse has its basis in developmental deficits in psychological or social functioning which interact with biological predispositions or weaknesses. The aim of the early intervention was to demonstrate extreme effects of marijuana use to frighten youths even from experimentation. This program was only effective with early elementary students who are in a developmental stage that is rule-bound. The program consisted of four categories: scare tactics, drug education, moralistic exhortation and life skills training. Besides that the 1950s film “ Reefer Madness “ was shown. During the life skills training the students were taught ways to be more successful in their daily lifes, including social skills, problem solving skills and relational skills. Children and adolescents who are not securely attached to families, schools or positive environments are at especially high risk for many destructive behaviours including drug use. Drug and alcohol use shall be deglamorized and demystified by such programs. The result of this examination is that if programs build skills in communication, teamwork, decision making, stress management and problem solving, so they can prevent drug use (Sharp et al, 1999, p.94).

But when we talk about punishment in the classroom we must bear in mind that the atmosphere in classrooms often causes stress to the teachers and to the pupils. The stress can let teachers and pupils overreact in some cases. Can the stress in classrooms be diminished ? There is an article in “ School Psychology International “ that supports the thesis that smaller classes produce less stress for every participant of the curriculum ( Boysen/ Bru 1999, “ Small School Classes, Small Problems ? SPI, pp. 338-351 ). The data of investigations in 55 classes at 24 Norwegian schools show for example, that the cases of harassment decrease, the smaller the classes are.

The authors of this article report that there are scientific results that say that small classes have a more informal and personal atmosphere. There are closer relationships between pupils and between pupils and teachers. Furthermore there is great concern by the teachers for the pupils as individuals and a greater concern for the personal development of the pupils. You also have a greater number of parent-teacher contacts. There is a greater opportunity for the social development of the pupils. Apart from this, students in smaller classes demonstrate less fighting, shoving, pushing, crowding, striking or other aggressive acts. There is a better classroom management and there is less external coercion by the teachers. Another result is that small classes seem to increase the chance of good social relations among students.


When children are mentally absent, refuse to listen or chat with their neighbour, there arises the question: Why don’t they pay attention ? You cannot blame it all on the children.

You can assume that the quality of the material that is used during the lessons is not perfect. Another important role is played by the behaviour of the teacher ( Doering, 1989. Lehrerverhalten ). On the one hand a teacher can be very boring and on the other he can be very exciting. He can be loving or he can be sadistic. So it often depends on the teacher, the subject and the learning material, how the children follow the curriculum. You can improve these points to a certain extent: you can give the teachers a better training during their education at universities and even during their work at schools which arises the question why there are no seminars for teachers?

On the other hand you cannot improve a subject: maths is maths. But you can improve the way you present a subject by using exciting media at school, you can use video films, computer animations and simulations and you can use better elaborated school books that might for example contain a “ Simpson “ or “ South Park “ character. All this might minimise the bad behaviour of the pupils and the situations when the question of punishment arises.

You must bear in mind that there are civil laws. These laws are also valid in schools. It is valid for both sides, for the teachers and for the pupils. If someone breaks a law he has to be punished according to the laws. But what happens to devious behaviour, the overreactions of the teachers, and the misbehaviour of the pupils? I think we all have to learn how to handle these problems in a human and peaceful way to make the school a place for love and co-operation without any violence. Violence should only be a topic in discussions. Schools must be a playground for ideas and humanity, not for punishment. Punishment shall only be done after a judgement in court. So I want to put emphasis on the following points:

The number of pupils in the classrooms is too high. You cannot punish someone for learning difficulties or disabilities. To make dogs and cats house-trained through punishment is acceptable, but it is a crime to beat humans. Punishment interrupts the process of learning. The harder the punishment is, the worse is the effect on the mental stability of a child. Only weak teachers or parents punish their pupils or children. Using punishment is a lack of intellect. Only verbal intervention should be used instead of punishment. The behaviour of problem children can only be improved through love and affection. Weapons and drug use at school are forbidden and a punishment should only be done according to the law. You must differentiate between faults and misbehaviour that are legal and between in misbehaviour that is illegal like grievous bodily harm through for example weapons. You can stop xenophobia through early intervention by making clear that there is no superior race and by working together and learning to know the habits, culture and language of people from other countries and other backgrounds.


-Alberto, P.A. and Troutman, A.C. 1995. Applied Behaviour Analyses for teachers. Englewood Cliffs, NY: Merrill

-Bandura, A. et al, 1961. Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models, in Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Vol.63, Nu.3( pp. 575-582)

-Boysen,M., Bru,E.1999. Small School Classes, Small Problems? In School Psychology International, Vol.20, Nu.4., Nov 1999 (pp.338-351)

-Cole/ Maltzman.1969. Stages in the Development of Mental Acts, in A Handbook of Contemporary Soviet Psychology, New York, London. Basic Books, Inc.

-Doering, K.W. 1989. Lehrerverhalten. Weinheim. Deutscher Studien-Verlag

-Elbedour, S. et al. 1997. Physical and Psychological Maltreatment in Schools. The Abusive Behaviours of Teachers in Bedouin Schools in Israel, in School Psychology International, Vol.18., Nu.3., Aug. 1997 (pp.201-215 )

-Funnell, E. and Stuart, M. 1995. Learning to Read. Oxford. Blackwell Publishers

-Sharp, R.N. et al 1999. Psychology in School-based Prevention, Early Intervention, Treatment and Abstinence Maintenance: Some Responses to Marijuana Use in Schools, in School Psychology International, Vol.20., Nu.1., (pp.87-103), Feb.1999

-Tausch, R., Tausch, A.-M. 1998. Erziehungspsychology. Goettingen, Hofgrefe, Verlag fuer Psychologie

-Walker, J.E. and Shea, T.M. 1988. Behaviour Management: A practical approach for educators. London: Merrill

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A critical evaluation of the role of punishment in the classroom
Cardiff University
Learning, Cognition and Cognitive Impairment
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Critically, Learning, Cognition, Cognitive, Impairment
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Dr. phil. Roland Scheller (Author), 2000, A critical evaluation of the role of punishment in the classroom, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/109101


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