Maryland Women's Heritage Center

Applying Positive Punishment in the Classroom

Positive punishment can also be used in the classroom, but the same guidelines and caveats listed above apply here as well

There may be less leeway since teachers generally do not have the same authority over children that their parents do, but there is also an added element that can help or harm efforts to use positive punishment: the presence of their peers.

Peer pressure is a highly impactful factor that can be harnessed to normalize and encourage good behavior, but punishing children in front of their peers can also cause shame, embarrassment, and seething resentment when applied incorrectly. One of the most important rules to follow when it comes to positive punishment in the classroom is to refrain from using shame or embarrassment as a tool for learning; if a child is embarrassed in front of her peers, she is not likely to think of it as a positive learning experience and may become openly hostile instead of being encouraged to evaluate her own behavior and make better choices.

Along with this important rule, follow these 6 guidelines to ensure positive punishment is used effectively and appropriately in the classroom:
1. Pair positive punishment with positive reinforcement to provide encouragement for desirable behaviors with which students can replace their bad behavior.
2. Use the mildest punishment techniques that are likely to be effective; start off with less intense punishments and work your way up as needed if the mild techniques are ineffective.
3. Do not deprive the student of key opportunities to build their social and academic skills; for example, avoid reducing recess time or handing out suspensions if the child is already awkward with peers or finds it difficult to make friends.
4. Allow students to provide input on any behavior plans being developed; this way, the students will feel they have a voice and will be more likely to accept any punishments they earn.
Make sure your plan for encouraging good behavior and discouraging bad behavior is congruent with:
a. Your country, state, or territory regulations, and, b. Your students' parents!
5. Monitor the effects of your behavior plan to ensure it is working and troubleshoot anything that is not working ("What Every Teacher Should Know…", n.d.).

Positive punishment can be a very useful tool in the classroom when applied conscientiously and with careful consideration.

Applying Positive Punishment in the Classroom

Positive Punishment in the Workplace
Punishment doesn't necessarily stop when we become adults.

The idea that punishment can be effective in stopping undesirable employee behaviors, such as tardiness and absenteeism, is a popular one. It's something you've likely seen in your own workplace, either directed towards yourself or someone else.

For example, these are all instances of positive punishment at work:
>> A verbal scolding from your boss, or perhaps from your Human Resources department.
>> Being assigned extra training when you break the rules or behave in an unprofessional manner.
>> Being assigned the tasks no one wants to do for failing to produce quality work on time.
>> Receiving an official warning for calling off work too often.

In some cases, these forms of punishment can be extremely effective. Sometimes all it takes to discourage bad behavior and encourage good behavior is a "talking to" from your manager. Other times, it’s not so effective.

Research has shown that positive punishment doesn't always bring about good behavior at work; sometimes, it only temporarily stops one bad behavior from happening and may also lead to fear, psychological tension, anxiety, and other undesirable outcomes. These emotional and behavioral responses are likely to negatively impact work productivity and work behavior (Milbourn Jr., 1996).

Similar to the consequences of overzealous or unnecessarily harsh parenting techniques, employees who feel as if they have no choice or control over their work may begin to act out, repress their true intentions, or even engage in more nefarious behavior like embezzling, sabotage, or otherwise undermining their employer.

Positive punishment at work may be effective in some cases, but like positive punishment for children, it should be used sparingly, appropriately, and in conjunction with reinforcement techniques.

Common Criticisms
As we covered earlier, there are some definite downsides to positive punishment; it can confuse children about what they should be doing instead of the bad behavior, cause them to develop fears or other maladaptive habits or feelings, cause anger or rebelliousness, and may only lead to suppression of the behavior instead of true "extinction" of the behavior.

These are some common criticisms of the effectiveness of positive punishment, but there are also some quite strong aversions to positive punishment for another reason: whether it is ethical or not.

Many modern parents are averse to any type of positive punishment that involves unpleasant physical consequences, and for good reason-a large body of research shows that physical punishment may not only be ineffective in many cases, it may also result in unintended consequences or even backfire on the parents (Cherry, 2018).

A recent meta-analysis of several decades’ worth of research on spanking and other physical punishments largely considered not to be abusive showed that these punishments made a child significantly more likely to display undesirable and unintended consequences, such as anti-social behavior and mental health problems (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016). In fact, the effects of spanking and other "non-abusive" forms of physical punishment were observed to be almost as detrimental as physical abuse.

As Alan Kazdin, a psychology professor at Yale University and expert on parenting notes:
"You cannot punish out these behaviors that you do not want…there is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying that this is a horrible thing that does not work" (Smith, 2012).

A Take Home Message
The bottom line is that, like many other techniques and methods, positive punishment can be very effective or very ineffective depending on how it is applied.

Positive punishment that is appropriately targeted and matches the level of the infraction can be a great tool to discourage or extinguish behavior; inappropriately targeted and mismatched positive punishment can result in everything from failing to teach the lesson you want to teach to mental health problems and the continuation of parenting styles that simply do not work.

If you use common sense and follow the easy-to-understand guidelines in this article, you should have no major trouble using mild, effective positive punishment to encourage good behavior.

What do you think about positive punishment? Do you find it effective for your children, students, and/or employees? What are your go-to punishments or reinforcements? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author

Courtney Ackerman - Author
Courtney Ackerman is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working as a researcher for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, well-being in the workplace, and compassion. When she’s not gleefully crafting survey reminders, she loves spending time with her dogs, visiting wine country, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book or video game.
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