Fewer kids are getting detention — and experts say that’s a good thing

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Why some teachers are banning detention
WATCH: Why some teachers are banning detention – Apr 26, 2019

In Sam Harding’s view, detention is a waste of time. She works as a teacher at a school in the Toronto area, and her name has been changed for privacy reasons.

“I don’t use detention at all as a means of punishment,” she said. “I think that time could be used more wisely for something else,” she said.

Her co-worker, Alyssa Park — whose name has also been changed — credits their recent entry into the education system for their more progressive values.

“It [partly] has to do with how young we are. We’re both 26 years old,” said Park.

Harding and Park have both been teachers since 2016.

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According to Harding, most of their friends who are teachers also prefer to avoid the use of detention.

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“Our friends [at school] are the younger teachers… so the teachers we interact with on a daily basis, more or less, have the same values and beliefs that we have,” said Harding. “As a whole, they don’t really use detention.”

Park said detention was never even taught as a means of punishment in teacher’s college.

“It was always a very progressive approach,” she told Global News. “We were told not to punish the bad behaviour but to question the bad behaviour.”

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Instead of detention, Harding and Park respond to misbehaviour with a conversation.

“You have to do it in steps,” said Harding.

“You have to directly talk to the student. If that doesn’t work, you have to find some kind of alternative setting [to talk]. If that doesn’t work, you have to talk to the parents. And if that doesn’t work, it needs to be escalated to the principal.”
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At Harding and Park’s school, there’s a specialty program called Contact.

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“It’s basically an alternative space where you can send kids to calm down,” said Park. “It’s for those kids who need to take a break from the classroom setting or from other students.”

However, the Contact room is not a place to banish badly-behaved kids.

“It’s not supposed to be a negative thing,” Park said. “It’s a positive way to deal with kids that are struggling with any sort of challenge.”

Contact was implemented in this Toronto school board in 2014, but not every school gets to partake.

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“It’s on a needs basis,” said Park. “Our school found that several of our students were socially, emotionally, academically or behaviourally struggling.”

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For Jane Sanders, a social worker with a focus on children’s mental health, the shift away from detention comes as great news.

“When you arrive in kindergarten, you learn the alphabet. You learn the letters, you learn the sounds… if you miss one of those stages, the later progress becomes more difficult,” said Sanders.

“Anything that disrupts development at a specific stage can have long-term impacts and set [students] back.”

Sanders, who is currently a PhD candidate studying school discipline practices, is especially concerned with forms of discipline that result in disengagement from school.

“[Practices] that takes kids away from class or extra-curricular activities is problematic because that’s where they experience pro-social development, school engagement and feeling part of something,” she said.
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If detention must be used, the focus should be on building relationships.

“It should be looked at as an opportunity to sit with a kid and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on with you?'” said Sanders. “These are the pieces that are missing for a lot of students with behaviour concerns.”

According to Sanders, a child usually misbehaves as a way to communicate a problem he or she is struggling with. When they are punished for that behaviour, they’re pushed further away from finding a solution to the problem, so they continue to act out.

“Discipline that says ‘what you’re doing is unacceptable and you can’t be around us right now’ fosters a pathway to disengagement,” she said. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Instead, discipline needs to be thought of as an opportunity to connect.

“These kids are the ones feeling less understood. Maybe there are learning difficulties, social-emotional difficulties, maybe there’s stuff going on at home,” said Sanders.

“If you can understand — whether it’s flawed logic or not — what problem it is they’re trying to solve [through] their behaviour, then you can start to support them.”
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Julie Romanowski, an early childhood consultant and parenting coach, takes this one step further. She believes positive discipline is most effective when there is no punishment or consequence for bad behaviour.

“They are who they are. They’re going to make some good choices and some bad choices,” said Romanowski.

“As the adult, the parent, the teacher, the coach, whatever it is, [your] responsibility is to help guide a child and correct their behaviour.”

In her view, this means explaining what the child did wrong without judgment or criticism.

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“By [sending a child] to detention, we sever the opportunity to get behind the behaviour. We are basically disconnecting from the child immediately and it’s exclusion,” said Romanowski.
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“In my opinion, that sends the message that the child isn’t worth the teacher’s time.”

Dr. Ashley Miller, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at British Columbia Children’s hospital, echoes Romanowski’s sentiments.

“Having kids stay in at lunch or after school with little guidance or support can lead children to feel more shamed, isolated and disconnected from the adults in school,” Miller said.

“It can reinforce a negative self image as a ‘problem student’ and doesn’t teach these children the skills they lack.”

Miller believes children will exhibit positive behaviour when they feel a connection to adults and like they’re existing within a culture of respect. Detention does not achieve this.

“Children do learn from punishment,” said Miller.

“They learn to behave in certain ways to avoid punishment or out of fear, and this doesn’t usually foster self-awareness, empathy or connection.”

There are other, more effective ways to foster positive behaviour.

Clear expectations

According to Romanowski, children do best when they’re given very clear boundaries for their behaviour.

“It’s proactive preventative measures… up front and in visual form,” said Romanowski.

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“The class rules need to be crystal clear, and when someone goes against it (which kids are supposed to do), there’s a plan in place which supports the expectations you’ve already put in place.”

In this situation, the teacher is there to guide and support children while maintaining a connection.

A sense of community and belonging

Miller says it helps for students with problematic behaviour to get involved in school programs. These can give them a sense of community and responsibility.

Mentorship programs are a great way to do this.

“Some schools increase mentorship with an adult in the school for a child who is struggling,” Miller said. 

Another option is to get the child involved in helping younger peers. 

Miller also believes schools should place an emphasis on mindfulness through school programs. 

“Social-emotional curricula can help teach kids skills — self-awareness, emotion regulation, problem-solving, perspective-taking, conflict resolution — that are most needed,” Miller said.

More people resources

In Miller’s view, the first step to improving these techniques is to invest more in human resources, like counselors, administration and teachers.

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With more staff, each adult will have more time and energy to focus on individual kids. This will help to more efficiently determine the source of each child’s distress and attack it at the root.

But as education budgets across the country fluctuate, an investment of this level can feel out of reach.

The Ontario government recently cut $25 million in funding for education programs and the new Alberta government was elected on a promise to freeze education spending.

“Funding is a huge concern,” Sanders told Global News. 

In her studies, Sanders interviews current and former students who have received various forms of discipline, ranging from detention to expulsion. She always asks the question, “What should schools be doing to support students?”

“Almost every single student has said, ‘Connect more with your students. Listen to your students. Understand what’s going on with your students,'” said Sanders.


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