Detentions don’t work

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It was probably around 2005. I was driving to work in London listening to news on the car radio. They were running a piece on Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and, as it progressed, I became irritated. 

ASBOs were effectively restraining orders sought by local authorities and issued by the courts. They forbade those subjected to them of committing certain acts on the basis that these were antisocial. ASBOs were issued for things such as vandalism or abusive behaviour.

ASBOs attracted a great deal of criticism, much of it justified, but I was baffled by the argument I was hearing on the radio. Apparently, ASBOs did not ‘work’ because around 60% were breached. This appeared to be accepted uncritically by the presenters.

If the 60% figure was true, I did not think this conclusion was justified. It seemed that in 40% of cases, ASBOs were successful in halting the targeted behaviour. I don’t expect miracle cures for human behaviour and so this seemed pretty effective to me.

I get a similar feeling when someone gestures towards a real or notional detention hall and says, “Detentions don’t work. Look, it’s the same kids in here week after week.”

There are two important points to make. Firstly, in considering kids who are already in detention, we are selecting on the dependent variable. If detentions are intended to have a deterrent effect then we have no way of knowing how many students are not there because they were deterred. To attempt to answer this question, we would need to investigate the effect of detentions on the whole school population, not just those in detention.

The second point is that we should not have the same students in detention every week. Something else needs to kick in at this stage; a new layer of intervention. This could be punitive, such as a day in isolation, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes explicit teaching of organisational or anger management strategies might be the best way forward. Sometimes parental involvement may help. For instance, I’ve asked parents to shadow their child for a day, especially if I think the child is presenting a distorted picture of the school to his or her parents. Sometimes, there are managerial options around seating arrangements or where students eat lunch that can stop problems before they arise.

And all of this needs to sit within an overarching philosophy. You may not care for Michaela Community School’s pyramid of behaviour – being ‘top of the pyramid’ is when you behave well because it is ‘who I am’ – but a model like this provides a common reference and common language for a school community.

If you are looking for a one-size-fits-all miracle cure for all human behaviour then no, detentions don’t work. However, as part of a thoughtful and strategic approach to managing whole-school behaviour then they can certainly have a part to play.


2 thoughts on “Detentions don’t work

  1. The ideal consequence for negative behaviours should be self-eliminating. The consequence should reduce or eliminate the negative behaviour and hence eliminate the need for the consequence.
    This is an ideal.
    If this were the case we wouldn’t need speed cameras. They should have caught all the speeding motorists and done themselves out of a job. This does not happen though.
    Just as there will always be speeding motorists, there will always be students who make poor choices and end up in detention.
    For those staff who say “detentions don’t work” I always ask, “So what will work then?”
    Alternatives are few and far between.
    You are absolutely correct in saying that for the frequent flyers, the repeat offenders or as Tom Sherrington brilliantly describes them here, the pinball kids, we need another level of consequence.
    Behaviour management should work on the idea that we apply the minimum level of consequence to hopefully change the child’s behaviour. If the child’s behaviour does not change we need to try another consequence, usually a higher level one until we reach the tipping point. When that point is reached the child sees that it is better to do the right thing than deal with the consequence. For some students, a detention changes the behaviour. For others it doesn’t so we need to try something else for these students.
    For the vital middle ground students, the majority of students, detention is an effective deterrent.

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