There has been a move away from the idea of ‘punishing’ students for the things they do wrong. The word wrong hasn’t been wrong – students do things wrong all the time. They say they did their homework when they didn’t. They show up late for class. They talk when they have been asked not to. They are rude. They bully others. They push into line at lunch. For all of these kinds of actions, we provide consequences such as punishment following the principles of retributive justice, or negative reinforcement following the theories of the behaviorists, or natural consequences following the positive discipline adherents, or restorative justice derived from the practices of aboriginal groups, and a variety of others.

Without taking away anything from the profound contributions of several of the above ideas, it might also be helpful to consider that the perpetrator also has biological mechanisms at work that can be helpful in thinking about what is happening when they break some rule or code. An article in the March 2018 Edutopia asks us to consider a brain-based response specifically for children with adverse childhood experiences. It seems to me that this could be a helpful way of approaching behavior for any child, not just this specific sub-set.

In the article, Lori Desautels writes this: “I teach students about their neuroanatomy, so they understand what happens in their brains when they become stressed, angry, or anxious. When we understand this, we feel relieved and empowered. In morning meetings or whole class time, I discuss the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and neuroplasticity with students. We identify and make lists of our emotional triggers and coping strategies, and I teach students to use their breath and movement to calm their stress response systems.”

First, a caveat – while we know a lot about the brain, there is much more that we do not know. Conclusions drawn from the “research” should also therefore be rather cautious. Having said that, Desautels discussion of the brain can be helpful as the following examples indicate. Note that each of the three areas – the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and neuroplasticity – are not a one size fits all for every age of student. Before taking any certain action, be sure to check that it fits the age of child. The examples may work at one age and not at another.

  1. We know that the prefrontal cortex “can guide behavior through projections that engage mechanisms of excitation and inhibition in other cortices and subcortical structures.” In other words, it both enables focus as well as tamping down outside distractors. If a student finds it hard to eliminate outside distractions, it is probably more helpful to tell the student about the work of the prefrontal cortex and its inhibitory role than to tell the student that s/he is bad in some way for not being able to focus. The prior leads naturally to creating strategies that might help the student such as being in a quiet space, putting up a physical barrier to the distractor, being next to an introvert rather than an extrovert and so on. The latter leads naturally to punishment – not being able to go out at recess in order to complete the work, or losing a privilege, or even being docked marks. Of course, lack of focus may merely indicate that the class is excruciatingly boring or the classroom is really hot or a number of factors. Presumably, the prefrontal cortex conversation would occur typically when there is a pattern of behavior or as general information for an entire class.
  2. The amygdala is connected to emotions, gets stimuli from all five senses, and is where fear and anger and anxiety stem from. It’s where “memory and emotions are combined”, playful as well as fearful. It seems obvious that it is helpful for an individual to understand what is happening when in particular fear and anxiety strike. As Desaultels puts it: “Traditional punishment with these students only escalates power struggles and conflict cycles, breeding an increased stress response in the brain and body. Punishment is used to try to force compliance”. Helping the student understand emotional response leads naturally to creating strategies for the child to demonstrate self-control rather than engaging in confrontation with an amygdala that is already spiraling out of control. For example, teachers can practice mindfulness before each class (see Empower March 2018). Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis TN claims it enhances the students’ physical, mental and emotional well-being. Before every class period, middle school classroom teachers now lead the students in a brief, 30 second to two minute, “Mindful Moment” to assist the students in getting focused and ready to learn. “Whenever you do a mindfulness moment, it always helps your brain reset for the next class, said sixth-grader Will Carter. “Anything that might have been getting on your mind, forget about it, and go on with your day.” In other words, we can say that the student is training the amygdala to think differently about the students’ experiences. Options open up for the student’s behavior that may not have been considered before. The simplest option is for you as the teacher to explore breathing with your students. Nothing is so straightforward to elicit change.
  3. Neuroplasticity simply posits that the brain continues to “learn” throughout its life as it both makes and prunes connections. Certain age spans (birth to five and 10 to 25) are considered particularly plastic as the brain develops in dramatic ways. However, there is no age where the brain is not capable of being stimulated for good or worse. Helping the child understand the fact that the brain continues to change, and that this change is a result of actions the child takes, leads naturally to creating strategies for the child to exhibit optimism, endurance, and perseverance rather than pessimism and learned helplessness. Students who don’t believe that they can change their circumstances – I’m just bad at math, I’ll never pass a test, no-one likes me – will stop making any effort in that particular area. Indeed, if the learned helplessness becomes pronounced, it can result in depression and even physical illness. Students who believe they can change their circumstances are happier, healthier, and more successful. So strategies that engender optimism will support the brain’s neuroplasticity in positive directions.

Let’s go back to Desautels. She provides a variety of examples in her article about ways in which punishment can be turned to discipline by paying attention to the child’s levels of fear / anxiety, teaching the child strategies for controlling and taking control of their responses through the three brain insights above. Interestingly, they all move the child out of a learned helpless state to a more learning optimistic state. For example, she gives an example of name-calling and suggest that the child “create a book of positive affirmations for the class, or have them create a list of “kind words” and teach them to a younger class”. We would suggest that this approach also provides a far longer-term payoff that has a chance of reducing negative behavior absolutely over time.