Why traditional discipline does not work


Behaviour and discipline is in the news after Michael Gove urged schools to use more traditional punishments. Psychologist Karen Sullivan explains why this approach may not always work effectively.

Discipline hit the headlines recently after education secretary Michael Gove urged schools to punish students in more traditional ways, including writing lines, clearing up graffiti and litter, and weekend detentions. 

What this government has failed to take on board is that while a strong and consistent system of discipline will work in most schools for a majority of students, our society has changed considerably and so have the children who grow up within it. 

Serious neglect, gang culture, poverty, poor attachment, traumatic home lives rife with addictions and “normalised” violence, absent parents all go towards creating disturbed children who will never respond in a normal way within a classroom environment. 

In fact, studies have found that this type of upbringing causes structural and functional changes in a child’s brain, making them incapable of exercising self-control, feeling emotion, and acting within accepted moral guidelines.

A growing body of research has demonstrated a robust association between childhood maltreatment (physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and neglect) and an increased propensity for risk-taking and vulnerability to psychiatric disorder in adolescence.

Indeed, children who grow up with high levels of stress not only suffer conduct problems, but become prone to outbursts of violence and unable to calm themselves. Their bodies and minds are subject to a constant stream of “fear” hormones, which play a damaging role in emotional development and affect a child’s ability to learn. 

Some of the most interesting research is being undertaken in conjunction with Kids Company. Its founder Camila Batmanghelidjh commissioned a study after noticing that many of the most troubled young people actually calm themselves by committing violent acts. She said: “Most of us are only programmed to be frightened for short periods without getting some relief. But the 1.5 million children who are abused and neglected every year in the UK are actually being frightened chronically without rest or relief. The consequence is often disturbed behaviours and violence.

“If the maltreatment of children is altering their developmental pathways then we are not dealing with children who are morally flawed. The public perception is that these children are just like anyone else until they come to the point of doing something bad. Then the public decides these children have made a thought-through decision, when the vast majority will not have thought at all – their violence was almost instinctive.”

At Kids Company, damaged children are offered love, care, commitment, positive parenting, compassion and warmth, and the approach has focused on repairing damaged neural pathways through a process known as plasticity, providing opportunities for positive emotional and behavioural changes.

Evaluations of the support Kids Company provides at its centres and in its work at 38 schools, have shown improvements in anger-management, educational attainment and reduced substance misuse. There is ongoing research to show exactly how the brains of disturbed young people can respond to kindness and care, and the early signs are promising. This is the type of thing at which the government should be looking with interest.

“Good-old-days” ideology will not offer a solution for the increasing number of emotionally damaged children in our midst. 

What will make a difference is addressing the fundamental causes of the behaviour at a societal level and redressing the balance.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com


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