The Mentality of Group Punishment, and Why It Fails to Discipline

Clipart of a country school house with a bell in the town that rings to bring in the children from recess, Click here to get more Free Clipart at ClipartPal.comLet me present a scenario to you.  Your kids come home from school, bummed and complaining about how much they hate it.  You ask them what happened, as thoughts about bullies or worse flit through you mind.

"I missed recess today!" you hear wailed, righteous indignation ringing through your child's voice. "And I didn't even do anything!  A group of other kids were loud during reading, so the whole class lost recess today!"

At first, you breathe a sigh of relief as visions of therapy sessions float away, but then you start to think about it.  What do you do?  Do you ask the teacher about it?  And if she agrees that is what happened, what do you do then?  Do you tell her you disapprove of group punishment?  Do you ask the teacher for special treatment for your child?  Or do you ask the principal for a different teacher?

I can tell you that asking for a different teacher is generally not the right answer, because almost all teachers use group punishment when too many kids are not behaving.  In fact, I don't think my kids' have had a single teacher that doesn't use group punishment.  To find out why, I have asked several teachers in the past why they use group punishment instead of calling out the inappropriately behaving kids.  The answers vary, but the top four answers run along the lines of:

  1. the entire class was misbehaving as far as the teacher could see,
  2. they don't have the time to stop and punish only the misbehaving kids, 
  3. they don't know which child or children acted with unacceptable behavior,
  4. or they are trying to use peer pressure to enforce good behavior.
The first reason is the only one that makes sense to me.  If all but one or two children in a class are misbehaving, I completely understand why a teacher would punish the class.  After all, teachers are human, and it's entirely possible for them to miss seeing the one or two behaving children.

As for the second reason, I have trouble believing that a teacher has time to explain a group punishment, but not the time to discipline problem children.  If  a child is such a problem that the teacher needs to speak with that child too much, it seems to me that the problem falls into a different discipline domain.

Reason three almost makes sense, until you extrapolate the logic into adult life.  If someone hits a parked car and drives away, the police don't remove everyone's driving privileges for the rest of the day.  If someone loses a library book, the librarians don't close down the library.  I can provide more examples, but I assume you get the point.  Just because the teacher doesn't know who did the offense does not give her the right to punish everyone.  

And peer pressure?  We parents spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy trying to make our children resistant to peer pressure, so that they don't do anything simply because someone told them to.  And now you want to use that pressure to enforce discipline?  Besides, to parents reason three sounds as if the teacher is being lazy, trying to pass off the discipline to the other children.  

What I wish teachers knew was how damaging group punishment can be.  To subject a behaving child to group punishment on a regular basis generates feelings of frustration and anger in that child towards the teacher, not towards the misbehaving students.  Children and parents start to view teachers who regularly use group punishment with less respect, since group punishment is not respectful to the behaving students.   Since students view group punishment as inherently unfair, if one kid tries to stop the group punishment by telling the teacher who was misbehaving, the other children tend to gang up against the "tattle-tale" and against the teacher. 

 In the end, if the choice is between punishing everyone or no one, the proper choice is no one.

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