Parents Voice in Government School Education

Beyond punitive discipline

Punitive discipline or relationship management

Schools are complex organisations. Their primary task is to provide an environment where students can learn. School authorities are legally and morally (and pragmatically) responsible for maintaining an appropriate degree of order in the learning environment. Order requires appropriate degrees of individual and collective control.
“Behaviour management” is the term traditionally used for activities that maintain order in schools. The term “behaviour management” is consistent with a system of behaviourist order maintenance, where members of the organisation or community are persuaded through external rewards to behave appropriately, and dissuaded by the threat of punishment from behaving inappropriately.

Why punishment?

The fourfold aim of punishment is:

  • Restoring of moral balance – “You’ll pay for this!”
  • Individual deterrence – “That’ll teach you!”
  • Collective deterrence – “Let this be a lesson to the lot of you!”
  • Appropriately exercising authority – “This will remind you who’s in charge here.”

Restoring balance, deterring inappropriate behaviour, and being seen to exercise authority are all legitimate outcomes.
However, punishment is not the only, nor necessarily the most effective, means to achieve these outcomes. Punishment may encourage obedient compliance in the short term. But that compliance is often achieved at the expense of autonomy, commitment and engagement.

In a system of behaviourist order maintenance, authorities maintain order by doing things to or for people. This system is preferred in organisations where the focus is on input and outputs.

Relationship management

If a school is to produce the outcome of genuine learning for life, the lessons learned should include not only knowledge of a formal curriculum, but also the skills of relationship management: self-regulation, constructive co-existence, and democratic engagement.
Relationship management requires a fundamentally different approach from behaviour management. To promote appropriate behaviours, minimise inappropriate behaviours, and to provide for learning and healing when inappropriate behaviour does occur, the key requirement is not for authorities to provide outcomes, not to do things to or for others.
The key requirement is for authorities to provide the right processes for working with others.

True teaching involves facilitating learning – and not only in the classroom, but everywhere else in the school. Authorities need to create the conditions where people can work with each other:

  • to make things go right,
  • to prevent things from going wrong, and
  • to respond constructively when things do go wrong.

When things do go wrong; when students – and staff – make mistakes, and cause harm, school authorities need to provide processes to restore right relations.

Engaging with students

The 2016 Australian documentary series Revolution School demonstrated the impact when staff shifted the understanding of their role from “teaching” to “facilitating learning” – and were shown specifically how to do this in practice. Their emphasis shifted from talking to the students to engaging with the students. The students became rapidly more engaged and formal leaning outcomes improved markedly. And yet, outside the classroom, there was still a good deal of behaviour management: staff telling before asking, providing general rather than specific feedback, focusing on what was not working – and not necessarily providing a framework for students to resolve social challenges themselves. Relying on behaviour management – persuasion and punishment – continually risks student disengagement.


The reasons for this risk are clear. Motivation occurs on a spectrum. Towards any given activity, a person may be “amotivated” – just “going through the motions”, or they may be extrinsically motivated, and at one of four stages of extrinsic motivation:

  • Acting in response to external rewards & punishments, or
  • Acting to please others, or
  • Consciously valuing the goal of the activity, or
  • Believing the goal is consistent with personal values.

However, a person can also be intrinsically motivated to engage in an activity – because they experience an inherent satisfaction from the activity itself. Intrinsic motivation generally occurs when there are high levels of:

• Relatedness – to other people who are similarly motivated;
• Competence at the activity, &
• Autonomy to choose whether to engage or not.


In schools that provide a true learning environment, people are largely intrinsically motivated to learn. This is only possible where not only is the principle of ‘working with‘ embedded in principles and policy, but members of the community also have ongoing opportunities to practise collaborating, through specific skills-development and consistent reinforcement and refinement of an integrated set of skills:

In the absence of this system and the requisite skills, school staff – who are required to maintain order so as to deliver the outputs of curriculum knowledge – will revert to behaviour management, which includes punishment.
David Moore, July 2016

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