The question in the title is a great conversation starter. I find that everybody has an opinion on this topic with merits to all sides. I believe there is no black-and-white answer but I do find that applied behaviour analysis (ABA) provides some great value and a great framework for discussing it. They provide food for thought and its important to note within ABA itself, there is a division over the use of punishment. Some of the points below might help you make up your mind about your use of punishment (or if you will use it at all!).
A Clear Definition of Punishment
This first thing I love is ABA clearly defines punishment. They discuss two contrasting types of punishment:
1. Positive Punishment
Positive punishment refers to the contingent presentation of a stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behaviour. For example, the child performs a behaviour and the teacher verbally reprimands the child which reduces the likelihood of the child performing the behaviour again.
2. Negative Punishment
Negative punishment refers to the contingent removal of a stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behaviour. Negative punishment typically refers to response cost and time-out. A standard example of this may be a student losing access to privileges, reward tokens or golden time etc.
While many discuss punishment as a cruel and old-school practice delivered in no relation to behaviour, punishment in ABA terms is strictly discussed as a procedure to decrease a behaviour. If it is not to decrease a specific behaviour, punishment is not used and if it is not effective at decreasing the behaviour, it can be adjusted or removed. This definition appears reasonable and gives a clear rationale for its use i.e to decrease behaviour.
How and When to Punish
As well as using punishment only to decrease a target behaviour, five key points struck me as thought-provoking when reading the literature. These were:
- Punishment is discouraged unless it is considered to be the best way to intervene to cause a behaviour change.
- Punishment should be used with reinforcement. If one behaviour is being decreased, reward the behaviour that would like to be increased.
- Avoid punishment unless avoiding it would be of greater cost to the child than engaging with it.
- Use the least amount of punishment that is effective (lowest intensity, shortest duration).
- Punishment can be useful when the reinforcers (the thing that causes the behaviour) cannot be identified or controlled.
Should teachers punish?
To bring it back to the original question, I still think there is no clear answer. If you have tried positive approaches to cause specific behaviour change and it is not forthcoming, then there may be a case for punishment. Using the principles above, if punishment is being used, it should be the least amount of punishment necessary and the teacher should know what behaviour they should like to increase in its place while rewarding that behaviour when it occurs. If the teacher is cognizant of all the above points, I believe punishment may have a place in a teacher’s behaviour management toolkit.