The Telling Off: Discipline, Punish

The following are answers to a question ‘why should offenders be punished?’.

  • They deserve to be punished.
  • Punishment will stop them from committing further crimes.
  • Punishment tells the victim that society disapproves of the harm that he or she has suffered.
  • Punishment discourages other from doing the same thing.
  • Punishment protects society from dangerous or dishonest people.
  • Punishment allows an offender to make amends for the harm he or she has caused.
  • Punishment ensures that people understand that laws are there to be obeyed.

Now the language is harsh to our teacherly ears, and the thought of applying these terms to my pupils’ comparatively minor crimes – such as continuously not returning homework, swinging on a chair, being a bit mean to others, tutting or flicking pencil shavings onto the floor – seems very much over the top. However, as we have been discussing the joyously interesting topic of the pep talk on Twitter, my hazy recollections of undergraduate study in the law faculty come flashing back to me.

Actually, when we seek to justify why we intervene, sit a child down and discuss their mistakes, errors and misbehaviour with them, we have similar (if diluted) justifications to when we justify the purpose of prison. There are a few generally accepted reasons to punish people, and these can be loosely summarised as…

Deterrence, Retribution, Rehabilitation/Reform, Incapacitation, Restorative Justice

Let’s play with this idea, and see how each model might look in a pep talk with a Year 4 child. Let’s call him Bob. Let’s imagine he is a boy who has continually been cruel to other children, has not responded to previous sanctions and has today really hurt another kid by (not feeling creative here) throwing a pebble at them, causing them to become injured.


“the aim of punishment can only be to prevent the criminal committing new crimes against his countrymen and to keep others from doing likewise” Becarria

A deterrent conversation would be one which aimed towards deterring the boy from ‘reoffending’, and would also deter others from committing the same act. For deterrence to work, there needs to be a disagreeable sanction that is profound enough to make the boy stop acting in the way he has been acting, if only because he is keen to avoid the wrath of sanction. Generally, there is not much justification for this form of punishment, largely because decisions are made not through a lens of logic and rationality, but through impulses borne of our character. Good kids don’t behave because they are scared of being punished; good kids tend to behave because that is the default setting they have arrived at through their moral development.

“It was completely wrong of you, Bob, to have behaved in the way that you have behaved. It goes against our rules and it is cruel to other children. You have hurt Angela when you threw the pebble at her and this is serious. You must learn that this is unacceptable. You are no longer allowed to go out to play at break and lunch time, and you will instead be staying in here to write ‘I will not be bad’ until you have worn the pencil down to 1cm long. You will need to do this every single time you act in this bad way. AND LET THAT BE A LESSON TO ALL OF YOU, YEAR 4!”


Retribution is different from deterrence – whereas deterrent punishment exists because the offender must be taught not to do it again, retributive punishment exists because the offender has ‘earned’ that punishment by their actions. Punishment holds individuals accountable for their actions, and they maintain the moral order. In its most blunt form, it means ‘eye for an eye. Punishment should be proportionate to the severity of the offence. There should be a moral dimension of making clear that because of their actions, they have dissatisfied society. There is a difference between retribution and revenge, though the line can easily become blurred.

“Now then Bob. You have shocked us all with this bad behaviour. You know that it was wrong to have thrown this pebble at Angela, causing her an injury. As such, it is only right that you are made to realise how wrong this is. Angela, come here petal. Grab one of those pebbles, that’s right the little shiny one. Now throw it at Bob. Right in his lip, yes, just like he did to you. No Bob, you’re right, it’s not nice is it; that’s the point. It wasn’t nice for Angela when you did it to her. Let that please be a lesson to you.”


Rehabilitative punishments are oriented not towards changing the offenders behaviour because he is scared of incurring further punishment; rehabilitative approaches seek to morally reform the offender to no longer offend, because it is the right thing to do. Punishment should fit the perpetrator, not the offence. Crime is the disease, rather than the criminal being the disease; by rehabilitating the offender, we rid ourselves of this social disease. Strengths include that this approach treats offenders as individuals, and weaknesses are that it tends to see crime as predetermined by social circumstances, rather than as a choice on the part of the offender: it can thus be seen as patronising and infantilising. A more balanced approach might still issue a sanction, and attribute responsibility for the crime to the offender, but will still use this punishment as a mode of reform and intervention.

“Bob, this whole affair really concerns us. It is worrying and sad for us to see the way that you have been behaving over the last week, and your most recent incident, with the pebble, was particularly serious. Why are you doing this Bob? This isn’t what we expect from you; is there something happening at home that is causing to lash out like this? Bob, we want to help you, but you have to help yourself. I know you can do the right thing, and I want only for you to be the best you can be, but you have to understand that you have behaved in a terrible way. You will be staying in with me this week, and I want you to think hard about your actions. Talk to me Bob; let’s work through this together, and see if we might be able to fix the things that are causing you to do all this naughty stuff.”


Incapacity seeks to physically prevent future crimes by withdrawing the ability to commit crime from those that have already illustrated a propensity towards committing crime. To remove these wrong’uns from society is a purpose of punishment, and it is a major reason why we have overcrowded prisons, at great expense. This could be rehabilitative, like placing individuals in compulsory re-education or mental hospitals, or it could be totally punitive: either way, the benefit under the incapacitative approach is that the baddies are out of sight, out of mind. It all gets a bit minority report when we realise the justification is ‘the prevention of future crimes’, when we cannot ‘presume’ an individual will do any one thing in the future.

“Have you heard of The Chokey, Bob. The Chokey is your new home, because you are not capable of remaining in the playground, what with your errant pebble-throwing ways. It is not safe for you to remain in the playground, and there have been lots of complaints about you. For the good of everyone else, we don’t want any more pebble throwing in future, so you will no longer be going out to play. Get in The Chokey, Bob.”

Restorative Justice

This is about bringing back the balance of order – restoring the offender, the victim and the whole community. It is making reparations for the whole problem. This is about social relationships between offender and victim and between everybody involved in the communtiy who is affected by the crime. Restorative justice doesn’t take place in the prison, away from everyone else; social relationships are the support mechanism through which individuals restore the balance, and essentially, apologise. Stolen goods are returned and amends are made. This whole system is about healing.

“Bob, I have brought Angela here so that we can try to fix this. Angela don’t worry, you can stop crying, he won’t do it again. No Bob, you WON’T…really Angela, he won’t. Now, this horrible thing that happened with the pebble cannot happen again. Angela, could you tell Bob how it made you feel. Yes, I bet it did, did you hear that Bob? How does it make you feel to know you have done this to somebody? Sad, yes. We don’t want anyone to feel upset or sad do we; not you, not Angela and not me. What do we need to say when we have messed up like this, Bob? And do you mean it? Good. This cannot happen again, OK? I hope that now you see the reasons why you cannot throw pebbles around at people’s heads, we’ll never have to feel like this again, or have this conversation again.”

No ‘approach’ is going to wholly embody one of these models; some will be used far more often than others, based upon the nature of the mistakes children make, and based upon the particular ethos and beliefs of the teacher. It is interesting, I think, to consider our pep talks through the lens of ‘What is the purpose of this conversation?” Is it punitive, which is sometimes necessary. Is it shaming, in order to enforce the rules which underpin our classroom’s sense of order? Is it nurturing, guiding pupils towards embracing the right choices, regardless of what’s gone before. And, just as with cases of real life criminal offending, are we forgetting the rights of the victim?


3 thoughts on “The Telling Off: Discipline, Punish

  1. 1. To assume deterrence has no effect is to divide children into sheep and goats. Some will (almost) always behave well, others will not be deterred by the prospect of being hung from the school hall ceiling by their thumbs. But many are in the middle, and can be cajoled into weighing up the odds of much of their behaviour (the pebble-throwing could just as easily have been planned in advance as on the spur of the moment).

    Perhaps easier to see the other way round: in a year group that’s collectively lost the plot, basically decent kids can act like eejits as they lost sight of standards of decent behaviour.

    2. Retribution does not need to be ‘an eye for an eye’ or ‘a pebble for a pebble’: it can be very close to deterrence: Bob is not being kept in merely as a lesson to himself & all of Y4, but to acknowledge that he hurt Angela, & that Angela’s feelings are valued here.

    3.You are the first person I have met who shares my queasiness about rehabilitation. I prefer it when it’s more practical: eg numeracy & literacy lessons & drug rehab in prison – art therapy in schools, maybe (for me, combined with deterrence/retribution)

    4. Incapacitation can be sensible and nowhere near as threatening as you make it. The ‘I will throw pebbles, can’t stop me’ child may have to spend breaks in a designated area for the sake of the others – but it can be pleasant or unpleasant depending on their status wrt (1) & (2). The magpie, to take another example, may not be allowed in school outside of lessons/lunch eating other than for sideways-watched trips to the loo: hardly Chokey.

    5. Restorative justice? with kids? well – only with a generally-good kid who’s had an odd occasion of being a prat – they may well appreciate the chance to say ‘sorry’. Oh – an apology letter to an adult may also be appropriate with the right kid (done in the lunch break, it can also cover (1) & (2) nicely!)

    Ps I wish your Joyce-Grenfell-like conversations were an exaggeration. Alas, we all know they’re not!

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