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117 NOVEMBER 2008
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Restrictions: Lesson learned

John Stein

It was a new job. I was directing a group home for 12 boys. They had a substantial budget. They hired college graduates and paid them well. There were ample funds for activities. And it was the best salary I had ever had. I was excited.

Although the program was in chaos with several of the boys out of control, I was not overly concerned. I had been there before. This was my fourth such position. I looked forward to the challenge of getting things under control.

And so during my first week, I found myself chatting casually with the executive director. When the subject of discipline came up, I said that I felt restriction from certain privileges for one or two weeks for serious misbehavior was appropriate. My new boss said, “Wait, wait, wait. These kids can’t handle a restriction of more than a day.” How was I going to get this program under control with restrictions of one day? I said, “A one-day restriction for hitting staff? That’s ridiculous!!” My new boss’s jaw dropped and his eyes got big. I thought, “Ooops!” He quickly regained his composure and said, “Nevertheless, that’s all they can handle is a day or two.” I thought, “Well, at least I got two days, one for bad, two for really bad,” but I dreaded the next few weeks until I could muster my arguments to get him to change his mind.

The next three months were really busy. I gradually put my program in place. I was using some of the social skills from the curriculum developed at Boys Town. I revised the point system so that it was based on the seven social skills we emphasized: following instructions, accepting “no,” accepting criticism, respecting peers, respecting adults, respecting property, and temper control. I trained the staff and did some modeling. The boys liked the new point system. The staff bought into the program and began diligently teaching the social skills. But all the time, it was in the back of my mind that I would have to go back to my boss about that ridiculous limitation on restrictions.

When things began to settle down after those first few months, I started to prepare my arguments to convince my boss that we needed more realistic restrictions. Turns out I couldn’t find any. The program was no longer out of control. In fact, it was the calmest program I had ever managed. Yes we had occasional incidents “a boy losing control and having to be held for a bit, an occasional fight. But only two or three a month, far less than I was used to with challenging children.

So I took a few minutes to think about the boys. They were no less challenging than other children with whom I had worked. Their histories of multiple problems, oppositional behavior and aggression were substantial. What was going on? Was it possible that these token restrictions were sufficient? Was it possible that they were more effective than longer restrictions? It sure looked that way.

Since then, I’ve done a lot of thinking about punishment and the need to impose consequences for behavior. I’ve reached some conclusions, supported by experience if not by research:

  1. Punishment is not a strategy that enhances relationships.
  2. Relationships are necessary for children to learn; punishment is not.
  3. It’s more important to teach children about consequences than to provide them. There are plenty of consequences for children's behavior other than those provided by adults. Those are the consequences that are important, not the punishment adults provide. Adults must teach children about those consequences.
  4. Punishment does not teach children responsibility. Rather, it teaches children to deny or minimize their responsibility in order to avoid or minimize their punishment.
  5. Punishment does not teach empathy. Empathy is necessary for feelings of remorse.
  6. Punishment relieves any guilt children might feel. They do not have to feel guilty when they can pay for their misbehavior by serving the punishment.
  7. Long restrictions interfere with good behavior. It’s difficult for children who are serving a punishment to feel good about themselves. When children don’t feel good, it’s more difficult for them to do good. And it’s more difficult for adults to provide reinforcement for good behavior while children are serving a punishment for bad behavior. It’s not unusual for children who are serving a restriction to “earn” another restriction before finishing their first restriction.
  8. Punishment teaches retaliation. When we model punishment for every misbehavior, children learn to feel the need to punish people who misbehave towards them. If we want children to learn to forgive others, we have to model forgiveness.
  9. Punishment strategies contribute to impulsive behavior. When children learn to behave to avoid punishment, they often do not know what to do when there are no adults watching, no adults to punish them. At such times, they have little to guide them except their impulses and peer pressure. We have to teach children to think about consequences other than those we might impose if we catch them.

If we want to develop caring, thoughtful, responsible children, then we have to employ teaching strategies to teach other than punishment. We have to teach children what we expect and help them to understand why it’s important “how their behavior affects other people and the way other people treat them in return. If we do that well, then trust children to behave and, finally, have some patience while they develop their skills, their behavior will begin to improve. Dramatically. When we get impatient and resort too quickly to punishment strategies, we may find change a bit more elusive.

So. Is punishment necessary? I don’t know. I do know that our token one-day restrictions seemed to work okay. We only imposed restrictions for hitting someone, wielding a weapon, possession or use of drugs or alcohol, deliberate destruction of property, and theft. And we only restricted boys from playing pool and use of the telephone, privileges we had to ration anyway because of limited resources, and TV and going out without staff supervision. Boys were always allowed full access to the facility and all activities, could always participate in card and board games and outdoor recreation supervised by staff, and have 5 minutes of phone time with family.

The lesson: It’s not the consequences you impose – it’s how and what you teach.

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