Behaviour change and justice

April 14, 2018

There are two contrasting elements to the way schools respond to bad behaviour and to responses to wrongdoing in society generally.

One is that of justice. Those who cause direct harm to others, undermine legitimate authority, or deliberately violate rules for their own ends, deserve negative consequences for themselves. Criminals deserve to go to prison, or pay a fine or whatever. Those who mistreat or betray those around them, whether that’s their colleagues, friends or family, deserve a diminished relationship with those around them (either temporarily, or in the worst cases permanently). Badly behaved children deserve a detention, or to lose a treat, or whatever.

The other element is behaviour change. We want undesirable behaviour to stop. We want criminals to stop committing crime. We want friends who let us down to become more reliable. We want an inconsiderate spouse to become considerate. We want a badly behaved child to become well-behaved. We also want others, who see the results of undesired behaviour, to be deterred from that same behaviour.

Both these elements are essential.

If we ignore justice, then we undermine the extent to which we are responsible for our own actions. We are not treating people as if they have chosen their actions, if we do not think that they deserve to lose out for deliberate wrong actions. We can temper justice with mercy, but we cannot reward wrongdoing, or punish virtuous acts. Without justice we would also lose all sense of proportionality in our responses. If the only thing that will deter people from dropping litter is the death penalty, then if all we cared about was changing behaviour, execution would be legitimate. Or if the only action that would change a litter bug’s behaviour is chopping off a hand, then amputation would be legitimate. Justice, however, requires some correspondence between the harm (or potential harm) of behaviour and the sanction that it warrants. Justice accepts that it would be better for somebody to continue doing small wrong, and continue to suffer small, but deserved, punishments for it, than for them to be sanctioned so severely that they would be traumatised into the right behaviour, but with a large increase in the overall level of human suffering. Equally, it is justice that tells us that we should not attempt to change behaviour by appeasing or bribing wrongdoers. Perhaps a burglar would change his ways if given a million pounds; perhaps a rapist would stop their crimes if they could be provided an unending supply of consenting sexual partners, but justice demands that those who would harm others should not be “bought off”. There should not be rewards for a willingness to do wrong. Finally, it is through desert – through the notion that some things are deserved – that moral judgements are most clearly communicated. To say somebody can do wrong with impunity is to say the authorities, or the community, does not really believe those actions to be wrong, that either the rules and interests of the community don’t matter, or that violation of them is not a moral matter.

Equally, if we ignore behaviour change then we commit ourselves to writing-off those who once do something wrong. We would not be recognising that to fall short is normal for human beings and accepting that we can all do better. We would be failing to help support those who want to change, despite the common sense notion that our behaviour often becomes a habit and we often need help and encouragement to break free of our bad habits. We would also be ignoring the possibility of reducing the amount of wrongdoing. This would be both irrational (if actions are genuinely wrong, we would want fewer of them) and harmful to the community.

I believe that virtuous, rational, individuals designing a system of criminal justice, or rules for a club, or the behaviour system for a school, would attend closely to both these considerations. We would ask what sanctions are deserved and what systems communicate a clear moral judgement. But we would also ask what is likely to change an individual’s behaviour and deter similar behaviour on the part of others. However, we are not virtuous, rational individuals. We cannot easily separate moral judgements from what they say about ourselves. We are not content simply to aspire to be virtuous, we also seek to demonstrate our virtue to others. We like to show that we are kinder, more merciful, more just, than others and a situation like the above, where we have two aims, gives us that opportunity. When arguing over a system or an action, we can pick whichever of the two aims of justice and behaviour change best justifies our favoured course of action, and ignore the other. In fact, we can go further than ignoring the aim that weakens our position, we can deliberately misinterpret it.

Educated middle class people like ourselves, can easily imagine what it means to be only concerned with justice, but not changing people. We can easily picture somebody with no concept of mercy, no element of forgiveness, no belief in the improvement of the human condition. The political demagogue who has no positive vision of society, and is only interested in settling scores with those they consider to be the villains of the piece, is an archetype liberals can immediately bring to mind. Their “justice” actually causes harm and resentment, all the more so if we think those they target are actually just scapegoats.

However, we are far less adept at challenging those who would ignore justice. Those who would never hold somebody responsible for their actions. Those who would be outraged at continuing to punish somebody when it was clear that their behaviour was not changing. Those who would appease and excuse even the worst among us, rather than denounce them. And most of all, those who would see any notion of desert as indistinguishable from revenge. So pronounced is this tendency, that words such as “retribution” or “punitive” that originally referred to deserved punishment, are now widely understood to refer to revenge.

In schools, this is where a lot of problems lie. It is not universally accepted that children are responsible for their actions. It is not universally accepted that an important part of what needs to be done about wrong actions is moral judgement and punishment. And so, we often try to talk about behaviour without using the appropriate moral terms. Like the rest of society, we no longer know that “retribution” ever meant something different from revenge. Some are so confused about the word “punitive”, a word that literally refers to punishment, that they talk about non-punitive punishments. Some will avoid the word “punishment” or “sanction”, when “consequence” is a far less loaded term. Some will avoid the word “discipline”; why else would the phrase “behaviour management” ever have been coined? The word “sin”, one that so perfectly described the normal moral failings of humanity,  is now seen as a relic of a superstitious part. “Moral” itself is often seen as an inappropriate and emotive term. One prominent progressive does not even approve of rewards, despite rewards being the more positive side of desert. Almost any term can be rejected as “unhelpful” or worse as “a label”, when people are signalling their virtue. And where words are not banned, they can be redefined, with “restorative justice” being one of the concepts most popular with those who oppose justice. And don’t get me started on those who seem to think the whole concept of reward and punishment was invented by behaviourists in the 1950s.

There’s little obvious to be done here, but next time you hear somebody say something along the lines of:

“I don’t believe in X, but I do use Y”

where both X and Y refer to deliberately inflicted undesirable consequences for breaking a rule, challenge it for the pious waffle it really is. Nobody really rejects “punishments” in favour of “consequences”; we just call it a consequence when we do it, and a punishment when somebody else does it. Nobody really eschews “discipline” in favour of “behaviour management”.  Nobody actually replaces “detentions” with “time for reflection”. You either punish, or you let kids get away with it.



  1. I think you are playing with semantics here however I do think there is an actual difference between punishing students for wrongdoing in a punitive sense and restorative justice.

    They may end up looking the same but the way the consequence/punishment is understood by the perpetrator should be very different.
    A simple example: A child swears loudly in the cafeteria.
    Punitive justice: We have a rule about swearing. That language is not appropriate. Do a lunchtime detention as a punishment.

    Restorative approach: Teacher: “What were you thinking?” Student: “I wasn’t I just dropped the F bomb. ”
    “What are you thinking now?” Student. “I shouldn’t have done it.”
    “Who was affected?” Student: “Other kids who heard it but they don’t care. Maybe the caf ladies.”
    You then go on to discuss with the student why that behavior is not appropriate. Work in the fact that you have been affected too.
    “How do we repair the harm?” Student: “Say sorry to Caf Ladies.”
    How do you make up for my time in having to deal with this? Student: “Dunno” Me: “Go and clean up that part of the yard please.”

    In both scenarios I agree with you that we “deliberately inflicted undesirable consequences on the student for breaking a rule”.

    My personal philosophy is that every time a student “mucks up” and breaks a rule, it is a learning opportunity for the student. When they “muck up” they need to “fix it up”.
    This is where restorative and punitive approaches are fundamentally different.
    When dealing with behavior using restorative justice we are teaching students what the consequences of their poor behavior is and how to behave appropriately in the future.

    • The problem is that students usually already know and understand what they did is wrong. Although they learn from.being treated like they don’t is that they are rewarded with extra attention for acting up.

      • Yes, one must balance the extra attention, I would call it teaching, they get with the negative aspect of the restorative consequence they end up with. If the consequence does not change the behavior it has been ineffective.

    • For the students I teach, having to go to apologize to the cafeteria staff is actually a greater punishment than a detention. That you call it “restorative” justice doesn’t change this. You are still punishing them, in their eyes.

      If a student swears in my class by accident they get what that deserves, a 15 second warning. By design they get a (short) detention.

      Talking to them about how bad it is makes it a punishment for me (losing my break time) and is largely wasted on them, since they don’t find swearing offensive anyway.

  2. Great stuff–I wouldn’t disagree with a word. At last, someone concurs with my oft-stated argument that ‘behaviour management’ is a pussy-footing term used to disguise our inability to come to grips with the simple fact that education is about imposing a moral view of life: show me someone who claims to be ‘non-judgemental’, and I’ll show you someone who is first in the queue to shame schools like Michaela.
    However, I think any discussion of behaviour is incomplete if we don’t consider how teachers can foster a postive moral climate by their own behaviour and through good teaching. This enables us to enter a positive feedback loop strong enough to overcome nearly all of the factors normally cited as excuses. In other words, by far the most important ‘unmet need’ is the need to learn.
    This is of course is a subject suitable for another long post–and I do hope you oblige us!

  3. Thank you for another sharp, cut to the chase article. This is particularly relevant to me in my current role as Head of Year and also in a broader sense in the international political decisions that are currently having to be made.

  4. Reblogged this on DT & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    Behaviour change and justice

  5. You may be interested in looking at the 3 meta-analyses Hattie used to get a low effect size for ‘reducing disruptive behaviour’ here-

  6. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  7. […] Behaviour change and justice […]

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