Carrot and Stick – Why punishments rarely work

An important part of supporting child mental health, is that we recognise areas where we can develop our practice. There is no end point in this, as the world evolves, we can recognise that the mental health needs are ever evolving. Therefore, strategies that we used 10 years ago may no longer work, whilst new concepts will.

An area that we can see this in clearly, is education.

20 something years ago, when I left school, behaviour management was focussed on carrot versus stick principles.

You were good – you got merits and rewards.

You did not adhere to rules – you were given detentions, suspensions and were expelled.

With the belief that these punishments, or threats there of, would motivate the child to perform in the desired way.

Now strangely, we seem stuck in history.

Research has shown that it doesn’t work. In fact, studies have shown that the carrot and stick methodology of reward and punishment can actually diminish performance.

A “carrot” approach incentivises good work with rewards, while a “stick” approach uses punishment to push people towards goals.

Having spent ten years working in coaching and therapy, I have lost count of the young people who have shared that:

Punishments have no impact on them – that they will sometimes actively create scenarios in class to be sent to isolation as this allows them to better regulate

That threats of punishments increase their anxiety and uncertainty, and this therefore reduces the information that they share with their teachers or school, instead opting for avoidance.

That detention is something that they ‘do’ to tick boxes, but it has no impact on their behaviour, because their teachers are not understanding what their struggle is

That when staff at school shout or threaten them with a punishment, that they have learnt to dissociate and zone it out, losing respect for the individual as they have not taken time to identify what the challenges are

A perfect example of the carrot and stick approach, and its failures to modify behaviour is our current response to emotionally based school avoidance.

When children have high attendance in most (not all) schools, they are eligible for rewards such as attendance at trips, the prom, or specially organised events.

Whilst children whose attendance is lower are highlighted on electronic systems, letters are sent home, parents are threatened with fines or court action, and action plans are made in their absence. On the further extreme, children are restricted from trips, proms and reward events, which further instils that they are not good enough and that they are not understood.

What happens to the child who has worked hard to challenge their anxiety and get into school, increasing their attendance from 45% to 60% (no small feet). But, is rejected from the school prom for not meeting 88% attendance.

What lesson do we teach this child about perseverance?

What do they learn about their determination?

That it is not worth it

That I am not recognised

That my efforts are unnoticed

So, they stop.  

And in one moment, we have highlighted to the child that we need to DO better – BE better – KNOW better. A child who needed to be cheered for each percentage increase, told that all their effort was not enough. Expand this to consider the children with wider mental health issues, who are being threatened with parents being fined for their attendance, whilst they sit on waiting lists that are years long. Where do we begin in exert some unique approaches to those children’s needs?

It’s years later, I have worked with children and young people for 24 years and the majority of schools that children attend still rely on merit, isolation, detention and suspension systems to manage behaviour. Now, when I hear of a school with a holistic approach to school behaviour management – I literally jump for joy – but these systems are not universally shared.

With the introduction of EWOs into schools, I continually find that the punishment and threat systems are as rife as ever, following policy which is outdated, has been proven to be unsuccessful through research and yet still asking for a positive outcome.

As Einstein once said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

If we increase mental health knowledge. Give in-depth training in mental health, well-being and psychopathology – so that our professionals are rooted in an understanding of the WHY. Then our systems could offer exceptional opportunities moving forward – and education staff would inevitably have a more positive work day, as this would be rooted in connection and compassion, rather than initiating punishments that most of us recognise have no outcomes, other than disconnection and stress.

Food for thought as we begin a new year – how could we better connect with children, improve our systems and therefore simultaneously improve attention, behaviour and outcomes?

Want to learn more? 

Are you looking for a deeper understanding of child mental health? Our Level 4 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Coaching Diploma takes you into an in depth dive of child mental health and how you can support.  You can join our Level 4 training (here).


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