A very painful problem

When you are looking at a particular problem behaviour in a child (student), the big question is, “Is it really a problem?” “Problem” does not mean it’s unusual, or that some people are uncomfortable because it’s a “stereotypical autistic thing”. “Problem” means someone is getting hurt, or in danger, or poses a considerable social issue. Rocking is not a problem, head-banging is. Lining toys up is not a problem, biting people is.

A great many of people’s responses can be categorised as trying to get something or to get away from something. If you’re trying to get rid of a problem behaviour, then you need to figure out what’s going on. If you can figure out what the stressor is, then you can avoid or reduce it. If you can figure out what the behaviour provides to the person, then you can figure out a more suitable replacement behavior that will provide a benefit, without the problematic issues also associated with it.

Let’s say you have a student (client, child) who is hurting themself. Read the rest of this entry »

Problems With Solutions

Students will fail to succeed, or outright fail a subject, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they have learning disabilities, sometimes they have health issues, sometimes their underachievement results from motivational issues. Oft times there are sticky combinations of these causes. In any regard, there’s a long and sadly-familiar road trod by the triad of parents, student and school staff in the effort to rectify the situation.

Unless the underlying causes are obvious (such as health issues), the common cause assigned to the student’s underachievement is usually motivational problems. This is especially true if the student did okay in the earlier grades, but their marks gradually slip lower with succeeding years, or their marks are irregular within the same subject. Which is not to say that there might not also be various learning difficulties that are exacerbating the student’s motivational issues – it’s hard to keep applying yourself when you can’t understand why your results are so erratic. When students can’t understand the cause and effect, they tend to assign difficulties to external forces, and feel they they have little power over the results of their efforts.

Unfortunately, the first impulses of the dyad of adults in these situations, those solutions for tracking the student’s progress and ensuring their successful completion of school work, can often end up making the situation worse. Alas, in the end, everyone ends up more stressed than before. The solutions create more problems instead of rectifying them …

Although assignment books or pages are meant to enhance communication between school and home about what the student needs to do, they often end up creating an even tenser situation. (Here we are talking about those that are ongoing missives between the adults, not simply a resource for the student.) These are theoretically carried to and fro by the student, keeping everyone apprised of what has been assigned and has been completed. Unfortunately, the focus of this exercise frequently turns to what the adults need to “make” the student do, and upon what the student has not done. (Note: it’s nearly impossible to “make” someone do something; you cannot “make” a child fall asleep or eat or learn.) The frustrated adults become angry at the student, repeatedly reminding the child of how they have failed yet again. Blame-assigning sets in, and each half of the adult dyad accuses the other of “not doing their part” because obviously, were the other set of adults doing their job, the student would be getting the work done and turn in promptly!

Amazingly, all this tension and attention does not improve the student’s performance. Indeed, the student now feels pitted between two large forces, wanting to please everyone but instead having their incompetence repeatedly confirmed. Instead of empowering everyone to help the student, everyone has instead become disempowered, frustrated, and adversarial.

Sometimes the adult dyad will resort to behavioral report or the daily or weekly progress reports for the student. These can suffer many of the same issues as the assignment book, by focusing entirely upon negatives. When poorly structured, the reports end up being little more than tallies of daily sins. It is very disconcerting for anyone to be under the microscope all the time; slight transgressions and ordinary human weaknesses become quantified and magnified. The child become identified with a bad score, even the hollow nothingness of “being a zero”. The student may also end up in the trap of false dichotomies, seeking to be perfect, and failing that, falling to utter failure. Here the student is expected to take responsibility for their behavior, but then simultaneous loses more of the control and personal power of the situation.

Focusing only on a student’s weaknesses creates a heavily biased view of the student. Everyone has weaknesses, but successful students learn how to lead with their strengths and how to accommodate or compensate for their weaknesses. A good plan needs to focus upon how the student is improving. The student needs help to learn how to plan ahead and effectively deal with inconsistencies in achievement that are simply part of the human condition. They also need to learn how their successes are derived from what they have done, rather than from random outside forces, and how they are not only responsible for their behavior (in the sense of receiving its consequences) but also capable of effective positive changes in it as well.

When many people are faced with noncompliant underlings (students, children or anyone lesser in the hierarchy), their first impulse is to punish them: “When people are bad, they deserve to be punished. When people are good, they deserve to be rewarded.” Rewards in such cases are simply the flip side of punishments. The problems with punishments are complex and not immediately apparent, because the system of punishment and reward (including the heavily-marketed “logical consequences”) is so heavily entrenched in our culture.

The problem with punishments is that they change the focus from the activity itself to those punishments and rewards. They also change the focus from a person’s internal, intrinsic pleasure at doing something, to something extrinsic: the avoidance of pain or the attainment of pleasure. Any activity (even one that is naturally interesting to a person) can lose its natural appeal under such conditions, and people do not work as effectively or as imaginatively. Instead of improving work ability, such external systems actually end up reducing it.

Furthermore, placing punishments and rewards into the situation takes the responsibility from the person doing the work, and places it in the hands of the people handing out the punishments and rewards. It’s no surprise that students end up focused on what they will get for doing something, rather than simply doing it because it needs to be done. Success thus requires an outside system to ensure that the jobs are done. Sometimes the rewards are so far in the future (a month or a semester away) that the cause and effect linkage cannot be made at the simple behavioral level – there’s no relevance to what is happening today, and how the student feels at the moment. Reward inflation also occurs, where ongoing jobs or more complex jobs need bigger and bigger rewards to ensure their completion. Punishment inflation can also occur, because the student may decide that the punishment is not nearly as bad as the fear of failure or other dismotivating state. Ultimatums like being grounded for a month (the parental version of house-arrest) or sending children away also do not work. Either the child knows that the parent won’t follow through, or if they do send the child off to someplace dreadful, the child learns that their scholastic achievements are more important to the parent than their love for the child as a person.

Assignment books, progress reports, or punishments and rewards rarely have good long-term benefits because they are poor teaching tools. They work on the assumption that fear or bribery are good teachers. Not only do they teach the wrong things (fearing and hating authority, or needing to be bribed to do things), they also do not teach the right things.

They don’t teach the person how to persevere when frustrated, or how to solve their own inner difficulties, or how to monitor their own efforts, and how to adapt to new situations. As a result, they don’t help a student become a more independent learner and worker, or how to think critically and problem-solve. In short, they leave students very poorly equipped to be independent adults. (Guess what happens when the student then goes to university …)

We don’t want to assign blame to various people, or to punish our children and students for having problems. Instead, we want to help them learn to problem-solve, and acquire the skills they need so they can figure out how to solve future problems.

This means stepping outside of these established defensive and offensive modes of interaction. It means listening to the student’s frustrations without denying the validity of the feelings (even though the premises upon which they are based may be faulty). It means demonstrating how to break down overwhelming jobs into smaller tasks, and how to create organisational structures that are self-enabling. It means initiating work by starting from a place of competency and asking the student what they do know, rather than telling them what they ought to know. It’s not something that is accomplished quickly, especially when the poor mental habits have taken a long time to become established. It takes a while for the student to re-frame their self-perception, and to install more effective work habits.

Parents and school staff also assign blame on each other, and get defensive when one side asserts that the reason for the student’s difficulties lies in the other’s incompetence. This ends up putting the adult dyad into offensive-defensive modes as well, thus blocking positive change.

We don’t need parents who are better warriors at IEP meetings, when in fact they really want to be helping the teachers understand how neat their children are, and sharing their insights about the child’s strengths and interests.

We don’t need school staff who are better at defending the Local Education Authority’s policies, when in fact what they really want to be doing is sharing their enthusiasm for various subjects with the students, but in fact end up cornered by employers that create systems that interfere with imaginative teaching.

We do need team members who can collaborate with each other and with the student, and who can teach the knowledge and tools they will need to be better masters of their own destinies. That is what education should ultimately be about, rather than about creating more compliant student masses.

Novel Ideas




Modern Times

Survey question: Ever been absolutely bored to tears in a class?

Of course you have! We get bored from things that are too easy, that seem too irrelevant, or that are so familiar and routine that they fail to hold our attention (especially those of us for whom attention is a slippery thing to begin with).

A little novelty can be a wonderful thing in teaching. It can catch and retain students’ attention to present them with new material. It can invigorate familiar subjects with new perspectives. Used judiciously, it can raise the challenge to a manageable level that makes students reach to stretch their boundaries, without being so high they run the risk of complete failure.

Novelty can affect educational difficulties in different ways. Educational difficulties are frequently described as “learning difficulties”, although not all of them are expressed in “learning”, the acquisition and integration of new knowledge. Rather, educational difficulties can result from mismatches in teaching methods or in environmental factors. When we run into environments with high levels of novelty, we can run into educational difficulties. Take for example, field trips …

Field trips are chock-full of novelty! New places, new things to see, perhaps to handle, smell and taste, and hopefully new things to do as well. Novelty can help a person more consistently retain attention, especially those people who have problems with varying levels of attention. Please note that “more consistent attention” does not necessarily mean that your AD/HD or autistic student will be “better behaved” on a field trip!

This is because attention-switching can be more difficult when the novel thing has become a sudden, fascinating, all-absorbing interest. Thus, one has to “drag away” a girl from an exhibit on steam engines. Or, the novelty can be so overwhelming that the student hardly knows where to turn – everything in the Hall of Egypt is fascinating! This is the student that won’t dutifully follow the troop from one exhibit to the next in a quiet and linear manner. Instead, he is bouncing all over the place, “Hey, look at this cat wearing an earring! Wow, a real sarcophagus!” His attention is on the exhibit, but nearly all of it all at once. Either way, the teacher leading these “poky little puppies” or “bouncing kangaroos” despairs of keeping the class together, either in the literal sense or in the pedagogical sense when delivering explanations about the materials. (And that, O Best Beloved, is why teachers are always drafting additional adults to be chaperones.)

On the other hand, novel environments, or even familiar environments with highly novel activities, can be problematic for students whose coping strategies are dependent upon having a particular enabling environment, or dependent upon having particular way of approaching and processing work in different ways, either physically or cognitively. This can happen even if the concepts and methods being used are familiar. Sometimes (with strokes, other kinds of brain damage, pharmaceutical side effects, auditory or visual processing difficulties, or autism) students simply have certain processes that they won’t be able to access consistently, but those kinds of events will also happen when nothing has outwardly changed, which indicates that the difficulty is interior to the person.

But sometimes there is something so profoundly new in the system that it “throws a spanner into the works”. The mental gears come to a halt. Outwardly, it appears that the student is either being noncompliant, or else has forgotten what they learned earlier. But in the case of excessive novelty, no amount of cajoling, rebuking or of punishments & rewards is going to “make” the student comply.

In situations where the student gets profoundly stuck or shuts down, it helps to remember that everyone is an organism within an environmental system. Is there something different in the environment since the task was last accomplished? Is there something different in the methods being used? Is the instructor using a very different approach or verbiage? In cases like this, we want to go back and re-establish the previous situational parameters, and reinforce the abilities gained before. This may have to be done on another day; sometimes “stuckness” can be sticky for hours.

Having achieved the skill again, practice it with a single minor change. During the practices, modify the change in small increments, and do not try to introduce multiple changes. Don’t expect to make very many changes at once, either. Doing something differently three times may not be enough to cement it in, and when assaying the task again, it may take a few more tries to get things down thoroughly with all the new changes.


In situations like this, the difficulty can also be with generalising, or being able to apply familiar skills in unfamiliar situations. This isn’t the same problem of being unable to access the skills, but rather, of recognising that this new situation requires that particular set of skills.

Lest these problems seem absurd, and related only to students with cognitive disabilities, then think back to when you got an entirely new version of your computer’s operating system, or when you changed from one word-processing program to another. It’s not that you didn’t know how to use the “file cabinet” in Windows 3.1, or how to save files in WordStar, but rather that lurching into Windows 1996 or WordPerfect, and then later on lurching into Windows 2000 or Word, has changed all of your familiar cues and ways of doing things. You may have had the skills, but now you’re looking for the old things in new places, or using slightly different commands or names for things. Or if you’re a newbie to the world of computers, then think back to your second car, and having to switch on the windshield wipers or headlights with different controls, and of not having the radio buttons working in familiar ways. Somehow, even though it’s the same old thing you’ve been using competantly for a long time, it’s also all new, and every single task is fraught with a dozen little glitches to trap you. Or if you’ve traveled to other countries, consider the first time you stepped into a market and couldn’t automatically identify the packaged goods. The brands, label configurations, aisle locations, even what shapes of containers your items would be packaged in, are all different. It makes the head spin.

Such are the effects of excessive novelty: too much invigoration or too many inputs to sort. Think of it as “educational jetlag”.

P.S. Was the novelty of having the picture of Charlie Chaplin from his film “Modern Times” distracting when you were trying to read the blogpost?

Making Sense of Rules

Harry Wormwood to his daughter Matilda, from the movie based on Roald Dahl’s book, Matilda:
“I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m smart, you’re dumb. I’m big, you’re little. And there’s nothing you can do about it!”

To make sense of something, to understand how it works, what is significant about it in your own experience, in short, to create a meaningful gestalt, requires that one be able to manipulate it physically, to stretch it, pull it, push it, turn it upside-down, use it in different ways and then compare and contrast the results. This is the active process of learning.

Making sense of the social world and its often unstated rules requires that one be able to do original research in the nature of it, just as one does with the physics of the universe. The problem however, especially for our autistic/Asperger’s students, is that the social world is not nearly so consistent as is the physical world or the digital world. You mess around with mechanical objects or video games, and the responses will consistently fall within the same parameters. Likewise, the ecology of the biological world is more complex, but still rather straightforward.

However, human social systems are rife with “fuzzy logic”. The social sciences are seen as comparatively “soft” sciences because sorting out the variables and interpreting the results is so damn tricky. Given such complexity and unpredictability, it’s no wonder that autistics, whose social radar is less acute, often prefer to stick with the natural sciences, or view themselves as researchers of human beings.

People not only need worlds that they can make sense of; they also need worlds that meet their needs. The needs of children and students are somewhat different than those of adults. They are still very much in the process of building understandings of the social world and of their places in them. They need to be able to create systems that are functional and adaptable, and they need to find a place in society that allows them to continue to grow as individuals, that draws upon their personal strengths and works with their individual weaknesses, and that respects the parts they will have to play throughout their lives.

Rigid, unyielding rules systems built upon the premise that the child or student is a bad person, who needs to be controlled, and always told what to do, cannot effectively provide that.

There’s a kind of physics in social relationships: push on someone, and they will push back with that familiar “equal and opposite reaction”. No one likes feeling controlled, like a helpless pawn in some chess game. Everyone wants to feel that they have some measure of say and control in how they get their needs met – this is what empowerment and respect is about.

Empowering others is scary for some people because it requires relinquishing some of their control. Or rather, empowering others is about giving them opportunity, the right tools, and letting them have responsibility. The whole crazy part about the current scenario at the JRC is the people in control complain that they “have” to use force (pain and other punishments and rewards) because the students would otherwise be irresponsible.

This isn’t about a child “testing authority” as feared by disciplinarians; it’s about the student being able to try things out, practice, reflect, discuss, acquire new skills, and practice some more. Being given absolute rules circumvents the learning process, and later when they need to adapt to novel situations, leaves the learner in the lurch, stranded without the knowledge of how to devise new strategies. They only have a limited number of tools in their social toolbox, and little knowledge of how to build new kinds of tools. If we go telling children what to do for their entire lives, then we shouldn’t wonder that they become young adults without the ability to think for themselves and to be responsible without someone monitoring their actions.

How do children learn to be responsible? It takes practice. If you want people to know how to be inner-directed, moral, responsible people, then they need the opportunities to learn how, and they need adults to share their wisdom and their power and to help them along the way.

Being Unruly

On Kevin’s blog, a former employee of the Judge Rotenberg Center, “kml”, described how one autistic student was subjected to electric shocks via GED because he would greet people arriving at the classroom by saying, “Hello”.  (The rationale being that the student’s actions were “disruptive”.)

Given that some parents spend a lot of time helping their autistic children develop verbal and social skills, this is especially heart-wrenching.

An authoritative, punitive approach doesn’t teach the student/child how to identify the true causes of their problems, and then find different ways of solving them.  Instead, it teaches one to (1) not get caught, and (2) “might makes right” (where “right” in this case is more about privilege and power than about correctness).

This kind of framework keeps behaviour regulation extrinsic – the child relies upon others – instead of intrinsic.  Even after the child has internalized the “you are a bad person” message and the “you deserve this” message, they still end up seeking approval from others for their good actions.  The process is still ultimately extrinsic.  All of this creates a state of perpetual rebelliousness and/or insecurity.  There’s no real moral growth.

Even when the teachers dragoon other students into the system as underlings, no one is really empowered to truly help themselves.  This is not how we teach respect.  Respect is earned, not demanded by authority.  Being respected and being controlling rarely happen simultaneously.

Secondly, such a system invariably puts the focus on what the rules are, rather than why we do what we do.  One has to be able to practice and to reflect upon how ideas work in different circumstances, in order to develop the internal moral framework that is necessary for maturity. Being able to generalise concepts across different circumstances is sometimes challenging for our autistic/Asperger’s children, and one can’t develop that if they are always being told what to do.

If parents and teachers are finding that their children and students are being “little lawyers”, then they should seek to find what in the system is making everyone so anxious that every decision needs questioning.  Because in truth, it is the system that is being questioned, more so than the authority!  Re-asserting one’s authority doesn’t resolve that, it just adds more friction.

We want a system that enables us to create plans for coöperating with and helping others, rather than focusing on punishments and rewards.  The problem with relying upon punishments and rewards is that they don’t help create the respect, responsibility and relationships for creating community that are our ultimate goals.

People who are heavily invested in punishment and reward systems, invested ego-wise, security-wise, and/or financially-wise (such as the JRC), will try to assert that not using the punishment and rewards to control behaviour will result in gross misbehaviour and chaos.  This is a false dilemma; there are other ways of teaching our children.

When you’re hostile and suspicious, everything looks like dissent, everything looks like challenge, and everything looks like rebellion.

Even saying, “Hello”.

I Didn’t Ask For That

“Boy, you’re asking for it!” The teen towers over me despite being a stair lower, and the fierce glower makes me flinch away, which moment is my undoing. The world spins as I am elbowed away, lurching drastically over the railing at the vertiginous two-story drop, then my footing slips and I am skidding down steps to crash on the midway landing. The herd of students storms past me, an impediment to their passage between classes. I didn’t ask for that, I protest silently as I taste blood, still unsure of what had precipitated the swiftly violent interaction in the first place.

“Well, if you’re going to choose to be irresponsible and leave your math book at school every day, then you’ve just made the decision to not have any reading time tonight,” declares my mother righteously. I meant to bring my algebra book home, really. I’m not trying to avoid the homework at all. I didn’t “choose” to forget my math book again. Nor am I deciding to forgo my favourite leisure activity. Not at all. In fact, I don’t remember being a part of any of that “decision” process whatsoever. I didn’t ask for that.

My graduate school advisor leans back in his desk chair and announces, “I need to know what your decision is.” I’m still numbly trying to absorb what-all his two page letter means. A few months earlier after my first research proposal meeting, I had described some of my learning difficulties to my committee members, and each had said they would help. But now the results of such difficulties are being flung back at me, described herein as deficiencies. He is informing me that I am being removed from a research Master’s degree. Decision? I have choices? Apparently so. “I don’t make snap decisions about important things,” I hedge, mostly because my brain’s freezing in shock at this unexpected turn of events. The hourly bell jangles out in the hallway, making me wince as usual, which in turn produces a twitch of annoyance in him at my “over-reaction”. “Well, let me know what you want,” he says by way of dismissal. After a few re-reads, the “decision” proves to be rather a dilemma between outright quitting the program (not mentioned in his letter, but implied) or taking a terminal degree. Which one did I “want”? I didn’t ask for that.

There is a seriously heavy, late-summer storm brewing outside, and the air is damp and prickly. I finished the daily reading lesson ten minutes ago and am squirming hyperactively around in my seat with nothing to do. My tights itch, and my dress sashes have come undone again, causing the calico to billow ticklishly. I’m six years old and in second grade, and have not yet learned how to fidget acceptably; “good sitting”, like “good penmanship”, is something that I struggle to achieve. I’m wobbling on my chair from sitting on an ankle, and leaned over sideways across my desktop with one arm rocking back and forth off the side, staring distractedly out the classroom window. Cumulus clouds are piling up into tumultuous towers and flattening at the top into an impressively green-grey anvil. An actinic far-violet flash of lightning rips from one end of the cloud to another, and impulse wins out again – I am plastered to the window to see more. “Andrea! Sit down in your chair.” The teacher trots me back to my assigned place, and no sooner than I get my behind on the chair seat, she clamps my shoulders to the chair back to emphasize how I am supposed to sit. “You really want to miss recess, don’t you? It’s reading time. You need to stay in and read your assignment.” But I’d already read the stupid story … spending half an hour more confined to my chair and reading it all over again, thus losing out my only opportunity to vent some energy and to go spinning on the playground carousel, wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t ask for that.

Decisions? Choices? Hardly.

Choices are between things you want, or at least will accept. Situations like these aren’t even “forced choices”. Even the phrase “forced choices” is part of the problem. (A forced choice should really mean a situation more like, “Okay, you’ve narrowed it down to coconut or fudge ripple; the ice cream store closes in five minutes, so you need to decide now.”) It still implies volition upon the part of the person.

Situations like these really aren’t choices; given more than one option, they are dilemmas or predicaments between bad option and worse option or intolerable option. Some “option” indeed.

Sometimes the situation is couched in the language of “choice”, but has nothing to do with the person choosing for their self. The consequences are really decided by someone else, and the language is a distractor meant to bamboozle everyone. It’s doublespeak meant to transfer the apparent (symbolic) power to the one person who in actuality has little power over the situation.

It’s also about obedience deceptively, attractively, cloaked as “responsibility”. If you’re not being submissive to someone else’s wishes, then you’re “choosing” to be irresponsible even if there is no malicious intent. The punishment chosen for the transgression is tagged as self-selected and self-imposed, when it’s anything but.

If you “choose” to have difficulties or misbehave, then you’ve “decided” to be punished by losing privileges like a much-needed recess, or having major plans derailed, (or if you’re a student at JRC, missing some of your daily food ration or getting zapped with electric shocks) or –

I didn’t ask for that.

The Crime of Punishment

The unfolding layers of cruel imprisonment and torture of students with mental/emotional problems and learning or developmental disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center as described in this report have created ongoing responses by horrified and angry posts by parents, professionals, and survivors of similar places (e.g. Kevin Leitch’s Autism Blog Web Design Blog, Mike Stanton’s blog Action for Autism, or Amanda’s blog Ballastexistenz).

I won’t list the litany of carefully crafted, systematic and officially sanctioned malfeasance described in the Report, which span a range of criminal, irrational, abusive, and generally mindf**king evils that are only more shocking for the fact that so many people seek to defend them as being sensible and necessary. You really need to read the report to understand that the anger generated by the JRC & its head Matthew Israel are far from over-reactions.

What I do want to bring up are my thoughts on the whole underlying paradigm of punishment that such institutions, and indeed much of society, are operating on. It’s not enough to shut down one place (and given the current political climate, that will be far more difficult than should be compared to other bureaucratic efforts). We have to understand how such things come about, and continue to pop up. Otherwise we’re just picking off mushrooms and not addressing the fact that the entire structure is rotting and permeated with fungal mycælium.

Once upon a time, long time ago, when people had problems in life (being sick or poor for example), these were seen as due to divine punishment for being sinful. Centuries later in more enlightened times, problems were seen as being due to the natural consequences of being sinful (a Renaissance, humanistic perspective). More modernly, problems were seen as resulting from people choosing to be sinful, so they therefore deserve punishment from other people or from God. (I’m speaking generally here, so history majors will have to keep their corrective twitches to themselves.)

All of these revolve around the idea that humans are inherently sinful – and if people have problems, it’s their fault. Because it’s their fault, they should have to deal with the consequences.

That sounds reasonable on the surface, but what it really means is that people are often being punished for having problems. E.g., if you’re poor, it’s because you’re lazy and sinful and deserve to be poor.

Furthermore, the “help” given to people often seeks to perpetuate the status quo – the person who is being the helper gets cosmic brownie points. Such “help” is about doing things to people rather than doing things with them; it reinforces power inequalities and objectifies people. It’s about maintaining these paradigms rather than empowering people.

In classroom situations, this kind of helping or behaviour “management” just creates tasks defined by what the giver (teacher, administrator, special education therapist) wants done, rather than by what the receiver actually needs, or is able more better suited to do. (If that doesn’t seem true, ask yourself if you ever had teachers who gave out pages of “busy work” that were neither useful nor needed, just to keep the students busy and quiet for the teacher’s benefit. Or, did you ever have to practice “skills” over and over even though you were never able to improve significantly, just because you “needed to” be able to do neat penmanship or work without an assistive device, nevermind that in the real world you would later rationally drop those tasks in favour of methods that were more functional.) Commands like, “You need to do thus-and-such,” are flags that should make us examine the situation more closely.

When the students fail to comply, the resulting punishment often teaches quite different lessons, not those about how to better manage one’s papers or how to mediate playground arguments, but rather lessons about power. “I’m bigger/ older/ in charge, so I can make you do what I want,” is the message actually learned.

A big problem is that the whole system seems sensible because it’s so entrenched, and because it’s easier to temporarily suppress certain behaviours by punishments (or coercing people with shiny rewards), than it is to identify and resolve the underlying problems that are causing the distress in the first place.

Sometimes that distress is the student’s feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. But when students act up from feeling powerless, what do the authorities then do? Clamp down even harder, create more restrictions, and more punishments. This is hardly a solution, and very much a self-perpetuating feedback loop that increases distress for everyone involved.

The worst kind of pedagogical punishment is making someone do a task that is otherwise supposed to benefit them. That is, if a student acts up by being oppositional or disruptive or fails to do the assignment because there is something they cannot do cognitively or physically, then the student is “taught a lesson” and punished by giving them more of the same kind of assignment. Learning should never be used in an aversive manner; the student then gets even more upset and frustrated and acts out and then becomes a “problem student”. The student is then being punished for having problems.

Aversives in the form or corporal punishment (such as the electroshock apparatus used at JRC) teach both the giver and the recipient that aggression and inflicting pain are acceptable and appropriate ways of responding to people when they don’t do what someone else wants them to do. Unfortunately, lots of people have learned this “lesson” all too well …

Not only does punishment as behaviour modification set up and maintain coercive power systems, but it also distances teachers and others from their students, and puts them into antagonistic roles, rather than as partners in education (contrary to what many school districts’ mission statements assert).

Punishment can not only ruin learning, but also takes moral development from an inner-directed process and changes it to a situation of “don’t let me catch you doing that again” where the message isn’t avoiding the behaviour and doing something positive, but rather of not getting caught. The focus is on consequences instead of creating interpersonal and social benefits.

Instead of morality being inner-directed (under a person’s self-control and self-initiation) it becomes personally directed – how to get what one wants for themselves – not how to work with and help others.

One of the biggest challenges we face is not just shutting down localized hotspots of cruelty and injustice, but also of providing viable alternatives to replace the vacuum left behind. Otherwise we’re just plugging dikes with our thumbs.



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