The Issue with Punishment in Primary Education

Skyler Simpkins ’23

Opinion Editor

Let’s talk about punishment. No, not the kind that we might identify with physical exercise, nor the kind our inmates face. Instead, I want to focus on the punishment that I believe all of us experienced in different forms: punishment in primary education. Whether it rings close to the memorable scene in Matilda when a totalitarian, pain-fed headmaster punished the schoolchildren by locking them in a sarcophagus full of needles or just resembles stereotypical detention, punishment of young and impressionable children is something done too precariously. Simple mistakes can result in a student’s being kicked out of the school or other equally ruinous consequences. This physical and exclusionary reprehension for students should be ended, and I would like to share my personal experiences observing grave punishment dealt towards young school kids in Arkansas. 

Beginning with the side of the equation that boasts a more unanimous opinion: the abandonment of physical punishment to schoolchildren. I know many of you may have stories of this physical torment whether it happened to you or someone you knew. In my elementary school, a teacher with some emotional stability issues would resort to throwing books at students who made jokes or disrupted the class. While indeed these actions would effectively quiet the class, all the students became terrified of her. I pose this food-for-thought: Is it possible to learn in an environment you are constantly fearful of? Is it effective, or even possible, to learn correctly from someone who is abusive? Students quickly felt this education shift from a fulfilling experience to an obligation that, if not done correctly, would result in a new bruise to hide from your parents. No one can learn, nor should be expected to learn, in an abusive environment. If we allow this behavior to persist, these students will incorrectly acknowledge this abusive behavior as not only appropriate but productive in a learning setting, befitting the inheritance of abuse commonly seen passed from a parent to their child.  

Physical punishment does not have to be directly from the teacher; instead, this negative physical interference could come in the form of singling out the student. Students are no better suited to learn from the teacher who, for instance, allows an environment of maltreatment and exploitation to thrive in their petri dish of ambivalence resembling a classroom, than from the teacher who pelts their students with books. Whether physical, sexual, or verbal harassment, all of these heralds make a student fear the classroom and focus instead on their dwindling wall of safety. It does not feel good to have five sets of eyes fixated upon all your imperfections and continually pointing them out, and what’s worse: a teacher who placates a blind eye on the back of the classroom, following the increased attention with equal neglect. Resentment is thereby bred and incubated for an entire semester. What follows this? Hatred for learning and hatred for the subject the student had blasted into their ears, invalidating their personal experience of abuse and loneliness.  

Now, let me return to the theatrical example I provided above with the infamous scene from Matilda. What if I told you that this is not a shocking occurrence? In fact, students at my middle school were locked in closets in front of their entire class of peers for speaking out of turn. In this scenario, instead of reforming the actions of the students with a polite warning or a mere redirecting of attention, misbehaving students were made the dunce of the classroom and paraded to a closet where they had to stand in the dark, unable to hear the teacher but able to hear the laughs of their peers. These students could no longer take notes. This punishment resembles the barbaric tar and feathering of the Revolutionary War era and effectively removes the student’s ability to learn. While this punishment might not leave lasting physical damage, it bastardizes a healthy classroom environment into a medieval court where students play the unwilling jester. Even without physical abuse, this parade of embarrassment removes a student from what should be their safe place: the classroom.  

I share this opinion in order to dissuade educators and students from normalizing this behavior. Unfortunately, most students would find that punishment, whether indirectly or directly physical, is draped in amusement; nevertheless, the possibility of behavioral ramifications still stands. Something does have to be done to discourage bad behavior in the classroom and these forms of punishment have, unfortunately, been deemed the most effective. However, there are better forms of creating consequence in the classroom. Some options that are not given enough chances in the classroom include pointing out when the students are doing something good or employing the same behavior the students should follow. Where I think public school systems in America especially fall short is with listening to the students. We never know what the person next to us is going through, and while our school system preaches this widely acknowledged standard, they fail to employ it in their disciplinary system. This misstep in behavioral correction is something that typically leads to the other form of precarious punishment the American school system loves to hang over our students’ heads: expulsion. 

There was a girl who was waiting for the school nurse. She had a horrible headache. A student walked by and noticed the pain she was in and offered her a Tylenol he happened to have. The girl preceded to take a Tylenol from the bottle and swallow the pill. The school secretary saw this exchange and, instead of asking the students to refrain from passing our pills, reported this occurrence to the principal. Now, instead of seeing the school nurse, the girl had to go to the principal’s office to hear that she was going to be expelled for illicit drug use on campus. Through tears, the girl pleaded that the medicine was Tylenol but it was too late. She was transported to the reformatory school in my town where she remained for that year. This case is an unfortunate move illustrating overpowered school authority, but even more alarming is the practice of moving the students to the reformatory school, which is comprised of continuous rule-breakers and a few more misplaced cases like the one described above. While the educational system would describe these rule-breakers as virulent, it is actually the process itself that is the real virus of public education. When public school systems act as conquistadors, invading the student population and displacing those deemed “troubled,” those students are labeled hopeless and carted away to a new school where they will be continuously neglected and destined for service in industries requiring no high school degree. The school board might boast that by removing those “troubled” few, the community is saving those remainder children who will now never come in contact with those they treat as mutants. This is not saving our children; this is destining the “normal” children to a state of blissful ignorance while denigrating those who misbehave by dropping them in an abyss that only gets deeper. This is a quick and efficient way of ending misbehavior (at least in the non-reformatory schools), but this is no way to treat human beings, nonetheless children. 

Returning again to a statement I made earlier requesting that public schools merely listen to their children, this is the solution to behavioral management. When school systems take the time to listen to these students that continually misbehave, they could determine the source of the student’s explosive behavioral decisions. Once the source is identified, whether it be family, the environment they live around, or a teacher at the school, the bad behavior can be managed by eliminating this taut interconnection.  

Children should never be considered hopeless, but unfortunately our school systems today believe so to a staggering degree. Children’s lives are complex and full of traumatizing experiences that cause significant explosions in temperament and encourage inflections penetrating behavioral norms. Reaching the core of the traumatizing experiences removes the pacemaker from the life of misbehavior and restores a divine peace that that child may never have had the chance to experience before. I write this today to call all of you when you become eventual parents to stand firm before the school board and request psychologists to be made available to all students regardless of their socioeconomic class. It is only then that misbehavior can be perfected whilst ensuring the most successful school career for all children. 

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