Is It Right For Schools To Humiliate Children As Punishment?

14/08/2014 16:51 | Updated 22 May 2015

Is it right for schools to humiliate children as punishment?

Last week, the head teacher of our local primary school made a six-year-old boy eat his lunch alone on the stage in front of the rest of the school as punishment for talking during lunch. Granted, the boy had been told off more than once, but should humiliation as punishment have any place in 21st century schools?

No way, says Lynn Fulford, associate dean of the Faculty of Education, Law and Social Sciences at Birmingham City University. "Humiliation is usually rooted in power and the desire to make another person embarrassed, scared or isolated. So it is hard to see how it can play a part in mutually respectful relationships."

Humiliation can have a particularly detrimental impact on children, she adds. "Today, skilful, professionally trained teachers know that humiliation, particularly of very young children, can damage their self-esteem and create significant barriers to their learning."

Annabel Richardson witnessed this first-hand when her eight-year-old daughter was made to stand at the front of assembly for a week as a punishment for talking in a previous assembly.

"She had to face the whole school each day, sobbing every time, and on one occasion, she asked if she could use the toilet. But she was reprimanded again for speaking and told to stand still until assembly had finished. It has had a terrible knock-on effect, and for the first time ever, she doesn't want to go to school in the mornings."

Any sensible teacher opts for reward stickers, use of praise and other celebratory strategies as behaviour management, says Fulford.

"Of course, there are times when sanctions need to be applied, but a good teacher will ensure these are done in a way that encourages a change in behaviour rather than make a child feel humiliated."

The Teachers' Standards 2012 backs this up. Even the phrases used in this good practice guide almost exactly reflect Fulford's. Indeed, underpinning the standards is a requirement that teachers uphold public trust in the profession by "treating pupils with dignity and building relationships rooted in mutual respect."

Professor of educational psychology Keith Topping says there are other reasons for teachers to avoid humiliation like the plague. "These punishments may be damaging but even more strikingly they tend to linger in the memory long after the incident."

Simon Marantz, 41, knows this horrifyingly well. "Among the long list of humiliation I was put through as punishment for relatively minor misbehaviour at school back in the 1980s was standing in the middle of the playground on a chair in full view of all the classrooms and made to eat up the vomit that I'd produced after eating a bad school meal," he says.

"Other students were regularly put in the bin head first and I was smacked in full view of the class."

Our school's headteacher defended his actions by saying the six-year-old boy would learn a lesson. But exactly the opposite happened to Simon. "It made me play up more as a means of attention seeking and I never really took school seriously and my academic performance was very poor," he says.

Erika Brodnock, founder and CEO of The Centre for Positive Thinking Children Ltd, says this reaction is common.

"What the child often goes away with is messages such as, 'Authority is communicated by humiliation and aggression' or 'It's OK to boss smaller people around if I'm bigger than them.'"

Our headteacher also defended his actions by stating that the other children in the school will have learned a valuable lesson. I'm not so sure. My own daughter's understanding (she's also six) was that the boy was punished for dropping his spoon on the floor.

"Mummy, the teacher went very red in the face and started walking up and down a lot. He was quite scary, so I hope I never drop my spoon," was her reaction.

Annabel Richardson says pretty much the same thing happened with her daughter. "There were a lot of rumours floating around about why she was made to stand up, but nobody really seemed to know the truth. I think the only outcome from the incident for her classmates was fear and gossip."

There are, of course, degrees of humiliation. Dr Rebecca Chicot, co-founder of the Essential Parent Company, recalls one primary school teacher from 20 years ago who made a disruptive pupil stand on a chair in the middle of the class and each child was encouraged in turn by the teacher to insult the child.

"The boy was overweight and most of the class called him fat. Apart from the social stress of being singled out and mocked in that way, how would this boy react to this treatment? He came from a home where anger, disrespect and criticism were the norm and I doubt this incident did anything but compound his feelings that the world wasn't fair and one must bully to get on top."

She also recalls a well-known school in London where, if you forgot your swimming kit, you had to have your swimming lesson in the nude.

"My own brother sat on the 'wrong' line in PE class at our high school and was picked up by his cheeks in front of the class by the teacher. Meanwhile, my music teacher would make you sing a solo in front of the class if you misbehaved. It happened to me twice and I remember him relentlessly playing the introduction until I started singing."

Whilst accepting that today's examples are unlikely to reach this level, she believes today's instances can still be damaging, particularly if it happens regularly.

"Stress – of which humiliation is part – has a myriad of negative physical and psychological effects in humans."

But not everyone agrees humiliating pupils is a big deal. "I think we all worry way too much about upsetting children," says Amanda Gummer, a psychologist specialising in child development.

"There are children for whom this kind of thing bucks their ideas up, and if it happens as a one off every now and then, I do think it can be a short, sharp shock and deterrent to that child and others.

"If it is done routinely or on an extreme level, then of course I would agree it undermines self-esteem, as well as stifling creativity and curiosity because everyone becomes too afraid to be themselves or speak out for fear of looking like an idiot. But otherwise, I don't think we should be quite so quick to kick up a fuss."

But others stand their ground. "Humiliation serves no purpose except as a desperate tactic to control others – and as parents and teachers, we should try not to let children link the mistakes they make with their core identity," says Chicot.

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