9 questions about detention

Every year, a number of students enter secondary school who did not manage to make positive connections with the staff and students of their primary schools. This is a well-known problem. So what d0 secondary schools have in place for these children? Detention appears to be the most common response awaiting this group of pupils on their arrival at secondary school. It is time some serious questions were asked about this practice.

As detention is such a common practice in our UK secondary and some primary schools (sometimes under the guise of “time out”), many readers will be asking why anyone would bother to challenge this grand tradition?

You may find this hard to believe, but there are some children out there who already at this stage in the school year have more detentions outstanding than there are days left to carry them out.

“Detention” is a word that belongs in  prison, not  school.

What messages does Detention give to students?

Detention gives all students 5 strong messages:

  • We are expecting bad behaviour from many you, that is why we have this punishment ready
  • Control others or be powerless
  • Use of blame and excuses can help you to avoid punishment
  • Other people can control you; therefore they, not you are responsible for your behaviour
  • Don’t make a mistake, or take risks in this school, for punishment awaits.

Are you happy to teach your students these lessons?

How is it affecting student and teacher morale?

Punishment always has a detrimental effect on the punisher as well as the punished.

Just as complimenting a student helps a teacher to feel a sense of success, punishing students is bad for teacher morale.

Some pupils get one or two detentions and then manage to avoid them in future. Perhaps a usually hard-working student has missed a homework deadline or forgotten a textbook. Some teachers will argue that the detention acted as an opportunity for the student to reflect on what they had done or had omitted to do and was successful in changing the behaviour. However, it is impossible, without carrying out a controlled experiment to know if pupils such as this one would have self-corrected without the assistance of detention.

For other students, one detention follows another. Missed detentions mean further double detentions and the possible lunchtime or after school slots are booked so rapidly for some students that teacher threats to give a further detention are given in vain.

Does it improve teacher-student relationships?

Detention is usually given by a teacher who has not succeeded in connecting with the student. The detention makes it even less likely that they will get on with each other in future. The resentment that a detention brings about means that the student now views this teacher as the enemy. The teacher is ejected from the student’s Quality World. As a consequence, detention not only fails to address the problem, but may be fuelling the destructive relationship the student is developing  with both school and teachers.

For both the rarely and frequently-detained student, one thing is certain: the giving of a detention does nothing to improve the teacher-student relationship. Given the likelihood of regular detainees meeting up with their friends during these sessions, it is probably more punishing for the member of staff who has to prolong their working day in order to supervise these “miscreants”. See Relationships for Learning for more on how teachers and students can get along better.

Is it working?

If detention worked, there might be some value in continuing to offer it as a solution.

You will know it is working if the same students rarely have to be given a detention more than once or twice. You will know it is working if the number of detentions decreases throughout the school year ( the “Detention as Deterrent” argument). If you are convinced that detention is solving your problems, then make sure you have data to support your argument.

What do you really think the average student leaves the detention room saying to himself: “ I’ve really learned my lesson now, thanks to that detention”? More likely, they have met up with mates and treat detention as an alternative “after-school activity”, a social activity organised for them by staff. It’s not hard to picture the scene: “Who’s got a detention today? See you later then!” What a great way to secure these students’ need for love and belonging with just the crowd you are hoping to keep them away from!

How much does it cost?

There are two main types of school detention: Lunchtime and After-School. For each detention, the following may have to be undertaken:

  • Letter to parents outlining the reason for detention
  • Supervision provided by staff member ( schools frequently give this duty to senior staff )
  • Staff to check that student turned up for detention and if not, start all over again.
  • It takes time to analyse,  evaluate effectiveness and make judgements about equalities from the data.

Are you legal?

If your data shows that you are giving detentions in unrepresentative proportions to a particular group such as boys, ethnic groups, travellers, children in care, you may be vulnerable to prosecution under the Sex, Race Equalities or Disability Discrimination Acts. Keep an eye on your data.

Which students are getting detentions?

In addition to the groups mentioned above, schools need to monitor their data to see which groups of students are being given detention and internal exclusion. Examine data such as postcodes, family circumstances ( poverty, violence, drugs, is someone ill, in prison, bereaved?) to see if you are detaining students from already disadvantaged backgrounds. If you find that this is so, then consider replacing punishment with education.

Is it really your best solution?

In nearly every state secondary school in the UK and even some primary schools, detention along with its ugly sister, internal exclusion, is a way of life. How crazy is that?

The reason why traditional reward and punishment models fail to address behavioural change is that they do not take into account the urges that our 5 basic psychological needs . If al student is always arguing back because he has a strong need for self-worth and empowerment, there is no point offering detention as a solution if he is not helped to find a more responsible and equally satisfying way to meet this need.

Just because he has been given a detention does not mean that the need has gone away. It should come as no surprise that some needy children who are “controlled” in school leave the school gates to earn their ASBOs.

What is the alternative?

So why do school staff continue this practice?

They do it because they believe that they can control another person’s behaviour. They do it because they do not know what else to do. They do it to give themselves the feeling that they are in control of the class when they are not even in control of themselves. It takes no skill or training, unlike the alternatives which rely on investing time to build up teachers’ skills and design schools where discipline is not an ongoing issue.

The good news is that there is an alternative – and it is certainly not “more punishment”.

All over the world schools are rejecting the idea of management by coercion. Some of these schools have chosen to follow a route laid down by American Psychologist and Psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser, and described in his books “Schools Without Failure”, “The Quality School”and “Every Student Can Succeed”.

The model described in these books is quite straightforward, but one that is not yet not familiar to school managers and advisors in the UK.

So, here is what you can do:

  1. Begin a whole school project on Choice Theory and learn together how personal confidence and responsibility can be enhanced through school leadership.
  2. Offer students the choice of detention, restorative solutions or an educative session ( see article Police Rethink Punishment), to reflect on and evaluate their behaviour and make a new plan ( see article on WDEP)
  3. If you share these concerns about detention and the deleterious effect on your staff and students, start to engage students, staff and parents in a “Big Conversation” around behaviour, punishment and the alternatives.

Image credits: Maistora


Glasser, W. (1969) Schools Without Failure. NY: Harper & Row.

Glasser, W. (1990, 1992) The Quality School. NY: Harper & Row.

Glasser, W. (1998) Choice Theory. NY: Harper Collins.

Glasser, W. (2000) Every Student Can Succeed. Ca. Blackforest Press.

19 comments to 9 questions about detention

  • Karen Crowley

    I read this on detention with interest! My daughter had never had a detention before secondary school. She had the misfortune to be placed in a tutorial which is ‘rowdy’. Every single week the form group, all of them, are given a detention for being noisy, not listening, not lining up properly etc. The whole class regardless of whether some students are ‘guilty or innocent’ have to attend. The students who ‘behave’ are in some way expected to inform on the ones who don’t, which never happens. The students who behave quickly come to realise that good behaviour does not equal no punishment. The form group has no relationship or respect for their form tutor, the one primarily responsible for the pupils pastoral care.

    • geraldine

      The school staff probably don’t realise that they are in danger of lowering their results through this practice. On the other hand, the students are not taking responsibility for their own behaviour and the tutor does not know what else to do. Could your daughter and some others get together and discuss with the form tutor how the class might start to take more responsibility? The tutor group could take it in turns to monitor the behaviour of the class, not by student names, but by data such as number of times the teacher has to reprimand the class. The class then needs to take responsibility for agreeing what kind of class they want to be and monitoring progress towards this. Your daughter and her friends could make some efforts to start building a relationship with the tutor, such as all agreeing to greet and smile at the tutor, greet him or her in a friendly way, and start finding out about his or her interests and personal life, through polite conversation and sharing of their own information. They could also seek his or her help over the situation by asking if they can old a discussion about what they can do as a class to improve the class behaviour

  • karen crowley

    Thanks Geraldine some very good ideas and ones I think certain members of the class would respond to positively. I think everyone in the form knows the ‘guilty’ members but the only thing that seems to happen is students shouting at the noisy ones to shut up which in turn creates more noise. This is a yr 9 tutor group now so I think we all realise that whole class detentions do not work, as they have been given all too regularly since yr 7. I think my daughter and her more sensible friends do act in a polite way towards the tutor. They know about his family and his holidays and the jobs he had before he became a teacher.These group detentions are probably handed out too often and too quickly. After school today is the 3rd one this week and apparently they will continue until the form ‘keep quiet and listens’. I think the class have got themselves locked into sort of negative behaviour.They feel they can’t change the behaviour of others so they must learn to suffer in silence.

  • Fiona

    Hi geraldine: A word of warning for Karen – My child questioned a teacher about why the whole class was being kept in detention because of the misdemeanors of a few, and was rewarded with double detention – she was labelled by the teacher as a troublemaker instead of an inquiring individual.

    • geraldine

      Hi Fiona,
      You should be proud of your daughter. She joins, in her small but important way, the ranks of noble crusaders wrongly imprisoned for speaking out: Gandhi, Mandela, St.Paul. If she feels outraged by her experience, encourage her to join Amnesty International to support those who really do suffer for their beliefs.

  • Cal

    Dear Geraldine,

    Today, my boy was sent to whole day detention. He has to sit at the teachers’ table at lunch. He was caught drawing on his desk with pencil.

    I do not see any purpose of whole day detention except 1) showing my son the teacher is the authority, 2) he can’t damage public property and 3) the teachers really don’t want to see my son. I suggested to the school that may be he should use an eraser to clean the whole classroom’s desk tops or sort out library books or the like.

    How should I coach him?


    • geraldine

      Hi Cal,
      I don’t know how old your son is, or whether this is his first scrape with authority – I imagine it might be from the way you have written – but if you want to coach him to take responsibility for what he does, I’d steer clear of any discussion around 1) and 3) and stick to the facts of: “You drew on the desk and this is the school’s punishment for what you did.”

      The consequence does sound a little harsh for the misdemeanor in the way you describe it, but I like your idea of your son offering some restorative gesture such as cleaning desks, in addition to the detention. By doing more than is asked, will help him to restore his sense of empowerment, and gain the respect of his teachers.

      Any discussion you have with him about the psychology of detention is best kept for another time and dealt with as a separate issue to avoid building up resentment against his teachers, which won’t make school a happier place. He is lucky to have a parent like you who wants to use this opportunity for some coaching. Good luck!

  • marie

    My first time on this website and very interesting. My son has got aspergers and adhd and is on school action plus. Since started year 7 he’s had quite a number of detention. Today he got 1 hour detention after school for not having the diary signed. Any ideas on how to deal with the school on that one. There’s nothing on detention in the SEN code of practice. Any ideas anyone. Many thanks

    • geraldine

      Hi Marie,
      Thanks for the compliment and for taking the trouble to make a comment – always useful for other readers.
      Here is an excerpt from the 2009 government booklet: “School discipline and pupil-behaviour policies – Guidance for schools” para 2.6 on page 7.
      “Part IV of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA 1995) creates a duty
      on governing bodies to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled pupils
      are not placed at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with pupils
      Who are not disabled (a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’). This would
      include making reasonable adjustments to the statement of principles,
      school behaviour policy and disciplinary practices.”

      It may not do any good to simply quote this, but if you were to ask for a meeting with your son’s tutor, you could ask them were they aware of his disability and what adjustments did they think were reasonable given his specific needs? Geraldine

  • marie

    Thank you Geraldine. Will certainly get myself one of those booklets, and challenge the school.

  • Nellie

    My child never got detention. Today she got detention for picking into the open door of bus. The teacher reported is entering the bus and she said she just peaked in. However, even if she is lying to me, I don’t see it is being justifiable to give someone detention if they didn’t destroy anything or were not rude or loud. I see it as abuse of power from teacher. I tried to read handbook from school and could not find anything like that there covered. Help?

    • geraldine

      My advice would be to write a short but polite note to your daughter’s form tutor saying that your daughter was very upset to receive the detention and you were unclear as to what exactly this had been for. In order for you to help your daughter to avoid future punishments of this kind, would it be possible to “give you the details of the offence”. You will then at least have their take on the situation.

  • Adam

    Hi Geraldine,

    Thank you for your insight into detention. I’m a teacher at an international school in Korea and am working on a masters degree in principalship. I was able to use a few of your sources and ideas in a recent paper of mine. Just wanted to say thanks for the well informed ideas.


    • geraldine

      Thank you Adam. Let me know if there is anything else I can do to support you. I am doing a doctorate here in the UK myself. Geraldine

  • marisol

    My son gets either ISS or detention from only 1 teacher every week! She also calls me every other day after my son leaves her class and tells me how awful my son behaved and never says anything positive about my son. I had conferences with her and the asst.principal about the situation and for her to stop giving my son referrals for every little thing. I also shadowed him in her class and he did fine. But after he left she went on and on how my son doesn’t do the work etc…. I could use some advice on what I need to do next. Mari

    • geraldine

      Hi Mari, this must be very upsetting for you and your son. You didn’t say how old he is but I guess he must be at high school if he is getting detentions?
      My advice is based on what is going on for this teacher right now. Like all teachers she wants to be successful and liked and for some reason she isn’t feeling this way as far as your son is concerned, and has got locked in the role of ‘blaming and negative teacher’. Any solution is about helping her to feel successful and liked by your son. When I am working with students who tell me about similar situations we make a plan to find ways of connecting in a positive way with the teacher so that the teacher feels that they are respected and liked by the child. For example, thanking them for the lesson, saying that you found what they did interesting or enjoyable, showing interest in the teacher as a person, greeting them with a smile. It is amazing how hard it is for a teacher to give detention to a child who they think likes them. The other thing is to teach your son to seek affirmation from the
      teacher. She is currently only noticing what he gets wrong and so he needs to draw her attention to what is okay. The best way to do this is for him to ask her if he’s been okay ‘Miss, I’ve really tried to write neatly/ listen/ concentrate etc today, do you think I’m getting better?’
      For you to really be in control of this situation getting better you need to engineer it so that she feels like she is the one in control. Bite the bullet and phone her up for advice. Ask if you can call her daily to find out if things are going better and form a partnership where she feels respected, successful and liked, and this will lead to your son getting the same back from her.
      I know that many will think that it is the teacher who should do the changing, but at present it is you who are asking for my advice and the only person’s behaviour that you can control is your own. If the teacher was asking me, I’d be saying very similar things to her – she can only control her own behaviour too.
      It is a very difficult thing to allow another person to come out feeling on top, but if you choose to let her feel successful your son will reap the benefits so win- win in the end. You may even end up liking each other.
      Let me know if you try any of this and how it goes. Regards, Geraldine

  • Amanda Brady

    A little frustrated reading this article. I am one of the teachers charged with the job of monitoring students in detention, giving further consequences if a student doesn’t attend and having a student with me for internal suspensions. For those of us responsible for this we are constantly looking for alternatives. You are not necessarily correct in your statement that ‘the teacher’ hasn’t connected with a student getting lots of detentions. Firstly, in secondary school a student has lots of different teachers and, just like adults, there are going to be different levels of connections with everyone. However, if you didn’t get tea last night because Dad bashed Mum and you didn’t get breakfast because you just wanted to get out of the house you are not in a position to connect with anyone that day. The government and the structure of school demands this student go through the process of ‘getting an education’. An angry student will at some point in that day become overwhelmed regardless of whether they have a relationship with that teacher or not. Please don’t assume the teacher isn’t aware, they are aware. They also have a responsibility to all the other students in that room. What students have to learn is that what is happening in your life is a reason for feeling bad but it is not an excuse to take those feelings out on others who have no more power over that child’s situation that the child themselves, that is, the other students. I suppose I am saying I feel you have slurred teachers and presented a very complex set of circumstances in a very simplified way. Teachers work extremely hard to help these students and they are tired of always being the ‘problem’. Further, sometimes the majority have determined how things will be handled. Please stop using a global word such as ‘teachers’ when you wish to label us as being part of the problem, more than not they are actually part of the solution. Teachers work incredibly hard to make school a place where a child can feel safe. Just one more tired and frustrated teacher.

    • geraldine

      Dear Amanda,
      Many thanks for taking the time to comment on my article. I agree that the article was one-sided, and it certainly provoked you to respond, which I hoped it would do more of.
      I am sorry if I inadvertently insulted or ‘slurred’ any teacher, as that was never my intention. I know that many teachers I work with feel frustrated about the whole business of detention and their lack of choice about the enactment of such policies in their schools. I also know about the pressure that school principals are under from parents to ‘be seen to punish’ rather than use more educational and restorative approaches that they know are more effective, especially with children and young people from more deprived backgrounds.
      I think that your sentence: ‘we are constantly looking for alternatives’ says it all: if detention was working well as a way to support students and reduce misbehaviour, why would you question it? It was actually a teacher from Australia who first told me about Choice Theory, as she said that she had come from a school where they had got rid of detention and all punishment in the school. It was her description of her large secondary school in a deprived urban area back in Australia that introduced me to a whole range of schools across the world who have started to use more ‘educational’ approaches to teach students what to do when they feel desperate, unhappy and useless, and for whom the use of detention is a thing of the past.
      I am not labelling teachers as being part of the problem, certainly not, but sometimes teachers do get caught up in procedures, not invented by them, which do not solve and may even exacerbate the students’ difficulties.
      I think that the fact that you have been looking up articles on detention to find an alternative is laudable, and wish you all the best in your search. I would urge you to read Alfie Kohn’s book ‘Beyond Discipline’, William Glasser’s ‘The Quality School’, and Marvin Marshall’s ‘Discipline without Stress’ if you are serious about looking for alternative approaches.
      Do let me know if you find an alternative approach that works for your school – I’d be interested to see what you and your colleagues come up with. Best wishes,

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