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  • Leadership For Equity

Unseen bruises of the 'stick'

Why we do what we do?

This is the question that has been researched by psychologists since the early 20th century. The experiments conducted by Ivan Pavlov regarding classical conditioning, B.F.Skinner, John Watson, Albert Bandura are all a testimony to the quest of humankind towards answering that question. Positive reinforcement is when a desirable or pleasant stimulus, as perceived by the subject, is added to the environment of the subject, so as to increase a particular behaviour. For example, a “good job” or a “pat on the back” for a work well done can be considered positive reinforcement. Punishment is administered for reducing a particular behaviour in the subject. When an aversive stimulus is added to the environment of the subject, it is termed as positive punishment and when a pleasant stimulus is removed from the environment, it is known as negative punishment.

Fear and punishment (and its consequences)

According to the ideas proposed by B.F.Skinner, under instrumental conditioning, a subject when exposed to reward (positive reinforcement) or punishment will increase or decrease a particular behaviour. In a teaching-learning process, such a method is often used to impart new learnings to the students. A teacher may follow up a correct response or a correct behaviour with a reward (stars, points, verbal appreciation) and follow up a behaviour deemed incorrect with a punishment (time outs, notes to parents, decreasing playtime/activity time).

Over the years, a substantial body of research has proven that positive reinforcement works better than punishment in reinforcing correct behaviour. But, we often find that the classrooms employ punishment as the primary mode of ‘disciplining’ a child and inculcating ‘correct’ habits. However, punishment can have some adverse effects on the well-being and learning of a child. Firstly, punishment leads to the generation of anxiety. The idea behind punishment is that the aversive stimulus, which is added to the subject’s environment, will induce an unpleasant reaction within the subject and thus, deter the subject from repeating the same behaviour. This unpleasant reaction often manifests itself in the form of fear and anxiety.

Anxiety is a state of apprehension, tension or uneasiness that occurs in anticipation of internal or external danger. Fear, on the other and, is an emotional state that exists when the source of the threat is precise and well known. One of the effects of anxiety and fear can be seen in failure-avoidant behaviour. Children may be so anxious by the threat of failure that they would actually strive to avoid failure (such as not showing up for a test, showing apathy). Failure avoidant behaviour may also lead to psychosomatic illnesses such as headaches, nausea in extreme cases. Another effect of anxiety is that the students’ attention may become divided between understanding the course material and worrying about their skills not matching up to the abilities of others. This can lead to more anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and not able to concentrate on the task at hand.

Another form in which fear manifests itself in a classroom is the fear of being laughed at. When a teacher uses social pressure (such as public humiliation) as a corrective mechanism, students may develop Gelotophobia. Thereafter, the student may perceive all instances of laughter in the class to be anxiety-inducing and thus, a deterrent to optimal performance. As reflected by the title and pointed out by Joan McCord in her article Unintended Consequences of Punishment, punishment can have effects which a teacher may not have had intended.

Punishments teach children that at least in some conditions, it is all right to give pain to others. Punishments also reduce the ability of the punishers (in our case, the educators) to influence the behaviour of children. Punishments usually condition children to stop a particular undesirable behaviour in the presence of the punisher but fail to remove the behaviour altogether. It adds a covert value to the misbehaviour. On the other hand, identifying and rewarding the child's good deed, it makes him/her realize the righteousness of the action. This would motivate him/her to repeat it, and hopefully, make a habit of it eventually.

Thus, we see that even though fear is, at times, a prevalent form of disciplining the child, it’s presence can have a real, detrimental effect on the well-being of a child. Furthermore, it might make it difficult to achieve goals that were intended initially, i.e. might be detrimental in making progress towards intended goals.

The author Anirudh Agarwal is an Associate with the Research, Monitoring & Evaluation vertical at Leadership For Equity. Anirudh holds a Masters degree in education from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and has previously worked with Teach For India and The Akanksha Foundation. He can be reached through email at anirudh.agarwal@leadershipforequity.org