Do detentions work? What are they for? Are they worth the time and trouble?

Interesting questions without simple answers in my opinion.

I would say the answer to the first and third questions very much depend on the answer to the second so I will start there.

Detentions serve a variety of purposes:

  1. A punishment to deter the pupil receiving the sanction.
  2. A punishment to show the rest of the class the teacher deals with poor behavior.
  3. A punishment to deter other pupils from behaving in similar fashion.
  4. An opportunity to talk to pupils away from their audience and form, repair or strengthen the relationship the teacher has with them.
  5. A punishment to show managers/leaders/parents that the teacher is doing something about behavior.
  6. A punishment to convince the teacher themselves that they are doing something about behavior

Do they work? Well that depends on what they are being used for. It also depends on what is meant by “work”

  1. Detentions deter well-behaved pupils and reasonably behaved pupils from recidivism. Generally they do not deter the pupils with the worst behavior. I would say they work on most pupils if the teacher can assure that the pupil does the detention. They definitely do not work if it is too difficult to make pupils attend.
  2. Detentions show the rest of the class that the adult is in charge and not the pupil that is behaving poorly. Again this only really works if making pupil attend is pretty straightforward.
  3. Same as point 1 really in terms of deterring pupils from poor behavior.
  4. I find this generally works and this is the main thing I use detentions for. I don’t call them detentions any more. I say “I think we need to discuss your behavior at lunchtime/after school”. Then I have a chat with the pupil about what they did wrong, how they could improve and give them the opportunity to explain why they were behaving in that way. Once I am happy they understand where I’m coming from and they give me a genuine assurance their behavior will improve they can leave.
  5. I find detentions work for this purpose provided they’re not overused. As part of our performance management we need to show that we have intervened when pupils are under-achieving and detentions will feature prominently in my evidence.
  6. Sometimes when the behavior is awful and not improving you need to feel you are doing something effective. Setting detentions does this even if they don’t work immediately.

Are they worth the time and trouble?

  1. Depends on the pupil. For most pupils I would say yes. For the most difficult pupils I would say probably not because it is so difficult to get them to do the detention properly and detentions aren’t effective with many of the most challenging pupils.
  2. Definitely worth the trouble. If other pupils see the poorly behaved pupils getting away with poor behavior then their behavior will also deteriorate. There’s also the question of fairness. I’ve seen many struggling teachers punish pupils that are reasonably nice but avoid challenging the most difficult pupils. There is no quicker way to lose a class.
  3. Detentions are a fairly effective measure when it comes to preventing pupils from misbehaving. Definitely worth the time.
  4. Definitely worth the investment of time if used sparingly in my opinion. Probably the most worthwhile reason to set a detention in terms of the reward compared to the investment of time.
  5. Probably worthwhile once in a while with a problem pupil or class. I do think there are more time efficient ways of showing you are dealing with behavior and getting people off your back.
  6. Definitely worth it. There’s nothing worse than feeling powerless in the face of a difficult class. Sometimes you just have to persist with detentions and other sanctions until things look up.
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