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How to Punish Someone

By Dr. Travis Bradberry

Think about the last time you punished someone. In cracking down on their bad behavior, did you just address the offending act, or did you work to understand and address what caused the behavior in the first place? Lincoln High School, in Washington state, has developed a program that illustrates just how ineffective typical forms of punishment are, and how effective the right approach to punishment can be in creating lasting improvements in behavior.


The focus of the program is twofold—to show genuine concern for the offender and to try to get to the root cause of the behavior. When a student acts out, a faculty member takes a moment to speak with the student before carrying out a disciplinary response. During the conversation, the faculty member addresses the offending behavior, expressing empathy for the student and trying to understand what he or she was dealing with that might have motivated the behavior. More often than not, the offending student has a lot to say, and over the course of the conversation, the faculty member helps the student to understand how seemingly unrelated stressors have impacted his or her behavior. It's important to note that the punishment is still dished out, but only after the structured conversation. The school's only shift in applying discipline relates to suspensions, which are now served in school instead of at home.

Unlike traditional methods of punishment, this program gives students tools to understand why a disciplinary event occurred and how they can avoid it in the future. Students are still held accountable for their behavior, but discipline is enacted in a supportive environment. The teachers' empathy in disciplining students and ability to help students understand the root causes of their behavior have had a huge impact on students' subsequent behaviors. In the year before the program was enacted, Lincoln High had 1,350 suspensions, 50 expulsions, and 600 written referrals. In the year that the program was implemented, the school saw 798 suspensions, 30 expulsions, and just 320 written referrals.

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