Detentions DON’T Work! (How To Fix Them)

“Stop talking!”… “Okay, you didn’t stop. That’s a detention.”

Student asks, “What will I do in the detention, sir?”

“You’ll sit for 30 minutes, get out of doing the work, and then go home.”

Kid’s thinking, “Job done.”

Bravo GIFs | Tenor

Isn’t that what most of our detentions are? A student’s inconvenienced out of anywhere between 10 minutes to 1 hour of their time in which they will usually sit around in silence and once the time is up, they will leave. What’s been achieved in terms of outcomes? Very little, if they’re not done right.


First of all, let’s start with the purpose of a detention. You can have a range of different answers here, but it revolves around one or more of the following: It’s meant to be a deterrent to future misbehaviour. It’s meant to lead to a change in behaviour. It’s a reinforcement of a teacher’s authority and a declaration that any lapse from their high expectations will be noticed and will be sanctioned. And by the way, if you’re not comfortable with being an authority, you have no business being in teaching – no offense. I personally think we lose sight of their purpose in the day-to-day obedience to the procedures and policies of our schools, but I digress…

Here’s something to reflect on: Do our detentions really serve those purposes? We often see the same kids coming into our detentions (especially centralised detentions), so I question their deterrence factor. Related to that, it means detentions aren’t leading to positive behaviour changes. Furthermore, I’ve seen that one of the biggest issues in a lot of our struggling schools is a lack of consistency, so how are we demonstrating our high expectations really?


I’m not one for not having sanctions. They need to be available to communicate expectations of behaviour and for students to know that contravening our expectations will be punished. If you don’t sanction the person who’s breaking your rules, you send a message to everyone else that doing so is OK (since you’ve let it slide), so you negatively influence those who would otherwise behave themselves.

Another thing to consider, before I give you my tips on how to make detentions meaningful (I will get to the point, I promise) is that culture trumps everything else. What I mean by this is that any sanction is ultimately a reactive response to something that’s broken down. Detentions might be a tool in your arsenal, but they sit beneath the over-arching culture of your school. Detentions are a reactive strategy. We ultimately have to build environments in which the behaviour that leads to them is seen as AGAINST the norm; looked down on by adults and students alike, and a disappointment to the natural order of things in your environment. We have to create cultures of excellence in our schools, underpinned by strong relationships built on trust. If your environment is chaotic and actively contributes to misbehaviour occurring, then no amount of detentions will fix the problem. Having said that, how can we make detentions more meaningful?


1. Detentions should be IMMEDIATE if they’re going to be effective. Behaviour X occurs > Student is sanctioned > Sanction is carried through immediately. The more immediate, the better, which means if something’s happened during Period 1 or 2, the best time to do it is at break, then lunch, then straight after school that day. Why? Because the issue’s fresh. A sanction the next day isn’t going to be that effective, because any conversation then has been preceded by a whole new day and the student has probably forgotten the context of their previous behaviour. Even if they haven’t forgotten, it’s still a fresh day; a new start. A five minute immediate ‘detention’ in which you restate expectations and get the student to understand the impact of their actions is more powerful than a 40 minute detention the next day when the issue is dead and buried.

2. You have to be CONSISTENT. Behaviour X leads to sanction Y every time and sanction Y will be issued and carried out every time. Follow through is everything and will solve 80% of your battles (i.e. they’ll behave for you). Let’s face it, students will test your grit and they will pounce at any weaknesses in your consistency. If you’re not bothered about reinforcing your standards, why should they bother to follow them? Because you’re a nice guy? As a staff body, you have to be committed to ensuring compliance with your sanctions.

3. The sanction should be LINKED TO THE BEHAVIOUR. I honestly think this is where we’re going wrong. I think we should be getting our students to do something to fix the problem their behaviour caused. They have to face up to the consequences of their behaviour and be accountable for them. How does it make sense for someone to sit in silence for 10 minutes in a class if the behaviour that warranted the detention was them littering all over the corridors? The litter’s still going to be there 10 minutes later – why haven’t they picked it up? A student tells a teacher to “f*** off” and gets a one hour detention for it. Did they apologise? No? What’s the point then? If the detention was for not doing the work in class, sitting there silently and still not doing the work hasn’t addressed anything. Etc. Etc. Get it?

4. At some point, you have to address UNDERLYING CAUSE of the behaviour(s). If the behaviour is a calculated action by the student, it requires a different response than if it’s an automatic reaction to some stimulus. In that case, you need a wider set of solutions. Increasing the harshness of a sanction without dealing with the underlying factors isn’t likely to lead to a behaviour change. Another programme apart from, or in addition to detentions, may be needed. Let’s take the swearing example. Student A is frustrated and tells you to “f*** off”. If that’s their automatic response to frustration, a one hour detention isn’t going to teach them how to deal with frustration (unless that’s an active part of the detention itself). You might be looking at the primary behaviour (the swearing), but failing to grasp the cause, in which case, the behaviour is likely to repeat itself. To address underlying causes, you might have to teach emotional and social skills; reset expectations; actively teach positive behaviours; build up your relationships; talk through the behaviour itself; and/or set up mentoring schemes and positive role models. As I mentioned earlier, detentions are one tool – you need to have others that will fix the issues you’re facing.

5. You issued the sanction? YOU carry out the detention. This might be a little controversial in places where centralised detentions exist. I get the idea behind centralised detentions. Expectations are expectations, right? You broke them for one, why should it matter who carries out the detention? Here’s the problem – in my opinion, that only works in places where excellent behaviour is the norm and it’s well established. Where relationships are still being built and the culture is still being formed, I think there’s a lot to be said for teachers taking ownership of the detentions themselves. It goes back to linking the sanction with the ‘crime’ – the ‘crime’ was perpetrated on you, so you carrying out the sanction is more powerful and more immediate. It shows the student that they have to fix things with you and this is their chance. How is a relationship going to be built when you issued the detention, but another member of staff carried it out? When do you have your dialogue? If your school does have centralised detentions and there’s no way round them for you, go to them and chat with the students you issued the detentions to. Explain the harm they caused and ask/tell them how they’re going to fix it. That’s powerful as well.

6. Finally, you have to remember that IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. This is the other thing that I think sometimes we forget. The sanction has to be for the good of the student. You’re not there to ‘win’ or to ‘show them’ how ‘strong’ you are. This is so crucial. If you’re issuing sanctions as a demonstration of your power over children, you’ve already lost. No relationship is going to be built up like that and there’s definitely not going to be any trust. You are there to nurture, protect, guide and instruct that child. You are there for THEM. If you truly know that and believe it, students will sense it and they will trust you. Once they trust you, a sanction is just a reminder of where they’ve gone wrong and they will trust you to bring them on course again – i.e. they’re already on your side. Seriously… remove your ego from the picture.


So there you have it. These things might sound simple, but check through the way your school operates – how many of them happen? I bet if it’s most of them, the culture of your school is probably one in which misbehaviour is the exception rather than the norm. If a lot of these are missing, I’m willing to bet that behavioural issues are rampant.


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