Committee for Children Blog

Replacing Punishment with Positive Reinforcement

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This week’s blog entry is written by Senior Training and Technical Assistance Specialist Corrina Skildum.

Corrina SkildumI recently learned of the Babemba tribe of southern Africa, who have an amazing way of dealing with misbehavior. Whenever a community member is accused of a crime, he or she goes to the center of the village and is surrounded by the entire community. Each member of the community speaks about this person’s good qualities and tells stories of his or her kind acts. This sometimes goes on for days, after which the community member is welcomed back with a big celebration.

Although this is far from what we might imagine possible in our justice system, I wonder if we could learn from the Babemba people as we work to establish safer school communities. More and more, we see the ineffectiveness of zero-tolerance policies and exclusionary consequences. When we label children as bullies, they are bound to get defensive, as are their families.

Instead, could we focus on acknowledging strengths, teaching pro-social skills, and consistently reinforcing acts of kindness? Can we believe in each child’s potential and show it on a daily basis? When there is misbehavior, could we take the focus off labels and punishment and instead put our efforts into coaching students and finding consequences that teach? Can every child in a school feel like an integral part of the community?

The Babemba tribe’s method of dealing with deviant behavior is so effective, they rarely have need for it. I look forward with hope to the day when children are motivated toward positive behaviors, not to escape negative consequences, but instead because of the relationships they’ve fostered and their sense of responsibility as a functioning member of their respectful school community.