The battle of wills between teacher and student, and even parent and child, is one that is age-old. 

Beneath that brews a powerful shift in the way we understand the children in our care by leaning into a relinquishment of control. 

We know–this is probably hard to hear, and even harder to put into action. The fear of taking our hands off the wheel, so to speak, is palpable, weighed heavier by the responsibility of our adulthood and our statuses as caretakers to do what we’re used to doing: guiding.

But what if we told you that the wheel was never really ours to steer? Or that discipline is worlds away from guidance?

The topic of control is a nebulous one. It looks different from family to family, classroom to classroom, school to school. It’s made doubly complex when dealing with inherently complex and dynamic human beings who are changing every day. After all, we’re in the pursuit of trying to build the most responsible, well-rounded individuals we can as we raise them–a blank slate to project our values onto and hope they’ll stick. Even some environments impose punitive approaches under the veneer of building character; anything becomes justifiable. Adults often fall back on their authority to strengthen their resolve, kids resist as they naturally would, and then face the consequences of their defiance to being misunderstood or unseen. 

This is not conducive to long-term–or even short-term–change.

Traditional behaviour management methods often rely on control mechanisms: rules, punishments, and rewards. Even the idea of discipline itself is so often rooted in the punitive; an imposition of control, submission, and consequences. But here’s the harsh truth: control doesn’t breed genuine accountability; it breeds compliance out of fear or desire for a reward. It fails to address the root causes of behavioural issues and can even exacerbate them. Instead of fostering a positive learning environment, it creates an atmosphere of tension and resentment.

Evidence from various studies has repeatedly shown that punitive approaches to discipline can lead to increased dropout rates, decreased academic achievement, and even perpetuation of the cycle of misbehaviour. This grim reality is a testament to the failure of control-based strategies inside and outside of schools.

The pitfalls of control begin to show themselves:

  1. Strict discipline overlooks the complexities behind student behaviour by failing to account for factors like family dynamics, economic conditions, and mental well-being (Raby, 2015). Research also questions the effectiveness of punishment as a deterrent. Detentions, for instance, might not address the root causes of misbehaviour (Skiba et al., 2011).

  2. Detentions are typically seen as a way to deter misbehaviour, but studies have cast doubt on this approach (Skiba et al., 2002). Instead, they may worsen the situation by breeding resentment among students and straining teacher-student relationships (Gregory et al., 2010), aside from the problematic nature of punitive, negative reinforcement itself.

  3. Moreover, an excessive focus on strictness can have psychological consequences, increasing student stress, anxiety, and disengagement (Jennings and Greenberg, 2009). This emphasis on punishment may also hinder the development of crucial social and emotional skills.

  4. Heavy reliance on punitive measures can stifle creativity and critical thinking. It might deter students from expressing diverse perspectives and exploring innovative ideas (Galloway and Roland, 2004). This suppression of creativity can limit cognitive development and hinder the overall learning experience.

One thing these tactics have in common: the stifling of a learner’s personality as a whole, avoidant behaviour in an effort to escape punishment, and a failure to remedy the root cause. 

So, what’s the alternative? 

A shift towards holistic, child-centred approaches to behaviour management that encourages a sense of empowerment and agency. Beneath that, the compassion to even speak to the child’s unique, budding sense of values. This is anchored in the belief that when we understand and connect with children on a deeper level, they become active participants in their own growth and development–becoming invested in their own change. 

When we approach with the understanding that every child is unique with their own experiences, struggles, and strengths, we address their similarly unique issues with attentiveness and care. Rather than labelling and punishing, trauma-informed teaching practices acknowledge that past experiences can deeply influence behaviour. By addressing these underlying issues, educators can guide learners toward better choices and the self-awareness to adjust the way they relate to others. 

Instead of imposing one-size-fits-all punishments but teaching problem-solving skills, educators work with learners to identify the root causes of misbehaviour and co-create solutions that cut to the heart of the issue. Recognising that children of different ages, for example, have varying needs and abilities, developmentally appropriate strategies as part of these tailored approaches are crucial. Young children may require more guidance and redirection, while older ones benefit from increased autonomy and responsibility. By tailoring approaches to age and maturity, educators can better support learners in their growth with a better-developed understanding of the child they’re dealing with.

Restorative practices, for example, focus on repairing harm and restoring relationships, instead of merely punishing wrongdoing. These practices promote dialogue, empathy, and accountability. Restorative circles encourage open communication and problem-solving. Research shows that restorative practices reduce suspensions, improve school climate, and enhance social-emotional development.

In harnessing positive approaches: 

  1. Studies have shown that using rewards, praise, and incentives can boost compliance and encourage positive behaviour (Kazdin and Bootzin, 1972). It’s not just about motivation; it’s about nurturing autonomy and self-confidence, leading to lasting behavioural change (Deci et al., 1999).

  2. Research also underscores the importance of setting clear rules and expectations, communicated in ways that match a child’s age and understanding (Strain and Joseph, 2004). When children know what’s expected, they feel more secure and in control, which promotes positive behaviour.

  3. Research by Bandura (1963) and Patterson et al. (1975) highlights the power of role models and exposure to positive behaviours. When children see positive behaviours in action, they’re more likely to adopt and display them themselves. It’s all about learning from the good examples around them. Mentorship can play a valuable role here through cross-age interaction for positive role models that are closer to home.

Schools that adopt these practices report decreased incidents of misbehaviour, improved academic performance, and a more positive school culture. The evidence is clear: a more compassionate approach to behaviour management has far-reaching benefits. Learners who are empowered and encouraged to take accountability for their actions are more likely to develop self-discipline, problem-solving skills, and a sense of responsibility. They become active participants in their own learning journey. They want to create change and act on them for themselves, unconstrained by the threat of punishment.

This shift is driven by a profound realisation: trying to control learner behaviour through a mindset of control is not only counterproductive but punitive and ultimately damaging. In its place, a paradigm shift is emerging—one that values understanding, patience, restorative practices, problem-solving, individualised strategies, and developmentally appropriate approaches. And with that, a need for us to do the work ourselves to go beyond the behaviour, and understand the children in our care. Most of all, to see them for who they are and structure our “management” around that.

We recognise the fundamental truth that true accountability is born out of understanding, trust, and support. By embracing this and going beyond the archaic ways of imposing behaviour rather than fostering it, we create not only more harmonious learning spaces but children who are responsible, compassionate, and self-motivated learners ready to face the challenges of the future. Our approach may differ slightly as we reserve the use of “tangible rewards as a last resort,” because we see children as valuable members of our community and strive to notice and appreciate their positive actions. In 90% of cases, this fosters mutual respect and understanding, leading to natural improvements in learner behaviour. It’s about building connections and trust, not just incentives.

It’s time to trust that they will, and can, use that agency to do right by themselves and the people around them if we’re serious about creating thoughtful, considerate individuals doing ‘good’ of their own volition. The question is whether we want to wield our own responsibility as adults and educators in a way that’s reflective, and deserving, of our so-called authority–and recognising theirs in their own lives.