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Why Discipline Is Better Than Punishment

Some time ago, I spoke at an educator event in Missouri. During the Q and A period, a gentleman raised his hand with a deep concern:

“Today, it seems like we’re quick to penalize (even suspend) students for wrong behavior more quickly than when I was in high school. Do you see the same thing?”

The fact is—I do see the same thing today.

Many private schools have adopted a “one and done” policy, meaning if you violate a school rule, you are immediately suspended. Others are a little more gracious, adopting a “three strikes and you’re out” policy. In this case, students get three chances to get their behavior right, and then they are tossed out.

The benefits of this type of leadership are obvious:

1. It forces students to consider consequences.

2. It is designed to motivate them to make better choices.

3. It prevents the school culture from declining into a poor environment.

The downside is—students begin to feel school leaders are suspicious of their worst behavior and can hardly wait to get rid of them. As teens, with their brains still developing for another 8-10 years, they often feel destined to fail at living up to the standard. Why? Its focus tends to look backward at past mistakes.

An Experiment That’s Working

Believe it or not, a youth detention facility in Ventura, CA has turned punishment on its ear. Juvenile inmates, incarcerated for armed robbery and manslaughter, are beating the “streets to prison” cycle that their parents passed along to them. How? By learning to code, while still in prison.

What?  Are they serious?

Yes, they are. Very serious. For the past few months, these teen prisoners have been learning to write code for computers through a first-of-its-kind program called, “Last Mile.” These young inmates, mostly minorities who are black or Hispanic, are being mentored via Skype by adult inmates who’ve turned their lives around by learning to code at the San Quentin State Prison.

Is it working?  You tell me. According to USA Today:

  • So far, 393 students have graduated from the “Last Mile” coding program.
  • There is a zero (0) recidivism rate, compared to almost half of their peers who return to prison after serving their sentence.

This Is Rehabilitation at Its Best

Many prison facilities are called “rehabilitation centers” because their goal is to prepare inmates to return to their communities as contributing citizens. But too often (about half the time or more), they do not rehabilitate those young men and women. They simply punish the inmates for what they’ve done.

Now—I realize punishment makes sense: courts must level justice for those who’ve been violated. Victims feel their perpetrators must pay a price for their crime.

I simply argue that there is a way for them to make restitution and to change their sense of identity. “Last Mile” seems to be doing just that. In fact, part of their $16.49 an-hour wage goes to making restitution to victims. The rest of that money prepares them to enter society again as a better person. If we merely punish the juvenile perpetrators, victims usually gain nothing but the feeling of revenge.

As far as I am concerned, “discipline” is better than “punishment.”

Discipline Not Punishment

When we punish kids for crimes, we look backward at what they’ve done,  wanting to bring justice to the situation. When we discipline kids, we look forward to the future and equip them to change their thinking and actions. Both require leadership, but discipline generally leads to better outcomes. Changed lives. Bright futures. In fact, the results of this kind of discipline are:

  • Rehabilitation – It improves their lifestyle.
  • Restitution – It returns payment for their mistake.
  • Restoration – It restores everyone to a better version of themselves.

If we’re going to do this well, we may have to change our mindset:

1. While both are important, we must prioritize “restoration” over “justice.”

2. While both are important, we must peer into the future more than the past.

3. While both are important, we must value preparation over punishment.

Are you willing to advocate for discipline—not just punishment?


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  1. […] Why Discipline Is Better Than Punishment by Tim Elmore via GrowingLeaders.com […]

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