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Don’t Just Sit There: Use Detention Wisely

What should students be doing in detention so that they are less likely to end up there again? Ask teachers, and their opinions may be as varied as students themselves.

Varying school requirements for teachers’ time and detention protocols play some role in this lack of consensus. One teacher message board that put the call out for quality detention activities drew suggestions including everything from having students finish a series of math problems, to the oldest detention activity in the book: seated silence.

It’s pretty clear when detention practices are not working—most educators have seen the film The Breakfast Club, in which high-school students spend a Saturday detention engaging in comedic hijinks.

So what does work? On the message board, many praised the suggestion of one poster who recommended the use of what she calls a “reflection packet.”

“We tried to explain to kids that the packet wasn't punishment. It was a tool to help them change their behavior,” she wrote. “The packet contained questions such as: What does it mean to be a member of a team? Why are you in detention? How did your actions affect your teammates (classmates)?”

While lauded by her peers, her detention model falls a bit short, according to Deborah Sisco, principal of the Colgan Alternative Resource Center in Saint Joseph, MO. Rather than passively asking students to fill out a packet, Sisco suggested engaging in active dialogue with the student.

“I would support the reflection, but not spending the whole detention writing about it,” Sisco said. “Just because they wrote about it doesn't mean anyone will do anything about it. That writing can give you a glimpse as to what’s going on, but you, as the teacher, have to have the discussion. Work with them.”

Sisco, whose Pre K-12 school partners with rehab and mental health facilities and the local juvenile detention office, advocates for teachers and administrators to curb the bad behavior before it gets to the point of requiring detention.

“Cussing is a good example,” explained Sisco. “If we have a kid who is swearing a lot, maybe it's because that is part of his culture at home and he doesn't realize it’s inappropriate. Explain to him how to act differently in different situations. We tend to punish sometimes before thinking about the cause, or re-training it. If I hear swearing, I'll ask the student, 'What is another word for that?' If I hear it again, I'll do the same. After that, I know it's behavioral and we'll go to the next step.”

She added that by working to curb the behavior before it becomes chronic, educators can reduce the need for deterrents like detention.

“Detention has negative connotations associated with it,” Sisco said. “It is a punishment, so you're not going to completely remove that, but you can lessen it. We don't even call it detention. We just say, 'You're going to have to stay after.' That is also why I don't like quiet reading in detention. That negative association to detention attaches itself to the act of reading. You have to take advantage of this time to teach the student. Be involved.”

Related resources

CT Voices for Children: Do Detentions and Suspensions Work?
In-School Suspension: A Learning Tool


Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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