Send Em’ To The Principal’s Office!

When I was in elementary school, I had a bit of a tough time of it.  From first to third grade I spent an inordinate amount of time in the principal’s office, the punitive measure of choice at my elementary school.  Every paper thrown, inappropriate comment bellowed and t-shirt removed during a reading lesson (I won’t get into this) evoked the same response from my teachers:

“Go to the principal’s office.”

The office secretary knew me by name, I knew the number of carpet squares I would trod upon en-route and had more or less memorized the spiel I’d get from the principal.

“Don’t do _________ again, Zach.   Don’t you realize that you’re disrupting the class?  I’m disappointed in you.”

It struck me later while studying the principles of behavior that, although my elementary school teachers were sending me to the principal’s office as a punishment for my various infractions, going to the office was not punishing at all.

Martin and Pear (2003) define a Punisher as “an event that, when presented immediately following a behavior, causes the behavior to decrease in frequency.”

Martin and Pear (2003) nicely illustrate the Principle of Punishment:

If, in a given situation, somebody does something that is immediately followed by a punisher, then that person is less likely to do the same thing again when he/she next encounters a similar situation.

Additionally, Cooper, Heron and Heward  (2007) note that “like reinforcement” punishment is “defined by its effects on the future frequency of behavior.”

I assume that my teachers’ propensity for sending me to the principal’s office was “done with the intention of reducing [my] tendencies to behave in certain ways” (Skinner, 1953).

However, in retrospect, it didn’t work.  If going to the principal’s office were effective as a punisher, it would’ve reduced the future frequency of my behavior (for the record, I removed my shirt several more times during reading group).

So why did they keep sending me up to that office if it didn’t reduce my behavior?  I think there are a couple of reasons.

1)   Well, I have to make another assumption here.  My guess is that my removal from the classroom served as a negative reinforcer for my teachers’ behavior; when I acted up, my teachers engaged in behavior to escape/avoid the classroom disruption (e.g., sending me to the principal’s office).  Clearly, this worked for them since they continued to do so year after year.

2)   My teachers likely adopted, what Cooper, Heron and Heward (2007) describe as, “everyday…notions of punishment” instead of viewing punishment as “natural phenomenon,” and a basic principle of behavior.  In other words, my teachers’ response to what they’d deemed inappropriate behavior, was to enact a widely accepted punitive measure in education: sending the student (i.e., me) to the principal’s office.  Had they understood punishment from a behavior analytic perspective, they would’ve seen that the consequence for my behavior was not leading to a decrease in my behavior.

Many variations of “sending the student to the principal’s office” still exist in education today.  Teachers might identify these actions as a form of punishment:

a)    Holding students back from recess.

b)    Giving students extra homework.

c)    Administering “threats” (e.g., “If you do that again, I will keep you in at recess/give you extra homework/call your parents etc…”)

However, it’s important for teachers to remember, that if they find themselves consistently having to use these interventions with their learners, the interventions are not serving to reduce behavior.  In other words, they’re not punishing.

In fact, if a student’s inappropriate behavior does not decrease as the result of an intervention, we might explore the possibility that the punitive measures are serving to reinforce (i.e., increase the future occurrence of the inappropriate behavior).  Perhaps the punishment allows a student to escape/avoid school work (negative reinforcement)? Maybe the only way for the student to consistently access your attention is to engage in problem behavior (positive reinforcement)? Perhaps holding a student back at recess allows him to escape/avoid an aversive social situation (negative reinforcement)?

To summarize:

1)   Punishment decreases behavior

2)   Reinforcement strengthens behavior

3)   If you’re using what you consider a punishing procedure all the time (e.g., you send a student to the principal’s office several times a week or even everyday) you aren’t using punishment, nor are you taking effective steps to reduce the behavior you are targeting; in fact, you might be helping to increase the frequency of the  behavior.


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007).Applied behavior analysis. (2nd ed., p. 327). Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Martin, G., & Pear, J. (2003). Behavior modification: What it is and how to do it. (7 ed., p. 148). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. (p. 182). New York: The Free Press.


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