Still Giving Detention? Here Are 5 Better Alternatives

Detention usually doesn’t work. Here is what does.

A rebel teenage boy with behavioral problems and criminal past talking to a psychotherapist in a juvenile detention center.

All too often, when a student misbehaves in class, they are sent to the front office, an administrator assigns a detention, and the instance gets swept under the rug. The teacher is left assuming that the student showed up for their punishment and that sitting in a quiet place for an hour after school “fixed” the problem. However, more often than not, the detention doesn’t work. Those of us who manage the detention hall see the same kids every week, making it clear that repeat offenders are not learning from this discipline practice. Schools need to evaluate the effectiveness of detention and begin searching for alternatives to detention. Here are five effective ways to correct student behavior without using detention.

1. Stop bad behavior before it starts.

This may seem obvious, but sometimes the key to curtailing misbehavior is addressing it before it happens. Take instructional time to work on soft skills that lead to better behavior. Especially at the secondary level, it is easy to take for granted that students know how to act in a classroom. Some just haven’t figured it all out yet. One thing I have done in my classes that works is bringing in a counselor, teacher, or administrator and role-playing conflict resolution and problem-solving techniques. We use real-world scenarios and model positive reactions to them for students.

For example, in my class we do a lot of collaborative projects. One issue that commonly pops up is that one person dominates the conversation, asserting their ideas over those of others. This can lead to heated moments that can get out of hand. So I bring in a colleague, and we discuss an actual upcoming unit, set up a college visit, or brainstorm the next school event—something to model professional collaboration. We always start with modeling the wrong behavior, demonstrating the incorrect way to handle an argument. Then we show a balanced, collaborative approach. Students get to see proper behavior and learn the importance of these skills, and teachers can then refer back to them throughout the year. When students see positive behavior modeled for them, they learn the expectations and work to achieve them.

2. Hold a lunch workshop instead of a lunch detention.

One way to help students actually learn and take away meaning from their mistakes is through a lunch workshop. At my school, we have a counselor who meets with students one day per week during the student’s lunch. Teachers and administrators can refer a student to this, and students are notified from the office that they are scheduled for a workshop. On that day, students have to report to the counseling office, their lunch is already there (so students don’t wander around or waste time in the lunch line), and they begin immediately.

Our counselor runs the miniworkshop, focusing on a particular character-development issue such as overcoming adversity, surrounding yourself with positive people, or developing a growth mindset. It’s important to note that for this to work, the topics need to be genuine. She talks to the students for roughly 15 minutes while they eat and listen. They then discuss or write about the takeaways they have. Lunch workshops often lead to deep discussions about issues these students are actually struggling with. They also help students build a connection with our counselor. Lastly, they cause students to miss their free time at lunch, which no student wants to do. So while still having an aspect of detention, the time is at least constructive.

3. Have students write reflections.


This is similar to the lunch workshop model, but it doesn’t require a staff member to set up additional time in their schedule. If a student has a regular issue of misbehavior, teachers can have them write about it and reflect on the issue. I have found that when it comes to assigning written reflections, things need to be authentic. If students feel like this is just a hoop they have to jump through to get out of trouble, it will not help. Instead, respond to what the student says (in writing or verbally) and engage with them about what they wrote.

Giving students an opportunity to reflect and be heard not only curbs future negative behavior but also grows your relationship with them. So the next time Johnny acts out in class, instead of just removing him and putting him in ISS or detention, have him write about it. You might just learn that he is truly struggling with something at home and needs help. Set up a time to meet with him and help him. Turn a negative into a positive.

4. Bring in after-school support (coaches, club advisors, directors).

One of the best tools educators have is the availability to bridge the gap from the school day to extracurricular activities. Now this doesn’t help with all students since not everyone is involved in something after school. However, for those who are, this can work great. As a coach myself, I want to know that my players are representing the team well during the school day. If they aren’t, I have the ability to talk to them and relate how their actions have an impact outside the classroom.

I also have the option of making a student sit during a game or even kicking them off the team. For most students, just being aware of these consequences help things “click.” Teachers and administrators should not be afraid to reach out to these supports both during or after the season or event. Plus, as coaches, we have a few more forms of punishments at our disposal. (Running up and down bleachers, anyone?)

5. Reward positive behavior!

Part of the issue schools run into is that we get so caught up cracking down on the negative, that we overlook the fact that 99 percent of the students are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. Why not reward those who are being model students? Give them athletic passes, partner with local businesses for discounts and freebies to distribute, reach out to sports teams for tickets, or give special parking opportunities. There are so many ways we can encourage positive choices rather than just punishing the negative ones. At first, this may produce surface level behaviors from some of the more difficult students. But over time, it will become an ingrained trait.

For instance, one issue that we wanted to address in a positive way at my school was how to encourage school pride. So for our home football games we created themes for our student sections. One theme was Hawaiian luau. In the week leading up to the big game, we gave out free leis and luau garb to students doing the right things, like not having their phones out in the hallway. Not only did this reward positive behavior, it also built school pride and was fun! While not a huge or expensive prize, students were motivated by it and appreciated being recognized.

Don’t just expect students to outgrow troubling behaviors by putting them into a silent room. Our goal as educators is to prepare students for what lies ahead. By using alternatives to detention, we can help students prepare for the real world while still holding them accountable for their shortcomings.

And as a bonus, you will never again have to send an email pleading for someone to cover detention duty.

Join the great conversations going on about school leadership in our Facebook groups Principal Life and High School Principal Life.

Plus, check out this article about restorative practices.