Professional Ethics and the Use of Punishment in Physical Activity Environments

This is an excerpt from Positive Behavior Management in Physical Activity Settings-3rd Edition by Barry W. Lavay,Ron FrenchH & ester L. Henderson.

There are professionals and organizations who believe there must be an ethical consideration when manipulating participant or group behavior to perform, learn, reduce, or eliminate a behavior (see checklist 10.2). The focus should not be just on solving an immediate behavioral problem that negatively affects not only the level of motivation of children to attend and respond but also helps to increase their level of physical performance and learning. The focus at the same time should be on more than the teacher teaching or the coach coaching - it should be on the bigger picture. Professionally and ethically, there must be an attempt to positively affect students’ lives. Because of this, physical activity professionals must exhibit moral courage, unshakable ethical standards, and consideration for the dignity of children and youth, which may involve challenges of their professional ethics by parents, guardians, administrators, and others in a community (Bagley, 1907).


Discipline and Punishment

Discipline is the control that is gained by requiring that rules or orders be obeyed and punishing bad behavior. Based on Carson (2014), there is both positive and negative discipline. Positive discipline focuses on modeling positive behavior and ensures student or player input in the development of class or team rules. Negative discipline relates to students running laps or performing other tasks as a result of misbehaving. It is generally a reactive behavior when something negative happens and relays a message the teacher or coach is mad or angry. Punishment is a term often used to describe consequences that are implemented to decrease the future occurrence of a behavior. Broadly, punishment may include suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution and severe, rough, or disastrous treatment. Seifried (2008) defined punishment as a moral concept for disobedience to an authority or a set of rules relating to right and wrong that is intended to reduce or eliminate the disobedient behavior. The authors believe that this term is too harsh for educational settings, so we have chosen to use the term corrective methods. Corrective methods are intervention procedures in which a pleasurable stimulus is removed or an aversive stimulus is presented as a consequence of a behavior in order to decrease the future frequency of occurrence of that inappropriate behavior. See chapter 4 for more discussion on corrective methods and punishment.


Corrective techniques are the most widely used behavioral strategies to control behavior because they reduce the inappropriate behavior quickly. However, we believe that corrective techniques have many negative side effects and should only be used minimally to manage behavior. As Gallahue (1978) indicated, corrective techniques serve to repress the inappropriate behavior but they do nothing to determine and solve the cause of that behavior.


Corporal punishment is using physical force with the intention of causing a person to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or behavior control. Some school districts define corporal punishment as touching someone for the purpose of discipline, starting with putting your arm on that person’s shoulders to discuss a problem and including dragging that person into time-out. Corporal punishment is prohibited in schools in all developed countries except in 19 states in the United States, parts of Canada, and 1 state in Australia. See chapter 4 for more details on the use of corporal punishment in schools. Corporal punishment is the most severe corrective method and is discussed in this book because it is still allowed in some states. There are serious professional and ethical issues as well as liability issues in using corporal punishment. Further, physical activity specialists who support the use of corporal punishment must comply "with the authoritative social values and moral codes set forth by their own professional organizations" (Albrecht, 2009, p. 475). How can we expect to develop well-disciplined students and players with all the positive qualities we want them to have through the use of punishment?


Requiring Physical Activity

A technique used far too often in physical activity settings - especially in coaching - is requiring a participant to perform a physical activity as a consequence of misbehavior. Participants have been required to perform extreme physical activity extending beyond their physical capacity, resulting in medical conditions such as heat stroke, renal failure, or even death. When a participant is required to do exercise as punishment, such as doing squat thrusts, running wind sprints, doing push-ups, running laps, and so on, the message sent is that this activity is something that is aversive and should be avoided. Even as early as 1992, Hart indicated that excessive physical activity used as punishment is not only risky but outdated. This is particularly true if not carried out with the appropriate supervision to ensure there is no emotional or physical injury.


Further, some states have stipulated that using physical activity as punishment is considered a form of corporal punishment and is illegal. In the web resource see California’s policy on the use of physical activity. In addition, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) opposes administering or withholding physical activity as a form of punishment or behavior management. For a summary of this policy see figure 4.7. Because of the possible negative effects of using physical activity to correct misbehavior, the authors do not condone the use of this technique. We caution physical activity professionals who may be contemplating its use to learn more about the possible negative consequences and be sure to consult your state’s office of education to determine the legality of the use of this technique.


It has been suggested that there is a double standard relative to corporal punishment: "[T]eachers [coaches] who detect unusual bruises on children’s bodies are required to report suspected abuses to authorities, but parents who see the same thing on their children as a result of educators’ [coaches] disciplinary procedures get little to no back up from the law" (as cited in Rico, 2002, p. 356). For example, if physical educators or coaches follow school policy related to punishment, they could receive qualified immunity, but parents and guardians may be liable for violating the same state statutes. Again, though, corporal punishment, including requiring physical activity, cannot be excessive and must be reasonable, or the physical educators and coaches may be subject to the same civil and criminal liability as parents and guardians in virtually all states.


Remember that as of 2014, 31 state legislatures have passed laws prohibiting the use of corporal punishment in schools. For a list of these states, see figure 4.5. Also in that chapter is a discussion of many negative side effects of using severe corrective methods for managing behaviors.


If we as physical activity professionals want to develop strong connections with our participants and create a positive, nurturing environment for them to grow and learn, there are many other proactive and positive ways to manage their behavior than using corporal punishment. Therefore, we believe that it is never appropriate to use corporal punishment!


Time-Out

The use of time-out has been debated by experts for decades. Some believe that if it is used correctly and consistently, a student or player learns to control himself or herself, and a trusting and respectful relationship between that participant and the physical activity professional will be maintained. There are other experts who believe the use of time-out strategies that remove a participant from positive reinforcement is overused and counterintuitive to sound educational practices because that participant is removed from an environment where he or she had an opportunity to practice or learn. For example, in one strategy a participant may be removed from a possible reinforcing environment for a minute or two for each year of his or her age. For older participants this could be more than half the instructional class period or practice!


Once, one of the authors of this text was visiting a physical education class and a student came in late from another class. That student was required to sit out the entire class. Later, it was determined that it was not the student’s fault that he was late; the teacher in his previous class had held him after class. A teacher must know why the student came in late first before punishing him or her for a behavior that he or she had no control over. A more proactive technique would be to include that student immediately into the class. Then, once class was over, determine the reason why he or she was late. In this case the possible solution may be to meet after school with the other teacher to rectify the problem so the student is not held back in total or in part from your class.


Another issue in using time-out, besides the potentially excessive length of time involved, is the type of time-out. If a participant is sent to another setting that is away from the actual activity setting, this is referred to as seclusion time-out. Many school districts and other organizations do not allow seclusion time-out because all students must be supervised. It is easy for a physical activity professional to forget about the participant in seclusion and leave him or her out of class or team activity for a long time, thus depriving that student or player from participating and learning.


Alternatives to the Use of Corrective Methods

Most experts believe that a proactive behavior management program should always be in place to stop or reduce behavioral problems and thus avert the need for corrective techniques. For example, the physical activity professional continually must put away the free weights after the weight lifting class. He is considering not letting the students use the free weights for class next week. He decides to first post signs in the weight room asking that the weights be put back on the appropriate rack immediately after use, or the weights will be removed for 2 weeks in the future.


Sometimes the problem may be that participants are violating an expected program standard that seems to be common sense to the physical activity professional. Or there may be a communication problem in that a standard was just not clearly explained. Once recognized, that problem can be solved immediately by explaining the standard more clearly to participants; the violation will most likely not occur again and no punishment will be needed.


Another proactive technique is the use of cues to signal what behavior is expected. For instance, a verbal warning cue could be a statement such as "The game will be over in 5 minutes" or "Billy, when I blow my whistle, you need to start lining up in your squad." Many other proactive techniques are discussed in chapter 3.


If the proactive strategies are not enough to manage behavior, try including intrinsic reinforcers such as fun and exciting activities that meet your essential class or practice objectives and are also activities that participants enjoy doing. There will, however, be some participants who do not believe an activity has any functional value or that an activity is repetitive and boring. To bridge the gap between performance and learning, a more powerful extrinsic reinforcement may be required initially to engage those who may not be intrinsically motivated to participate. The goal is always to fade out extrinsic reinforcers and move to intrinsic reinforcers as soon as possible.


Sometimes these positive proactive and reinforcement strategies (Martens, 2004) may have little influence on effective learning and performance. Therefore, mild corrective techniques matched with positive reinforcers for demonstrating the appropriate behavior may need to be used in order to eliminate behaviors that are interfering with the performance and learning of a participant or a group. Clearly, it is a serious ethical issue for physical activity professionals when deciding whether to incorporate different levels of corrective techniques into their programs for educational purposes. This is particularly true when a professional is considering the use of the more punitive corrective techniques such as time-out or a corporal punishment that includes the use of physical activity. See chapter 4 for more information related to methods that can be used to redirect and decrease inappropriate behavior.


This is not to say that what are generally considered mild forms of punishment should be taken lightly. What would be considered mild by some people may not have the same punishment effect when perceived by a physical activity professional. For example, you may have met the wrath of a teacher or coach just by how he or she said no! when you did something incorrectly. You may still remember this incident today, particularly if that professional was respected and considered a role model.


On the other hand, one of the authors of this text had a friend who was always getting in trouble with a physical educator and was required to run laps, which is generally considered a form of corporal punishment. This student did not care to participate in many team-based activities but loved to jog. Running laps was a positive reinforcer to him, not a punishment at all. Most professionals believe that physical activity should be enjoyable, fun, and continued throughout someone’s lifetime. If you professionally believe this, physical activity should not be related to punishment (see checklist 10.3).

Learn more about Positive Behavior Management in Physical Activity Settings, Third Edition.

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