Sin Bins in Schools

Rugby followers will be very familiar with the term ‘sin bin’ to which players who have broken the rules of sportsmanship are banished for a determined amount of time.  Apart from the fact that the word ‘sin’ has so many associations with the hell fire and damnation of Catholicism in Ireland, the term ‘sin bin’ seriously misses the point of foul play.  Certainly, any player that offends deserves the side-lining sentence, but my guess is that he perceives being put in the ‘sin bin’ for ten minutes as a punishment, and not an invitation for him to reflect on the source of his foul play.  We all know of players who in spite of frequent visits to the ‘sin bin’ persist in their foul and aggressive play.  Whilst the opposing team players have a right to safety on the field of play and the sanction of transgressors being ‘sin binned’ provides that sanctuary for them, my concern is that the perpetrator is not confronted on the whys and wherefores of his unlawful actions.  For true resolution to occur, it is not the behaviour that is shown that needs to change, but the insecurities and vulnerabilities that underlie it.

When it comes to applying the ‘sin bin’ approach to secondary school students who present with persistent challenging behaviours in the classroom and school, I would have grave concerns that the underlying reasons for the undisciplined behaviours will not be detected and resolved.  I am delighted that the Department of Education have finally accepted the reality of discipline problems in schools, even though there appears to be a disagreement between the Department and the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) over the scale of the crisis.  The good intention of the Department of Education is to create a new service aimed at tackling what they describe as ‘unruly pupil behaviour’, in part through the use of ‘sin bins.’  The Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, said that the new service would lead to the introduction of ‘behavioural support classrooms’ – known as ‘sin bins’ – for seriously disruptive pupils.  I truly wonder why the addition of ‘sin bins’ was required; the term support classrooms is constructive, but is undermined by the negative addendum.

From the point of view of teachers and those students who show a psycho-social readiness for learning, the assignment of their peers, who are not in that advantaged place to these special classrooms will certainly provide deserved relief.  For too long teachers have expected to tolerate certain students’ persistent disruptive behaviours which caused them great stress, low job satisfaction and disrupted of other students’ learning.  Indeed, approximately 25% of young teachers leave the profession within one to two years of qualifying, mainly due to discipline problems. 

I am concerned about the Minister’s attitude to those students who are disruptive of the school routine.  It appears to me that her very use of the term ‘sin bin’ suggests a judgemental approach, rather than one that seeks to understand what are the experiences and circumstances that have brought these students to such a vulnerable place.  Students who are unruly do not sit down and consciously plan to make life difficult for teachers, their peers and their parents.  In my experience, these students are not wanting to make life difficult for others; they are wanting to show how difficult life is for them!  Their unconscious hope is that some adults out there will spot their unhappy state and provide the dynamic help required to resolve their problems in living.  Given that one in four teenagers have undetected emotional turmoil, it is no wonder that many schools are enduring a discipline crisis.  However, for the discipline crisis to be resolved, the hidden turmoil needs to be the primary focus of attention.  The involvement of parents will be crucial.  Furthermore, sight must not be lost of the need to determine the quality of the ethos of the school and particular attention needs to be paid to how teachers and those troubled students’ peers respond to the undisciplined conduct.  It is often the case that other students reinforce these ‘acting out’ behaviours and the teachers react defensively which only exacerbates the situation.  This is not meant as a criticism, but it points to a reality that teachers need some basic training in how to respond constructively to students’ difficult and trying behaviours.  The involvement of all students in the creation of a positive school ethos is another issue that the new initiative needs to seriously consider.  There is a danger that the over-focus on those students who perpetrate the challenging behaviours may add to their own inner conviction that they are ‘bad’. ‘no good’, ‘troublemakers’ and lead to an escalation of their troubling behaviours and be a further blow to their self-esteem.

The new pilot service will operate from the Navan Education Centre and will be headed by Mary Keane, Principal of St. Dominic’s College in Cabra, Dublin.  Ms. Keane will be supported by four assistant co-ordinators, nine regional development officers and twenty associate regional development officers.  This all sounds very good on paper but it will be the nature, breadth and depth by psycho-social expertise of each of these team members that will determine the effectiveness of the service.  Certainly, a high degree of personal maturity is fundamental to these posts and a thorough grounding in the assessment, understanding and resolving of young people’s turmoil.  Knowledge of self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, family and other social system dynamics, conflict-resolution and positive approaches to discipline are but some of the skills that will be required.

The new initiative is to be loudly applauded and provides a wonderful opportunity for helping troubled teenagers and it also creates the possibility that teachers can put their energies into what they really were trained to do – and that is to teach.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of A Different Kind of Discipline.