Education/teachers, Residential Care, Treatment for offenders

Why do good staff become punitive so quickly?


Practitioners will recognise the situation whereby they recruit someone who, during their interview, presents as a compassionate and caring individual, only to be caught off guard when the same person suddenly starts advocating harsher and harsher punishment for YP.

This study

This Israeli study explores how beliefs and attitudes of staff who work with the vulnerable predict the use of punitive discipline approaches. Specifically, they investigate the hypothesis that a belief in a just world – called Belief in a Just World  (BJW) – predicts the likelihood of more punitive approaches. The staff worked in the equivalent of juvenile justice centres and/or residential care facilities in Australia.

What is Belief in a Just World (BJW)

BJW’s core tenet is that individuals deserve what they get and get what they deserve.

Three approaches to discipline

The study describes three basic techniques used in discipline encounters:

  1. Power assertion involves physical punishment or verbal threats.
  2. Love withdrawal represents an expression of anger or dissatisfaction with the child’s behaviour. It is manifested by ignoring and refusing to talk to the disciplined child.
  3. Induction involves explaining and indicating the possible negative consequences of the undesirable behaviour.

Power assertion and love withdrawal are based on evoking fear and are considered punitive approaches. Conversely, induction is regarded as a rehabilitative approach aimed at changing behaviour through persuasion and personal decisions. Induction promotes pro-social behaviours, helps to develop a moral identity and facilitates the management of adolescence. Power assertion and love withdrawal border on physical abuse and emotional neglect and tend to negatively affect children. These negative consequences include increased likelihood of delinquency and reduced rehabilitation prospects.

The study’s hypothesis is that BJW predicts the use of power assertion and love  withdrawal, but not the induction method of discipline.

Key Findings

  • That BJW makes a significant contribution in predicting disciplinary techniques used by staff.
  • This finding supports the hypothesis that BJW is a very basic assumption that heavily impacts on attitudes and behaviours.
  • The results suggest that BJW predicts punitiveness not just on sociological levels, as manifested in the support of harsh sentences and rulings for offenders, but also on a personal level, as demonstrated by behaviours related to power assertion and love withdrawal in disciplinary situations with YP.
  • It is possible that the relationship between BJW and the punitive approach is intensified in that many residential settings where YP are placed for protection against further victimisation.


Why does BJW result in use of punitive approaches?

At an intellectual level, staff know that childhood trauma is the cause of dysregulated behaviour and that punishment is likely to be ineffective. However, they become psychologically aroused when confronted by intense anti-social behaviour. BJW then allows them to minimise the impact of childhood trauma (i.e. by blaming the victim) and opens the door to the use of more punitive approaches.

I don’t believe that BJW is a sufficient explanation of why seemingly caring people become so punitive so quickly in YJ, resi care and alternative schools. It would be useful to review other factors such as how staff who gravitate towards and use punitive approaches were themselves raised as children (i.e. their attachment styles) etc.

Take-out for practitioners

  • Whilst it is logical to assess BJW during recruitment, most people would be savvy enough not to articulate such views at the interview stage.
  • Another approach would be to formally include the BJW concept in staff orientation when they are not psychologically aroused. The idea is to provide staff with pre-warning that when they start articulating punitive approaches, it typically means that something else is going on for them and they should talk to someone about the issue.


Levy, I. and Y. Reuven (2017). “Predicting Punitive Disciplinary Techniques among Juvenile Care Workers Based on Ethnicity, Nationality, Religiosity and Belief in a Just World.” Child Youth Care Forum 46: 519–537.


About graemembaird

I am a psychologist with a special interest in improving the outcomes of families, children and young people in the Out of Home Care and Juvenile Justice systems.
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1 thought on “Why do good staff become punitive so quickly?

  1. Graeme, I, like you, think there is something missing in the transition from caring to punitive. My suspicion is that there is an interpersonal interaction where the new staff feels either treated in a way they didn’t deserve or are not appreciated for something they did. The staff training issue is learning not to take this behaviour personally. John

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