Fostering a positive school environment
On the second anniversary of the UN Secretary General’s Report on Violence Against Children, UNICEF explores how schools can incorporate positive discipline methods to protect children from violence and promote a culture of non-violence.
By Tee Shiao Eek
PUTRAJAYA, 12 October 2008 – What could be worse than using wooden planks to hit children on their heads? A lot, as educationist and child rights expert Professor Dr Judith Ennew has discovered.
“Visiting a school in Peru, I discovered that the teachers were using wooden planks to hit students who misbehaved,” related Professor Judith to an audience of Ministry of Education officials, school principals and teachers during a workshop on ‘Enhancing Educational Standards through Positive School Environments’ here recently.
“When I expressed my concern, the teacher told me that things had actually improved.” She paused and continued, “They had previously used wooden planks with nails embedded in them.”
Even though she related the story calmly, it did not disguise the horrifying impact of the tale, and her audience gasped in collective dismay.
During the workshop by HELP University College and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Professor Judith discussed current perspectives on discipline and introduced the concept of positive school environments to enhance educational standards.
“According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, education should encourage children to respect others and help them learn to live peacefully.”
Mr Youssouf Oomar
"According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, education should encourage children to respect others and help them learn to live peacefully. A child’s right to education also encompasses his/her right to discipline that respects their dignity,” said UNICEF Representative to Malaysia Mr Youssouf Oomar.
Inflicting physical and emotional pain
With more than 20 years of experience researching child rights in the educational setting, Professor Judith, who is currently a Research Associate for the Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at University of Queensland, is well-placed to advocate for positive discipline.
Her work in countries around the world, including South America, Africa and South-East Asia, has looked at the many forms of negative discipline that take place in schools, and their far-reaching consequences.
“Physical punishment of children in schools is widespread. It takes many forms, including verbal abuse and punishments involving total humiliation and loss of dignity,” she said, describing extreme cases where children had been made to kneel on the spiky skin of durian fruit or tied up next to an ants’ nest.
While such severe abuse of teachers’ power cannot be condoned, there is also another side to school punishment that is often overlooked – the fact that children are rarely involved in disciplinary procedures and seldom asked how they would like to make amends for their mistakes.
Professor Judith’s research has strongly suggested that children – regardless of cultural and geographical differences – respond best to respect, praise and encouragement. Yet, she has continued to observe schools inflicting shame and guilt on children.
“Corporal punishment is used because teachers have strong authority over children and over parents, who are reluctant to intervene in school matters and may even encourage teachers to punish their children to make them learn or behave better,” she noted.
Little do teachers realise that every time the cane is used to punish a child, “the full weight of the teacher’s power, and also of the State, parents and community, is brought to bear on a single child.”
When children are caned and shamed by their teachers, they feel the pain now and carry the emotional scars for life. The child experiences total humiliation, while the other children who are watching are subjected to fear.
“Negative discipline also leads to a future of continued violence. Hitting a child teaches him or her that violence is acceptable, that it is ok for the strong to hit or hurt the weak,” she explained.
Despite the old mindset, new ideas about children’s rights are leading to the realisation that corporal punishment is wrong.
“Children are not adult possessions but people in their own right, with opinions that must be respected,” said Professor Judith.
She reiterated the findings of the 2006 UN Study on Violence Against Children, which urges States to ensure that school discipline takes into account the child's human dignity and cultivates the spirit of peace, consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“Positive discipline is more than just the absence of caning. It is about respecting children and getting children to respect their own development. It is a means of establishing a culture of peace and nonviolence – not just for children, but for all of us.”
Teachers and school systems will need the support of parents and the community to change the prevailing mindset and foster a positive environment within child-friendly schools.
“Corporal punishment has to be taken out of the school equation to stop the vicious cycle of violence from perpetuating,” said Mr Youssouf.
“Schools should be made for children, not children made to fit into schools,” Professor Judith concluded.
* This article was published by The Sunday Star on 12 October 2008.
Say No to Violence Against Children
Factsheets: Positive discipline in schools