Cikgu, please don’t hurt us …
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
KUALA LUMPUR, 8 October 2008 – All the girls in the Form One class silently formed a line, single-file. Their classmate, a fair-skinned boy, with eyes downcast and lips trembling, stood in front of them.
“Girls, I want you to take turns to slap him,” the teacher instructed grimly. “And if you don’t slap hard enough, I will slap you instead.”
And the boy’s transgression? Not doing his science homework.
This is my personal experience of corporal punishment in school. Although the punishment wasn’t directed at me, being forced to inflict it on my friend added a different dimension of shame to the incident.
Fifteen years later, my skin still prickles with guilt as I recall that humid afternoon in the laboratory of my secondary school in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. The angry murmurs that went around the class. The resentful look on our classmate’s face, which bore the red imprints of our hands. The feeling of absolute helplessness among the girls, who had never hit anyone before.
Shame and threaten a child – he or she remembers it forever. Childhood is often mistaken as just a transition to adulthood, but it is not. It is an important life stage in itself, where children experience the present reality as acutely as adults do.
“I ask myself why my life is so horrible”
“Children and adults have different perspectives on corporal punishment,” said Professor Dr. Judith Ennew, expert on child rights and education, who collaborated in a study of 3,322 children from eight countries looking at their views on physical and emotional punishment.
“Children describe more kinds of punishment and define many kinds of punishment as abuse,” remarked Professor Dr. Judith, who is a Research Associate for the Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at University of Queensland.
The most common punishment was direct assault, either with an implement or violent bodily contact (such as kicking or punching), followed by verbal attacks, including scolding, yelling, swearing and humiliating.
A significant finding from Professor Dr. Judith’s child-centred research is that there is a stark difference between a child’s and an adult’s perspective of punishment. “Adults are more interested in outcomes (‘it is for your own good’), than in abuse of rights or how much it hurts now,” she explained.
Children are more ambivalent about punishment and not entirely sure of how they should feel about it.
“On the one hand it hurts, but on the other, they have been told it is good for them by the very people on whom they are dependent for their upbringing and whose opinions they are encouraged to trust,” stated the researchers in their report of the study.
Instead of respecting teachers, children come to fear them, having been beaten and verbally abused into submission, even to the point of serious injury.
Living in fear of school
Unfortunately, some things remain the same till this day. Nine year-old IZ, from Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, lives in fear of his teacher, who rules the Standard Three class with a cane and a heavy hand.
“Once I didn’t know how to do my homework, so I asked my teacher for help. But she didn’t help me, she just pulled my ear,” IZ related. He bit his lip and looked down. “She always makes me feel useless.”
IZ dreads going to school every day, where lessons for him and his classmates are daily repeats of slaps, canings, ear-twistings and other punishments like standing outside the classroom for an hour.
“Sad to say, IZ is already used to it. The only reason he wants to stay in this school is so that he can be with his friends,” said his mother with a sigh.
At eight year-old Elaine's school in suburban Selangor, her class teacher often uses a long wooden ruler to hit students. “The teacher tries to hit the leg, but if she misses, she will use the ruler to hit any part of the body,” said the Standard Two student.
Elaine’s mother questions disciplinary methods that inflict pain on children or interfere with their learning process. “Encouragement is better than punishment, in changing attitudes. Giving children stars or compliments makes them feel appreciated and encourages them to do better.”
Soon, teachers in Malaysia will be equipped with skills to manage difficult situations inside and outside the classroom. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has initiated a Teacher Education program, in collaboration with Ministry of Education and HELP University College, to train teachers in implementing positive discipline methods.
"Schools are where children spend most of their childhood, gaining knowledge and developing their talents. Our goal of achieving quality education for all will only be realised if schools are places where children can feel safe, confident and happy," declared UNICEF Representative to Malaysia, Mr. Youssouf Oomar.
Names have been changed to protect the identities of the children portrayed in the story.
"Cikgu" is "teacher" in the Malay language.
* This article was published by The Sunday Star on 12 October 2008.
Say No to Violence Against Children
Factsheets: Positive discipline in schools