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Updated: June 28, 2010 18:51 IST

The heart of education

ARUNA SANKARANARAYANAN
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Surely, there's a better way? Photo: K. Ananthan
The Hindu
Surely, there's a better way? Photo: K. Ananthan

Another student is driven to death in Kolkata as corporal punishment continues to haunt our schools. There is an urgent need to train teachers in humane, emotionally mature ways of correcting ‘misbehaviour’.

“Caning of student callous”, “I am sorry for caning: La Martinere principal”, “Linking boy's suicide to caning unfair”. As the recent tragic death of a student in Kolkata evokes strong emotions, the issue of corporal punishment has once again reared its ugly head. Even though this heinous practice is prohibited under the Right to Education Act, instances of physical abuse repeatedly surface in the media. Beating, caning, ear pulling and making students stand for hours in the scorching sun continue to be default disciplinary measures in many schools.

Glaring lacuna

Obviously, our crying foul and even banning corporal punishment does not deter people from embracing these punitive methods. A glaring lacuna in our educational system underlies this malaise in our country. While schools endeavour to make students literate and numerate, they often fail to cater to the emotional needs of children and teachers. Further, teachers are not adequately trained to handle behavioural issues; as a result, they resort to ad hoc disciplinary strategies that can have tragic consequences. Instead of dehumanising children by using violent disciplinary tactics, teachers may embrace more positive approaches to correct misbehaviour. Just as schools invest effort in drawing up lesson plans for every class, they should also strive to become emotionally literate.

This involves open channels of communication between teachers, students and parents, chalking out clear-cut rules, involving students in decision-making and valuing the needs of individuals. Disciplinary methods like loss of privileges need to be spelled out. Schools may also incorporate emotional literacy as part of the curriculum. Through role-plays, games, stories and reflective discussions, students may be taught to recognise and label their own emotional states. Students may then learn effective ways for dealing with strong negative emotions like anger and fear. Empathy and social problem-solving skills may also be covered in value education classes.

Teachers should also be equipped with skills and knowledge to identify emotional problems in children. And, more importantly, they need to respond sensitively. As Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, says, “Students learn more and behave better when they receive high levels of understanding, caring and genuineness, than when they are given low levels of them.”

That said, how should schools deal with misdemeanours and offensive behaviour? While we may brand teachers who use physical punishment as merciless and inhumane, we have to remember that a teacher's job is far from enviable. For example, imagine a Chemistry master explaining the structure of the periodic table to 60 adolescent boys. A paper rocket lands on the bridge of his nose, almost knocking his spectacles off. “Who threw the rocket?” asks Mani Sir in a terse voice as he hears smirks and giggles. Heads tilt towards the floor. Frazzled, Mani Sir turns towards the board when another rocket hits him. “Nithin Kumar,” says Mani Sir, “I saw you throw it.” “But Sir, do you have eyes at the back?” asks Nithin as the class cheers.

How should the teacher respond? Dealing with such episodes in an emotionally intelligent manner involves surveying the entire context of the situation. Is there a reason why this class is particularly distracted today? Does Nithin disrupt classes often? What is the child communicating through his body language and tone of voice? Is the child desperate to win peer approval? How is the child faring otherwise? What is Nithin's family background? How do others view him?

When confronted with defiant behaviour, a teacher should not blindly react but respond in a calm and collected manner. Instead of trying to take control, which can end in vain, it may be more prudent to give the child a choice and a chance to maintain his dignity. “Nithin, you may wait outside now and talk to me after class or I will have to send for the Principal.” Moreover, teachers have to realise that in trying situations, strong emotions may arise in both the student and teacher. When intense negative emotions arise, they often overrule our more rational side and make us act in ways we may regret later. Thus, teachers have to ensure that they don't succumb to “emotional hijacking”, a term coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman.

School heads too have to model emotional restraint. A survey of over 1,500 children in four Indian states by Saath Charitable Trust revealed the shocking fact that corporal punishment typically has a cascading effect; first the child is hit by the teacher, then the principal and finally the parent, all for the same offense!

Parents too play a significant role in addressing behaviour problems. When parents view the school as an adversary, it is often the child who takes the brunt of the blows as parents and teachers indulge in a reciprocal blame game. At times, parents are not tuned into their child's emotional needs; the “parents know best” attitude sometimes works against the child. Many parents strongly assert that their child is not under any stress or strain even though the child's behaviour tells otherwise. As the child is labelled with a slew of adjectives — wilful, stubborn, difficult, defiant, irresponsible and lazy — her behaviour only continues to worsen, reinforcing the adult view that the child is to blame. I am not suggesting that we condone children's inappropriate behaviour; however, taking a confrontational stand often exacerbates the behaviour we are trying to correct.

Signs of trouble

At times, untoward behaviour is a sign that a child needs help. Repeated behavioural problems are usually a manifestation of strong emotions that are suppressed. Anger, shame, guilt, fear or jealousy may cause a child to behave in socially inappropriate ways. The child may not even be consciously aware of these feelings or may mask his insecurities with a facade of indifference.

We must convey that it is the child's behaviour that is the problem, not the child. Statements like, “You are a nuisance” and “You are the most irresponsible child” may be rephrased as, “Your banging on the table was distracting others” and “You have not brought your books for three days; what can you do to remember to bring them?” When we ask a child to change his behaviour, we need to provide alternatives as to what he can do instead. Changing behaviour effectively takes time. In some cases, professional help maybe required.

Perhaps it is time we reconsidered the purpose of education. The manner in which schools are run suggests that education is perceived as preparation for work. Parents reinforce this notion by emphasising marks, often at the cost of a child's well-being. But if education is viewed more holistically as preparation for life, then we cannot ignore our emotional side. As teacher and writer Haim Ginott succinctly puts it, “Fish swim, birds fly and people feel.” The essence of being human is to feel. Thus, education should also address our feeling side instead of focusing solely on cold cognition. Finally, it is the ethos of the school that matters. As psychologist Steve Killick aptly writes, “Schools do not ‘teach' emotional literacy, they need to practise it.”

Instances of Corporal Punishment

1998: A 12-year old boy lost 20% of his vision in one eye as a teacher flung a duster in Delhi.

2003: A Class 10 student was stripped and beaten by his teacher; the child committed suicide in Chennai.

2007: A Class-12 student is beaten for keeping his legs on a table; the child succumbs to injuries in Udaipur.

2008: An eight-year old student is slapped by his teacher; the child's head hit the wall and he died in Kolkata.

2009: An 11-year-old student died after being made to stand for two hours in the hot sun in Delhi.

The author is the Director, PRAYATNA, Centre for Educational Assessment & Intervention. She may be reached at arunasankara@gmail.com.

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