The battle against corporal punishment

The battle against corporal punishment

Submitted by alvin on Mon, 2016-09-19 10:19 Recently, I happened to engage with a group of government schoolteachers from Anekal block during a workshop we had organised for them. They taught Kannada language at the elementary level in their schools besides a few more subjects. I was facilitating a session to help them reflect on their own practices, particularly looking at whether their classrooms provided emotional security to students. The discussion obviously veered towards their beliefs about corporal punishment. Quickly, it seemed as if I had opened a can of worms!   When the question arose as to whether they used corporal punishment to discipline their students, they initially resorted to a politically correct response, refuting its prevalence. However, when the discussion was taken to a deeper level, they countered it with a different response. They wondered how anyone could control difficult classrooms without using it sparingly on children. Their justifications for using the cane or verbal reprimands at children stemmed from two things: the academically unconducive home environments the children came from, and the increased burden of accountability placed on the teachers to make sure that even such children achieved expected learning levels despite having inadequate ‘learning time’ at their disposal. What added to their woes was the insensitive manner in which the myriad supervisors from the education department interrogated them on learning outcomes without appreciating that they could spare hardly any time to engage with children who lagged behind academically, having to contend with an ever burgeoning syllabus, simultaneously accomplishing myriad administrative chores.  As if this experience was not enough, during my recent visit to one of the interior schools in the Sarjapur cluster, I came across a dynamic, progressive female head-teacher (surprisingly, still only an in-charge!), who had taken enormous initiative in mobilising varied resources for her school from the local panchayat and the community: additional classrooms, a compound wall, newly laid concrete floor space for conducting morning assembly and co-curricular activities (to overcome slushy surfaces whenever it rained), provision of drinking water and functional toilets for boys and girls, creating a green environment in the school premises by maintaining plants and trees and having a beautiful idol of Mahatma Gandhi installed at the entrance of the school amongst others. To top them all, she had personally created an exclusive room with innovative teaching learning materials for children with special needs, showing her concern for such children. While there was no doubt that she was energetic and committed deeply to her profession (she is one of the rare, academically inclined teachers, having acquired a postgraduate degree and currently pursuing Ph.D in Kannada literature), she, too, when prodded informally about whether she used corporal punishment, unhesitatingly admitted to its use!  There have been a number of regular instances in the field where the children are either slapped or subjected to harsh verbal abuse by teachers in all types of schools – private or government.     The sociological basis of inflicting corporal punishmentsThe interactions I have had particularly in the last few weeks made me realise the hard reality on the ground as I reminisced on the title of an article Prof. Krishnakumar wrote in 2010 (one year after corporal punishment was prohibited under sec. 17 of the RTE Act). He forewarned presciently: “Banning is just the beginning; corporal punishments in schools will become tenacious.” Prof. Kumar succinctly highlighted the fact that the use of physical force on children by teachers is deeply embedded in the socially sanctioned moral authority bestowed upon them by parents and the community. So every time a student is hit by a teacher, it means he is reinforcing that authority.Two of the well-entrenched social evils that were legally banned nearly a century ago in our country but still remain surreptitiously in practice are child marriage and female infanticide (which exists today as female feticide). Those who practice it obviously do not consider it a social evil.  It reminds us that the gap between the society and the state runs wide in our society and the state’s will does not necessarily prevail in matters concerning socially sanctioned evil practices.  The so-called social sanction that corporal punishment receives arises from the age-old culturally approved concept of learning and growth during childhood. It’s a commonly held belief that children know nothing or very little, and hence they depend on adults to learn everything, including language. Adult supervision and frequent intervention are required to prevent incorrect learning and mistakes, which the children are prone to. Further, child has no agency or intrinsic desire to learn and therefore a strict regime, steeped in a punitive environment, is believed to be critical for shaping the child’s growth in the right direction. The paradox of becoming a ‘successful’ teacherAnother deep-rooted notion that exists is that there is a strong role association between the father and the teacher. The traditional father’s (strict) role in molding the child is supposed to be emulated by the teacher at school. This applies to female teachers too whose social identity is shaped by patriarchy. The recognition they get as ‘successful’ teachers is when they conform to the role behavior associated with men. Punishments usually become part of the cultural ethos of the school. They either play out as an advance reaction for an anticipated behavior or serve as a sharp reaction to a behavior teachers consider as obnoxious. The possibility of a few students getting slapped as they rush down the staircase during the recess time just as the principal or senior teacher is climbing up and come close to colliding, falls in the first category (especially if corporal punishment is an established practice in that school), while that of teachers reacting hurtfully by means of abusive word or a slap for talking or giving a forward answer could be classified in the second category. Teachers in the latter situation find the language used by children inappropriate and offensive, without being aware of the fact that children’s language reflects what they hear at home or in their neighborhood or through media. They do not set an alternate example for children.    Alarming trends witnessed in our schoolsA National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) study – this body was set up in 2007 by an act of Parliament to protect, promote and defend child rights in our country – specifically on “Eliminating Corporal Punishment in Schools” in 2009-10 (which provides a true reflection of everyday reality of our school-going children), threw up shocking trends. Firstly, 99.86�f a total of 6,632 children sampled across seven states had experienced punishment of one kind or the other. Secondly, children are at equal risk of being punished irrespective of which type of school they are studying – state govt., central or private. Thirdly, in terms of the frequency of punishment received, there is not much difference between the experiences of boys and girls across different types of schools. While 14�f the boys and 10�f the girls received punishment within a day of the study, 20�oys and 18�irls recounted punishments being meted out to them within the same week in which data was collected. Fourthly, a rank-wise distribution of all types of punishments experienced as well as acknowledged reveal that the practice of abusing children verbally by attacking their psyche occupies the top rank.As per the study, as many as 81�f the children were rejected outright by being told that they were not capable of learning. The punishments occupying the next four ranks were – getting beaten by a cane, being slapped on the cheeks, being hit on the back and being boxed on the ears. Of these five punishments, four involve pain by direct action of the teacher, constituting the cruelest forms of physical injury, causing severe damage to a child’s physical and mental health. The reasons why even small children get such harsh treatment range from ‘academic’ (for not doing homework, not bringing note book/s to class or not being able to answer the question) to ‘manifesting child-like behavior and needs’ (for talking, secretly eating food or spending extra time in toilet) or ‘for establishing inconsequential order in school’ (not wearing proper uniform, not bringing things that teacher demands or reaching class late after morning assembly) to just being ‘arbitrary’ (when the teacher gets angry and hits without any reason).    Deeper rationale of why we should keep our children happyIt is needless to emphasise that the effect of this ‘fearful environment’ and stress on the children is going to be severe in the long run. In her extremely well-researched and insightful book on child learning, “What did you ask in school today?” (published in 2009 by Harper Collins), educator and child psychologist Kamala V. Mukunda highlights that the feelings experienced by the students in academic environment affect a wide range of student outcomes, such as motivation, cognition, achievement, physical and psychological health. If a student is unhappy, worried or angry, very little of the lesson will be understood.Kamala Mukunda draws our attention to the fact that the fear of punishment for not doing homework is a major source of stress among school students, and that school education needs to strike a balance between learning and positive emotional experiences. She clearly concludes that stress is neither good for the body nor brain and neither for academic achievement. This is because research on developing brain has shown that stress and resultant high levels of cortisol actually destroy crucial neurons in the hippocampus (a small structure in the centre of the brain responsible for making new memories), thus impairing memory and learning ability in the long run.Apart from academic situations, many other risk factors encountered by the children such as family difficulties due to harsh discipline or problematic relationships, school practices like corporal punishments, competitive class room environment and constant comparative evaluation derail a happy, healthy childhood. Hence, she rightly calls for giving equal importance to students’ emotional states as much as to their academic learning and argues in favor of focusing on the goal of making our children happy in schools as being an end in itself, not because happiness will lead to higher marks in the final examination.    Long term fight is onIn conclusion, banning corporal punishment legally is only a beginning of a long drawn social battle. Its roots lie in teachers’ low professional status and the poor quality of opportunities made available for furthering their own development both through pre-service and in-service programs. No doubt, teachers come under severe pressure to extract high performance from children in examinations, compelling them to resort to punishments. What complicates the issue further is the passive sanction accorded by the society to such a child-unfriendly practice. Our constitutional aspirations should not remain only a pipe dreamThe long-term solution perhaps hinges on a two pronged strategy: one, intelligently weaving in perspective building sessions for teachers in workshops and other modes using androgogical principles. It’s important to situate the discussions around the teachers’ real life dilemmas and frustrations which are often unexplored and used to justify the poor performance of children. The underlying assumptions of teachers have to be integrated into certain larger questions and debated to facilitate deeper level reflections amongst them.Second, launching systematic campaigns to create awareness among parents and community members to establish the child’s fundamental right to dignity and highlight the ill effects of passively sanctioning corporal punishment. Unless we take this up earnestly as a society, the aspirations enshrined in our Constitution - vide article 39 (e) “state to work progressively to ensure that the tender age of children is not abused” and article 39 (f) “state to work progressively to ensure that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity…..” will only remain a pipe dream.Author:S V Manjunath currently heads Azim Premji Foundation - Karnataka as its State head. He made a mid – career shift more than seven years back, after spending more than two decades in the corporate sector. He had been a human resource professional, having worked in reputed public and private sector organizations like Bharat Electronics, Bosch and Himatsingka Seide, where he last held the position of Associate Vice President – Human Resources. Managing the Industrial Relations, playing a balancing role between the management and unions; aligning the goals of the workforce with the vision of the organization was his forte.Manjunath has a Bachelor’s degree in Arts and a Master’s Degree in Social Work along with a post graduate diploma in Personnel Management