Tuesday, November 27, 2012

To Beat or not to Beat - Part 3: In Schools

   The question of whether or not children should be subjected to corporal punishment in schools was brought to the fore this week by the report of level of slapping that takes place in Kensington Primary School. The principal holds that the use of this punishment is responsible for the good results achieved by the school in Grade 4 Literacy and Mathematics tests. However, a parent complained that this type of punishment made her daughter so nervous that she was unable to perform academically. Because complaints to the school only made matters worse, she removed her to another school.
   Corporal punishment in schools has a long history. Roald Dahl in his story “Lucky Break” describes the brutal caning he was subjected to both at boarding school at the age of eight (1924), and worse canings at a Public School (as private schools in England are called). There, the Headmaster, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted in canings which even drew blood. Dahl’s end of year report, 1932, read “this boy is an indolent and illiterate member of the class” – a strange observation on one who was to become a world-famous children’s writer. Had the repressive atmosphere of his school stifled his creativity?
   The discipline enforced by principals in Jamaican schools is legendary. One is known for having walked the school with his cane up the sleeve of his jacket. Another caned a child for carelessness when he reported losing money; and caned all the children who’d been in a bus when one of them had thrown a bottle out of the window. When principals are less ferocious with the use of the cane, misbehaving children have begged to be beaten at school, to avoid a worse beating at home.
   It is only in the last 30 years that the tide has turned against corporal punishment. There is some confusion over the legality of it in schools in Jamaica. Justice Henderson Downer, deputy director of the Office of the Children’s Advocate, interprets Section 1b of the Child Care and Protection Act to mean that corporal punishment is illegal, and should not be administered to any child anywhere in Jamaica. The policy of the Ministry of Education is that classroom teachers should not administer corporal punishment, but in exceptional circumstances it can be used by the principal or somebody appointed by him.
   What happens in practice is a different matter. There are several reasons for this. One of the problems is that many of the children in school have not internalized a moral code, for a variety of reasons. (See my previous post). These children, accustomed to authoritarian discipline, take a lack of it as a license to do as they please. Imagine being faced with a class of forty or fifty six-year-olds, half of whom have the concentration span of a butterfly, who won’t do as they are told, who get up and run around, who are constantly chattering and are themselves responding to other children with physical blows. Added to that, many of the children have undiagnosed specific learning disabilities, such as ADHD. Classrooms are cramped and lacking in educational materials.
   The other question to be answered at is what to put in place of corporal punishment. Tongue-lashing of children also produces undesirable results. Humiliation, ridicule and sarcasm are not acceptable alternatives to corporal punishment. When a child is repeatedly told he is dunce, or he is no good, or he will come to nothing, he will begin to believe it and use it as an excuse for not trying.
   Ideally, children should be motivated by positive reinforcement when they exhibit desirable behaviors, and performance. Children given tasks which they are capable of performing will be motivated by a sense of mastery. They can then be confronted with harder tasks, which in turn they will be able to master. The challenge is to raise the bar sufficiently to keep them interested, but not too high that they will be discouraged. It is difficult to do this in a class of children with different starting levels and rates of progress.
   The prohibition of corporal punishment in schools cannot take place suddenly, by issuing a decree. It will be necessary to continue to raise public awareness of its harmful effects and involve parents, communities, teachers and school boards in an ongoing debate, until alternative strategies have been worked out, and there is a consensus against corporal punishment. UNICEF has spearheaded a number of awareness campaigns against corporal punishment, for example “Educate, Don’t Punish”.
   The ongoing debate in the press and on radio, as in Steven Golding’s Mike 1-2-3, on Hot 102 FM today, is welcome.

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