A few days back, I was chatting with a couple of friends, reminiscing about school. While one friend recalled fond memories of a teacher she really liked, the other was drawing a blank. “I don’t remember much,” she said. “Actually wait, I do remember this one teacher, he used to hit me a lot.”
The recent viral video of a child almost being tortured in an effort to get her to learn some numbers disgusted me deeply. I am unsure about the credibility of the video, but regardless of its authenticity, the visuals went viral because they were representative of something that's real and happening somewhere right now.
When I began my journey as a teacher, I was constantly harried and hassled, trying to teach, and maintain peace between, a classroom full of exuberant children. I must admit that there were numerous occasions on which I wanted to hit a child during this time. However, I knew that violence was the lazy route. Teachers resort to corporal punishment because they are not ready to put in the effort required to understand what lies underneath the child’s pattern of misbehaviour. And of course, we also tend to think that it is the most effective method of correcting behaviour because that was the method employed to correct our behaviour when we were in school.
The existence of this vicious cycle, all over India, and indeed, around the world, is testimony to the fact that the idea of discipline has become inextricably linked to violence.
In fact, the practise of hitting children to make them learn was accepted as standard practise even in relatively modern times. It wasn’t until 1979, when Sweden became the first country to ban corporal punishment in schools, that the idea was first challenged. Progress has been made in the ensuing years, but the current situation is still rather bleak. Even in the US, which is generally regarded as having a liberal school system, nineteen states still allow corporal punishment.
In India, the Right to Education Act states that “no child shall be subjected to physical punishment or mental harassment” and that anyone who violates these provisions “shall be liable to disciplinary action under the service rules applicable to such person”.
Yet, a survey carried out by the NGO Joint Operation for Social Help (JOSH) reported that 49.3% students aged 6-14 said that their teachers used corporal punishment. Another study conducted by Childline India Foundation between 2009 and 2011 found that students experienced corporal punishment in almost 95% of 198 schools across 11 states.
In my experience as a teacher, I have come across many parents who demand that their children be beaten so that they learn better or behave ‘properly’. There is enough evidence to show that physical force does not help achieve either of these goals. There is a wealth of research that links physical punishment with increased aggression, mental illness, mood and anxiety disorders, substance abuse and behavioural problems. And far from improving learning, violence has been linked to lower IQ and when the child is anxious, afraid or in a disturbed emotional state, it impedes learning.
Educators and parents need to be clear about their objectives. If these objectives are improved student learning and becoming better human beings, then it is absolutely clear that physical punishment is completely counterproductive, regardless of how well intentioned we are.
Learning outcomes aside, corporal punishment tends to perpetuate a repressive social structure that legitimises and normalises violent authority. When teachers resort to physical force to discipline children, older children tend to do the same to their younger counterparts — and this is something I have seen on many occasions.
If the situation at home is similar, where stereotypically, the father hits the mother and the children, then the mother and the children internalise this hierarchical structure. A UNICEF (2009) report on child protection shows that 54% women aged 15-49 believed that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances.
Ultimately, children learn more from our actions than words, and no matter how much we teach them in class about Gandhiji’s message of ahimsa, the child will believe that one needs to be flogged in order to really understand the concept.
In my opinion, this issue needs to be dealt with at three levels. At the systemic level, the first step has already been accomplished — corporal punishment is banned in schools. The policy needs to be taken to its logical conclusion by making teacher training courses more rigorous and adding a focus in psychology.
As someone who has been in education for over five years, I have learnt that teachers are also at the receiving end of the education system. They have no voice, no autonomy and they are under constant pressure from parents and authorities to complete the syllabus and at the same time ensure student learning. A little bit of effort to lighten the teachers’ load could go a long way.
At the school level, there could be regular workshops on physical abuse, its effects and alternate methods to deal with misbehaviour and improve student learning. Schools could also organise workshops in partnership with NGOs of which there is no paucity today.
At the individual level, for teachers and parents, what is most important is understanding, empathy and compassion.
Understanding, that maybe the child had a bad day and isn’t feeling up to doing homework, maybe the child didn’t have breakfast in the morning, maybe Superman is in trouble and the child is worriedly looking out the window and not paying attention. Behaviour patterns always have their roots elsewhere and it is imperative that an educator or parent understand this.
Empathy, to realise that it is extremely humiliating, painful and stressful to be physically or mentally abused. I am sure everyone who saw the video vicariously felt the pain, humiliation and distress of the little girl.
Finally, to be compassionate enough, to never put another individual through such suffering. Above all, I think that every individual should hold the belief that every child, no matter what the circumstances, learns at their own pace and will blossom when he or she needs to, and it is not violence, but love that facilitates this process.
Contact Soorya Hariharan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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