It is a usual sight for Gopal’s parents to see him come home with a bruised ear and swollen cheeks. His mother’s immediate reaction is – “He must have got into a fight with the local boys or his school teacher could have disciplined him. They keep complaining about his poor performance in class tests.” Gopal, who studies in the 4th grade, is one among many such school kids in his village who find themselves at the receiving end of the teacher’s stick. While Gopal got away with a bruised cheek, many students regularly suffer serious physical injuries and mental abuse in classrooms. Most of these cases do not receive the necessary attention as the punishment is considered by most as the only path towards discipline, even by parents.
This issue is widespread in Indian schools and has been affecting millions of school children every day with long term repercussions on their future. The Government of India has recently recognised1 that 65 percent of school going children are inflicted with corporal punishment. And the biggest threat to eradicating it is the lack of awareness around it.
The United Nations committee in Convention on the rights of the child 20042 had concluded its observations on corporal punishment in India as below –
The large population and the high rate of growth are the major impediments to the implementation of educational initiatives. Also, extreme poverty and massive social inequality represent serious difficulties in the fulfilment of obligations. The Committee regretted that some of the concerns it had previously expressed and the recommendations it had made had not been sufficiently addressed, notably violence and corporal punishment.
Furthermore, the ministry of child and development in its research3 studied more than 3,000 children aged from 5 to 18, asking about physical abuse by teachers. In all age groups, 65% reported being beaten at school, which amounts to a very large proportion of the student population. The reasons for punishment range from being absent from school due to illness, domestic work, missing classes, not doing their homework, performing poorly in exams, not wearing the uniform and so on.
There are several social groups which are working actively towards replacing corporal punishment at schools with positive behavioural changes in students. The primary challenge they face is the lack of awareness at the level of teachers, parents and school principals about the adverse impact of punishment on students.
So what exactly is corporal punishment?
The Child Rights Charter 2003 of India specifically states – All children have a right to be protected against neglect, maltreatment, and corporal punishment. Additionally, in 2007, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights India issued a set of guidelines on ‘corporal punishment’ and the efforts needed to abolish it within the educational system in India.
However, guidelines or laws are not enough to tackle the menace of corporal punishment. For starters, it is important that we are well aware of what amounts to corporal punishment. Corporal punishment is not just what you see as punishments and physical abuse inside or outside the school classroom. It encompasses physical as well as mental abuse in schools.
Typically, physical forms of punishment involve slapping, punching students, twisting ears, hitting anywhere on the body, etc. Teachers carrying sticks to the classroom to discipline or scare students is the first stage of punishment and need to be strictly avoided. Physical punishment not only causes embarrassment and fear in students but also has adverse effects on their health and performance.
Another form of punishment is the mental harassment of students by abuses, ridiculing someone by academic status, family background, learning difficulty, physical weakness or disability. This form of punishment greatly impacts the wellbeing of students and scars them permanently.
Unfortunately, the practices mentioned above are not considered ‘a big deal’ by most school principals and teachers. And there are primarily two reasons behind this callous outlook towards punishment.
- Most school principals, teachers, and even parents are unaware of short-term and long-term consequences of punishment on students. Another reason for the neglect is the limited period of the student-teacher relationship.
- Teachers claim that they do not know alternative methods to corporal punishment. Many teachers when asked why they carry sticks to their class answer that “We don’t use it. It’s just there to instil fear or discipline.”Few consider it part of schooling as they had experienced the same in their school days.
Let us look at it from the teachers’ perspective. There are nearly 13 lakh schools4 in India, and most of these institutions have a very poor teacher to students ratio. Teachers face daily challenges, such as overcrowded and noisy classrooms, huge syllabi to complete, multiple lectures per day and a large number of notebooks/test papers for correction. Teachers do not know how to handle this pressure and resort to hitting a child as the nearest target. But the important question that teachers must ask themselves is – “Is it really students’ fault?” It is important for teachers to pause and reflect on this. Because there is no excuse to resorting to corporal punishment. All students must be treated with respect and care.
“The last couple of years we have been working towards creating a positive learning environment in our school. Every class follows the classroom culture, and have team trackers and charts prepared to create enthusiasm among students towards learning. Teachers are being monitored on a regular basis through classroom observations, and no form of abuse has been observed in classrooms, thus creating a safe space for learning.”
Ms. Yasmin Patait, the school principal of Utkarsh school, Pune
Hopefully, Ms Yasmin is one of many such school principals across India working towards abolishing the system of corporal punishment.
How does corporal punishment damage students in short and long-term?
The immediate impact of punishment on students can be seen in the form of physical harm, embarrassment, disinterest towards learning, and negative impact on their wellbeing (bruises, fever, fear of going to school). A child can lose his/her confidence and suffer from poor self-esteem. Studies have shown that students subjected to punishment on a regular basis develop aggressive or destructive behaviour. The students start believing that if you are angry or someone is not listening to you instructions it is okay to hit. They may see similar incidents happening in their families as well, and this affects their value system, which eventually shapes the society at large.
Another consequence could be in the form of cowardice as children learn to obey without asking questions. This hampers their independent and free thinking ability.
The way ahead
There is an alternative approach to corporal punishment. The first step is to set agreements within the teachers/staff team to enable this change. This is a commitment the staff have to make to themselves and others and can be initiated during a staff meeting. Additionally, how can teachers be supported by schools to reach a position where they do not practice corporal punishment?
The responsibility to check corporal punishment lies both with the school management/principal as well as teachers. The school principal or head must be well aware of incidences of punishment at their school and should strive to promote a safe learning culture for students at all time. They should conduct regular discussions with the teaching staff and motivate teachers to refrain from hitting or abusing children.
Here are a few standard techniques employed by schools to prevent corporal punishment.
At Valley View School in Pune, the school principal took on the challenge to stop corporal punishment in her school. The first step conducted was an awareness drive, in which teachers and students worked together and created mutual agreements.
(Image source: Valley View School)
Further, the school conducted an awareness campaign, where the school teachers actively participated and interacted with parents of schoolchildren on the topic of safety. Students joined hands with teachers to create display cards on the theme of discipline and safety. Initiatives such as these help students feel motivated and responsible by giving them a sense of belonging to the school. Small things like display cards can act as a positive reminder for teachers to abstain from hitting and for students to not misbehave.
(Image source: Valley View School)
Many social groups and NGOs conduct seminars and training to spread awareness on the need to abolish corporal punishment. At one such seminar conducted in Mumbai recently by ISLI (India School Leadership Institute), school principals gathered to share their experiences and successful efforts towards eliminating corporal punishment in their schools.
(Image source: ISLI Mumbai Workshop for School Leaders)
A wake-up call for everyone
It is now high time for all of us to commit to this cause. After all, schools are the nurturing grounds for students to learn and adapt. Schools play a vital role in the cognitive and creative development of children. Hence, it is imperative for children to grow up and learn in schools which have a safe, secure and healthy environment that stimulates positive behaviour. And as teachers, principals or even as parents, it is everyone’s collective responsibility to generate awareness and prevent future incidences of corporal punishment in schools. Every human being has a right to live a peaceful life. We cannot call ourselves civilised if we continue to treat children without respect and justify any form of violence against them.
Watch Ms Jamila Shaikh (principal of Elia Sarwat Urdu High School, Mumbai) talking about positive initiatives taken in their school to eliminate corporal punishment
- Summary discussions by the Working Group on Corporal Punishment NATIONAL COMMISSION FOR THE PROTECTION OF CHILD RIGHTS, Delhi, December 2008
- United Nations – Committee on the Rights Of Child, Feb 2004. CRC 35th Session
- Research by The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children
- The ‘DISE Flash Statistics-2008-09’ which is a progress report towards Universalisation of Elementary Education in India
The article is also published on The Better India platform.