The La Martiniere School for Boys has decided to ban corporal punishment after Rouvanjit Rawla, a student, committed suicide allegedly because of a disciplinary beating. This landmark decision has certainly changed the status quo for an institute that once prided itself for refusing to spare the rod. The cane wielding teachers and administrators will now be forced to stand empty-handed before their disciples—armed only with their teaching skills to make the students behave well in class and to help them to get good results. This will be somewhat unusual for most teachers who rely on brute force to make the students fall in line. With the armour taken away, some of them might now be feeling like defenseless sheep surrounded by a pack of wolves.
For teachers who relied exclusively on fear tactics or physical abuse as their disciplining tools of choice, a good amount of concern might be warranted. The rules of the game have changed with both sides fully aware of the implications. The more rambunctious children will likely test the boundaries and the patience of their teachers, knowing fully well that there’s not much that they can do if they crossed the line. But while it is unlikely that all hell will break loose when the classes resume (I’d like to give the majority of children the benefit of the doubt), it is perhaps a good time to take a closer look at why kids misbehave in the first place, how the wrong approaches to discipline can result in extreme measures such as suicide, and what can be done to create a healthy teaching environment without having to wield the danda.
While I could draw up a long list of approaches or techniques related to quality instruction, I would prefer here to focus simply on one critical educational concept: helping children develop a positive sense of self-esteem. When students have a low or negative self-image, they usually tend to alienate themselves or their problems through avoidance strategies such as not doing homework, not studying, goofing around, etc. They may also fall into unhealthy habits such as over-eating and intoxication like smoking, drinking, and taking drugs. Another common way to cope is by resorting to anti-social behaviour—such as isolating themselves, littering, destroying public property, performing practical jokes on others, bullying or injuring others, or even physically hurting themselves.
According to me, there are three key factors that together form the foundation of one’s self-esteem —autonomy, competence, and relationships. If teachers want to ensure that their students feel psychologically secure, that they don’t crack under pressure, and they will take up life’s challenges with a constructive, can-do attitude, then they must unequivocally give sufficient attention to these aspects of the child’s growth.
Help Develop a Sense of Autonomy
Children today have very little choice in what they do. Their schedules are largely predetermined: their course of study is set by some anonymous curriculum committee; they have to wear school uniforms selected by school officials; streams and courses of study are often decided by parents, as are academic targets that they are expected to achieve. It’s not strange to hear a parent tell the child, ‘I want you to get ninety percent marks in Maths next time!’ But when students lack opportunities to make choices regarding the way they live their lives, it fosters feelings of oppression and desperation in them. Then, when they are faced with a difficult situation (such as exam stress or differences of opinion with parents), they may feel helpless, believing there is little they can do to fix the situation. As a result, they resort to fight-or-flight responses that could create even bigger problems for them.
The solution here is to give children more choices in life—choices about their daily schedules, food, the way they can study or learn about a topic, or even their homework assignments. The more decisions that they take on their own, the more they will feel they have control on their lives, and the less likely they will be to succumb to pressure when they are faced with challenges. Parents and teachers should even go as far as to let kids set their own rules and punishments for misbehaviour. Children adopt a very different attitude when they are asked to follow the guidelines they have set rather than ones that have been handed down to them.
Help Children to Feel Competent
All of us want to feel competent—to know that we are good at something, that what we do is of value or meaning to ourselves or others. Part of being able to feel a sense of worth involves the knowledge of the where the strengths lie. Unfortunately, too little is done in education to help children understand their unique set of qualities, let alone encourage them to improve their strengths. As a result, children who manage to discover their inner talents reach high levels of achievement by default, while those who don’t, sit discouraged, believing they have no redeeming qualities—that they were simply dealt a losing hand.
The very word education means ‘to draw out’. And it is with this definition in mind that teachers must stop the unidirectional flow of information that does just the opposite-‘pushing in’. Instead, they must spend time identifying the traits that exist within each student and nurture them. This can be done with models such as Multiple Intelligences (MI) and Multiple Natures (MN). Multiple Intelligences identifies eight distinct abilities that describe how a student is smart, including Bodily, Interpersonal, Logical, Linguistic, Visual, Musical, Intrapersonal and Naturalistic. Multiple Natures explains the ways in which individuals use their abilities. These include Protective, Educative, Administrative, Creative, Healing, Entertaining, Providing, Entrepreneurial and Adventurous.
Teachers should help students understand the spectrum of qualities that exist, and how even though they might not be strong in Maths/Logic, they might be gifted in some other way like their interpersonal abilities might be excellent or their providing nature can get appreciated. Students should be told that when they graduate, those candidates who possess excellent people skills will be paid a premium in sales and PR jobs, and that in the hospitality sector, those with the knack for catering to others needs or desires will be labeled star performers. Multiple Intelligences and Multiple Natures are largely formed by the time children are six years old, so there is ample time for teachers to get students to recognize and develop their talents. But unfortunately, most teachers only acknowledge those students who demonstrate excellent numerical or linguistic abilities. If teachers took it upon themselves to make it a priority, within days, every child in the school would know how he or she is special. When you know you’re special, you feel good about yourself. And when you feel good about yourself, you behave in ways that are socially redeeming and constructive.
Encourage Children to have Healthy Relationships
In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman explains how our brains are wired socially, and how our general feeling of wellbeing is largely dependent on the number of and strength of our social relationships. When children are brought up in environments where they receive high amounts of personal engagement, their brains develop in a psychologically healthy manner. Neural networks develop between the emotional centres of the brain and its other parts in a way that we learn to trust and bond with others easily. When such bonding occurs, the brain secretes hormones that make us feel happy, enabling us to find comfort in the association of others when hardships arise. Those who do not have strong social bonds are forced to find solace by distracting themselves—methods that may evolve into more serious avoidance or attention-getting strategies down the road—the most serious of all being suicide.
Schools therefore need to take great care in ensuring that children have strong support systems both at home and at school. As part regular assessments, teachers and guidance counselors should spend time to measure the strength of a child’s social bonds, and, if they determine that their social support structure is weak, make it a priority to strengthen it. Just as tuitions are prescribed for students who lack academically, so should recommendations be made for children to increase time with family members, friends, and others—to spend more quality time with each other, especially in play, creative activities, the arts and other non-academic pursuits.
The La Martiniere incident was a travesty that resulted in a loss of a life, and our hearts go out to Rouvanjit Rawla, and his family. While the story will continue to unfold and we will eventually get to know the facts that led to this tragic event, let us use this opportunity as a wake up call—not merely to reconfirm what we already know (that corporal punishment is cruel, unwarranted, and illegal), but to address the root causes behind stress in students, unhappiness, inappropriate behaviour and suicide.
Without a doubt, self-esteem is a critical component of a child’s psychological wellbeing, and schools have a definite role to play in contributing to their students’ positive sense of self. Doing so need not be a difficult task; the strategies I have laid out are easy to implement and do not require government legislation or extra funding. Now that La Martiniere has prohibited any kind of physical abuse in its campuses, it will undoubtedly want to equip its faculty with other tools that can ensure better behaviour and academic performance. If they give it a try, I feel, they will surely find building self-esteem through enhancing autonomy, competence and relationships to be far more effective than the rod.
Steven Rudolph is an American educationist, researcher, TV personality and public speaker based in India. As Educational Director of the Jiva Institute and founder of Jiva Public School, he has developed many innovative learning materials for children and products and services that promote global skills and Indian values. A pioneer in constructivist teaching methodologies, Rudolph is also a proponent of the novel educational concept, ‘Multiple Natures’ and has wide following in India. His book, The 10 Laws of Learning was published by Random house India in 2009.