Results from TRC’s opinion poll last month show that most of you believe that the most effective ways of disciplining a child do not involve punishment. In this article, veteran teacher Fauzia Azami Zubair looks at common problems that arise when we punish students and explores more humane and effective ways of dealing with the issue of discipline.

The responsibility of teaching and ensuring that effective learning is happening is the primary function of teachers, but managing the behaviour and conduct of young people is something that is unavoidable and comes with the territory.

Discipline is an essential component of civilised life. Individuals have the ability to exercise external and internal discipline. Man’s natural intelligence believes in the need for all kinds of discipline, but circumstances, social and cultural norms that surround him can either help him strengthen his basic beliefs or require him to restructure his notions and preferences so that he conforms to his circumstances. Discipline is simply the process of socialising children to take responsibility for their actions. A person who is disciplined is able to control her behaviour; she is able to act responsibly in accordance with social standards. There are many ways to foster discipline in a child. The most effective ways do not involve punishment. For discipline to be called effective, any option used must produce the desired result without the possibilities of causing long-term scarring – physically, emotionally or psychologically.

Fostering a culture of respect

The very fact that young people are often in the care of older people, beginning with the nuclear family, represents with complete clarity how nature placed responsibility related to the safety and security of the younger individual upon the older individual. Parenthood was never meant to be a troublesome burden; similarly teaching was never meant to be undertaken without the critical understanding that it is not all right to deny pupils the same care and consideration that one would give to young family members. A teacher-student relationship is not a business relationship; it has to be a humane and nurturing relationship.

It is human nature to practice self-expression at every age, and because each individual needs to establish his individuality, there are disagreements and differences of opinion. To maintain or introduce discipline in any given situation the team-leader needs to determine mutual respect. This is easily and quickly established, if a culture of respect is established early in the relationship.

It is a wise teacher who prevents a situation requiring punishment, or who chooses other more effective corrective measures than punishment. As with infectious diseases, “prevention IS better than cure”.

The fastest route to losing your students

If students witness one of their colleagues being dealt with unjustly, the entire class becomes wary of the teacher who cannot be trusted to be fair-minded and sensitive to the needs and natural insecurities of other students. Children are quick to meet meanness with meanness, or with withdrawal for avoidance of further public insult. This is the fastest route to losing one’s pupils and setting them on a path of defiance and rebellion.

Punishment is unpleasant for all parties involved, the giver and the receiver. It contributes nothing positive to an already sticky situation. In fact it very often spirals out of control and drags into its ugly circle other members who may be offended, and angry, including peers, senior management and parents.

Teachers have been known to resort to forms of punishment ranging from a simple verbal reprimand, or look of disapproval to an uncontrolled bout of shouting interspersed with insulting or demeaning remarks about the student’s IQ, or upbringing. In more extreme cases, students may be physically displaced from their seats, and made to stand elsewhere. They may be assigned extra work, given physically taxing duties to perform, taken to the Head’s office for further degradation, slapped, and have their books thrown at them etc. Capital punishment is strictly forbidden in schools but teachers do resort to hitting or beating a child in extreme fits of rage and when they are unable to apply self-control.

The missing ingredients

Natural intelligence, which every normal individual is born with, is often applied sparingly because of influences and perceptions that play a more dominant role while growing up. Also, one of the missing ingredients is knowledge of human psychology and core teacher training, which create significant awareness about the proper handling of young people. The more humane and magnanimous practices such as kindness and forgiveness are practiced less often than the demonstration of power, control, and authority, for fear of appearing weak and ineffective.

Children have this basic animal instinct that expects love and care during childhood that is gradually worn away through conditioning, as well as social and cultural norms they are surrounded by. It is the adult’s responsibility to keep a watchful eye on the behaviour and attitudes children adopt as they grow.

Teachers, because they were children once and grew up with their own personal influences, cannot be expected to be compatible with each student in their classrooms. A clash of cultures, values, biases, discrimination, etc. are bound to be experienced somewhere, someday. This can be expected with greater certainty in a country like Pakistan where there is no pre-requisite for a teacher to be qualified and trained in the art and science of teaching, before he or she applies for a teaching position.

A successful teacher hardly ever needs to resort to punishment. She establishes trust and respect through positive interaction with her students, knowledge of her subject, a non-threatening attitude and demonstration of fairness and tolerance.

The experience of punishment

The problem rears its ugly head with teachers who are threatening and aggressive. They believe that authority is only established through speaking rather than listening, through fear rather than affection. The punishments they dole out vary from deliberate ostracism, to rude remarks, to ouster from the classroom, being sent to the Principal’s office, to angry red marks in the notebook, to being made to stand at the back of the room, to being denied lunch-break, extra homework, and finally physical abuse. In the course of any or all of these practices, the student remains hurt and confused.

Once a student experiences some form of punishment, his peers mark him for a long time as an offender, not quite deserving of respect or trust. He may appear to be brave but he is disturbed at having been labelled either as unreliable and incompetent, or ill mannered. It may cause him to lose friends who might distance themselves to maintain or safeguard their own integrity.

If he could, he would turn the clock back, but he cannot. He will, instead, try to downplay the experience by reacting in either a brash and brazen manner, or use it as an excuse to be the class clown. If he is a child with existing low self-esteem, the damage caused may be considerably worse and longer lasting.

What happens, invariably, is that attention gets diverted from the original objective required by the teacher, to the experience of humiliation or the possibility of further trouble once parents get involved. The stress generated by such an outcome can cause a great deal of damage to the child’s mental and emotional health.

Considering the consequences

It therefore falls upon the adult in charge at the time, to consider the consequences of a punishment before meting it out. Teachers who are ‘trigger-happy’ about punishing students would do well to exercise restraint. They are probably the same teachers who experience the greatest amount of indiscipline in the classroom or with other issues such as meeting deadlines on homework and assignments. They have damaged their own image in the eyes of their students. They will also find that their students have lower academic profiles to show in their subject as compared to other subjects.

When such indicators are visible teachers need to introspect and consider their teaching and classroom management strategies carefully.

Punishment has a two-fold damaging effect: it causes humiliation and or fear; it teaches a child that he too can use the same methods to achieve outcomes causing humiliation and or fear on another weaker individual. It is true that a number of children will seek to avoid repeating their misdemeanour to avoid similar punishment, but in a public space such as a classroom, the humiliation is never forgotten and the teacher’s insensitivity is never forgiven.

Change starts with the teacher

It is clearly understood that the academic objectives of teaching and learning as well as the social objectives of group learning are more positively achieved through motivational and supportive interaction. The qualities of diligence, sincerity, concern, encouragement and patience, when demonstrated by a teacher, hardly ever require the need to resort to punishments. Students are more than willing to be taught by a person who comes across as reasonable, competent and fair.

The maintenance of discipline is an essential by-product of education. If a teacher wishes to be successful at her career she has to be the role-model students would like to emulate. The practices of punctuality, preparedness, physical appearance and general good behaviour must be bolstered by things such as self-control and self-respect, certain humility and the ability to respect diverse communities and cultural norms. These strengths are what make the greatest long-term impact on students. Impulsiveness and boisterousness can be toned down through the teacher’s own sense of calm. Students can be encouraged to display self-control and then be acknowledged publicly for practicing self-control effectively. The self-esteem of children grows visibly with such acknowledgements and a cycle of positivity starts to spiral in all aspects of his life.

It is always wiser to try to prevent a negative outcome, rather than wait for a student to make a mistake and then berate him for it. Prevention is always better than cure. Counselling is a brilliant tool to use and it can be used quite naturally and discreetly, at times when students are in a receptive frame of mind. It is often quite effective when the possible consequences, both positive and negative, of an activity, are described to students. They should be made to consider the possible outcomes and make their choices based on their natural ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad.

On the other hand, if all learning is left to experience, there may be too many unwanted and needless consequences that will have to be dealt with. Memories of negative experiences are memories that everyone can do without.

Fauzia Azami Zubair holds a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of Karachi, and a Post-graduate Diploma in Advanced Professional Studies from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland. An experienced teacher, she started her career in 1973 and is currently between assignments. She has teaching as well as counselling experience in various leading schools in Karachi.

February 2013