ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 40

Oh, boy! You are violent

Discipline, corporal punishment, suspension from school, guidance from parents and teachers: Which of these will steer schoolboys away from aggression?

Kumudini Hettiarachchi speaks to principals and educationists to find a solution to this pressing societal problem.

Trucks filled with boys in strange costumes, flags of varying colours draped over their bodies, boys roaming the streets begging tin in hand and unruly groups attempting to scale the walls of girls' schools. Even as rival school groups pass each other, the worst form of aggression being hooting and jeering. Mischief, fun and laughter…....part of being in the full bloom of youth.

Contrast this with an incident in recent times, where a gang of Ananda College students allegedly used a stun-gun, made unconscious a 17-year-old Nalanda College boy on his way to catch a train home and mercilessly shoved his face on the ground after which the hapless youth required immediate plastic surgery.

Can schoolboy violence be dismissed as "boys will be boys" or are there deeper and hidden factors among the youth of today contributing to such perversions as opposed to what society dubs as clean fun?

Schoolboy violence doesn't start in a day and can't be stopped in a day. It takes a while for a decline in discipline, says Royal College Principal Upali Gunasekara, who manages 7,500 students, explaining that like the slide into violence and indiscipline happening over a period of time, to establish good values and discipline also takes a long time.

At Royal College, what he, along with his staff, is attempting to do is to improve the environment in the school and the classroom for it to seep into the very consciousness of the boys bringing out the best in them. "Did you know that Royal has 20 varieties of butterflies? Recently we got honey from a beehive I think which may have been a rare occurrence in Colombo 7. We also produce compost from our garbage and at the moment we have 20 metric tons," he says, adding that the children's mindset is being changed towards good things.

Every school day, the first five minutes in the morning are devoted to some topic that would get the children thinking of values. Sometimes the class teachers broach a topic or an idea would be generated from among the students themselves.

In the current set up, according to Mr. Gunasekara, when students misbehave there are only two punishments that teachers can impose. Detention, where they have to stay after school and attend to some schoolwork or do question papers, or being stopped from engaging in extra-curricular activity. "In the case of detention, what happens is that the teachers also face detention because someone has to supervise the boys and stopping someone from extra-curricular activity would hurt only if that student is keen about such activity. That's why like a mantra we keep telling them about good behaviour," he says.

What of suspension? Most of them would love it because then they can stay home and do nothing, laughs Mr. Gunasekara adding that even complaining to the parents doesn't work because sometimes the problem is with the parents.

The Principal of Mahinda College, Galle, Susil Premanath, thinks schoolboy violence is a reflection of a societal problem that Sri Lanka is faced with. Most adults want to win and win at any cost. They also do not want their children to be second to anyone. Even though sports should not be indulged in to achieve victory but to be fair and accept defeat and triumph with equanimity, what is happening now is the reverse, he says laying a major part of the blame on the old boys. "Those days violence in schools was more an urban phenomenon but this trend has invaded even the village schools," says Mr. Premanath, under whom come more than 3,000 students, adding that even in the classroom most boys tend to solve problems through aggression rather than discussion or negotiation.

What do you expect of children, when Sri Lankan society doesn't have any discipline, he queries. "We keep talking to the students, advising them that bullying and violence are not the answer and one-upmanship is not acceptable."

The major boys' schools in Kandy have overcome the unfavourable spirit of winning at any cost by coming up with a system where two awards are given to opposing teams - one to the winning team and the other to the defeated team, so that both teams leave with dignity, says Kingswood College Principal Ranjith Chandrasekera who mentors 3,000 boys.

Has the "expulsion" of corporal punishment led to an increase in violence among schoolboys? It certainly seems to have, he concedes, naming 2004 as the year after which aggression among schoolboys increased rapidly, following policy changes in the Education Ministry.

Ministry circulars have tied the hands of principals and teachers, according to him, and students know this only too well. "I certainly don't advocate public caning or physical harm to students but punishments tempered with justice are needed.”

However, Kingswood instils discipline by constantly reminding the students that they are 'gentlemen of Kingswood' who have to live up to that name be it in the classroom, the playground or outside the school. "This is working," he says.

The Sunday Times understands that students cannot be suspended or expelled from school without ministry approval. "If students resort to serious acts of violence, the schools have to conduct an inquiry and send the findings to the ministry. The final outcome is that schools are told by the ministry to warn the miscreants verbally and keep quiet," says another principal who declined to be identified adding that even if a student assaults a teacher nothing can be done. "The excuse of the ministry is that parents will go to court with fundamental or human rights cases."

Stressing that schools don't have the right to select the students during admissions but have to take anyone if they meet criteria like proximity to the school, the general view is that violence doesn't begin within the walls of the classroom or the school but outside and then flows in. "In the school, guidance and counselling are done thoroughly, but violence begins in the AL tuition classes in Nugegoda with the repercussions being suffered by the schools," explains the Principal of D.S. Senanayake Vidyalaya, Ashoka Senani Hewage.

One group will assault another and the other will retaliate most probably near the relevant schools, adds Mr. Hewage who has 6,000 students under his care.

Another principal blames the lack of punishment after due inquiry and warning, for the deterioration in discipline and claims that children bring camera phones and film teachers when they bend in class. Many are the instances when his staff has come across pornographic videos in the possession of students. "What can we do? Keep quiet, of course. If we pull up a child, the parents go to the police and the teacher is taken into custody in the middle of the night,” he says on condition that his name be kept out.

All schools The Sunday Times spoke to had counselling by teachers but were of the view that experts or teachers trained for this alone and working full-time as counsellors need to be brought in if it is to work.

A definite 'No' to corporal punishment is the answer of R.I.T Alles who not only heads Gateway College but is also founder Principal of D.S. Senanayake Vidyalaya in Colombo.

Do you know each and every child, is what this well-known educationist would ask his teachers if they come with a complaint. "The child brings his home background to the school," he says firing several questions: Is the child from a happy home or a broken home? If the child is from a broken home, does the school give the love that he craves for or does the teacher ignore him or look at him with a squint eye?

Mr. Alles's answer is that teachers must be the substitute mothers and fathers, especially in the case of such children. "Give them responsibility, make them the monitor and see the difference," he urges.

The person closest to the child is his class teacher. At D.S. Senanayake, he had introduced a system where on the side of the register next to the names there would be hardly visible dots, a code for teachers – purple for fatherless, blue for motherless, green for orphans and red for broken homes. "Throughout their school career, the teachers would give such children extra support. When a child from a broken home is ignored in the class, he would join a clique and attempt to be the leader, at least of that. What with parental pressure to perform well academically, the child who is not too good in his studies is also marginalized," he says emphasizing that in every child's life there are four stakeholders – the principal, teachers, parents and the children themselves.

The children must feel a sense of belonging and also of pride in their school. Then there won't be violence, says Mr. Alles detailing out his 3F philosophy of good management.

  • I tell them I will be Firm with them when necessary
  • I will be Fair by them
  • I will be Friendly with them.

The children should know that the principal and the staff are scrupulously fair by them, especially when selecting prefects or leaders in sports like cricket. Children cannot be hoodwinked; they know the moment there is favouritism, according to Mr. Alles who has also been state secretary of education.

He goes down memory lane to his time as head of D.S. Senanayake. A VIP was expected in the new school, the first such visit. Which child would welcome the VIP? The suggestions were numerous, but he brought in a rule - the youngest in the school would do the honours.

The next day comes the boy's mother. How can she afford new uniforms, they were from an impoverished family. The only request made of her was to give the boy a bath and everything else, uniform, shoes, would be made available. Years later, recalls Mr. Alles, on another such occasion, the teachers came up with the name of his own son to welcome a VIP. He dismissed it immediately, to find when he went back to his office a letter from the staff stating that they would not support him at that particular function because he had gone back on his own rule. It turned out that his son was the youngest student in the school.

Parents have to be heavily involved in the school, he stresses adding that the school administration cannot be aloof. Violence can be stopped through the school system itself, not by using the cane but with the motto: 'We discipline ourselves' not through orders from the top.

“The child is good, only we adults have made him bad,” adds Mr. Alles.

Don’t reward aggression

There is no single gene as the sole determinant of aggressive behaviour or criminality. Even if there is a degree of genetic influence and genetic predisposition, such aggression is largely due to environmental influence. It is a behaviour learned through 'modelling'; by watching, hearing or seeing such behaviour at home or school or through what a child reads or is exposed to through such media as TV, says well-known psychiatrist Dr. Athula Sumathipala.

Such actions are reflections of societal behaviour and come to children from adults and like any good or bad action they are reinforced by rewards, The Sunday Times learns. "There are two types of reinforcements that would make children persist in such behaviour," says Dr. Sumathipala citing the example of a child who steals. "If when he comes home, his mother rewards him with a chocolate it is a reinforcing reward, while not making the child face the consequences of such a bad act could also be considered a wrong reward."

Aggression has to be criticized collectively by society and the person has to face the consequences of such actions through the normal laws in place. But if the laws are not implemented then it gives the clear but wrong signal that such action is okay, explains Dr. Sumathipala, Research Fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London and Director, Forum for Research & Development, Sri Lanka.

"We as adults have to take responsibility for the actions of children and adolescents. If our children misbehave, that means that our parenting is questionable," says Dr. Sumathipala hastening to add that there is an acceptable level of naughtiness.

When seeing aggression, parents must check it, challenge it and mete out immediate and appropriate punishment that is proportionate to the wrongdoing. Violence in return is not acceptable as a form of punishment but simple things like depriving the child of certain privileges would help, he recommends. "Good behaviour should also be rewarded and the child should not be criticized all the time. You must talk to the child and not be ruthless and dictatorial but very democratic, but make clear the boundaries."

What are the early signs of aggression?

Cruelty to animals when young could be a pointer, research suggests, according to Dr. Sumathipala

Meanwhile, here are a few words of advice from educationist R.I.T. Alles to parents. The family that starts the day with a small prayer, of whatever religion, the family that talks together and also eats at least one meal together without sitting in front of the TV, is a strong family and will stay together.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.