Children: no more threats and punishments

Submitted by Matthew on 28 September, 2011 - 11:44

By Jayne Edwards

I am a midday assistant at a primary school. The observations I have made in my job have confirmed what I think about how children are treated by all those who have authority over them — teachers, teaching assistants and the midday staff.

Control of children is maintained by the threat of something bad happening to them — get sent to the head, call in parents, low scale public humiliation or just shouting to reduce them to tears. Even “good” teachers demand this kind of conformity.

Children who are considered bad or naughty are always in trouble and it is these same ones how get punished everyday. Such children develop a variety of defences and one response is to fit the role they’ve been given. Even at a young age they believe they are the bad person their parents and teachers tell them they are. One boy told me he’ll be a gangster when he’s bigger, another how he’s not clever so will need to be tough.

Others are visibly scared and frightened and will internalise their fear — learn to conform and be timid and scared in other social settings.

Adults seem oblivious to the damage their behaviour causes or think their threats are harmless and mild. Some even seem to enjoy the misery they inflict.

Is it possible within the current education system to do things differently? I think so.

Children are inundated with petty unnecessary rules which get them to seek approval of their behaviour from adults. If rules are stupid I’ll say so. If I see that children have been unfairly treated by adults I tell them they are right to be angry. That they should only respect adults who treat them well.

When I am supervising a playground no one is ever punished or sent to the head. If fights are brewing I try to talk to children before it kicks off. I recognise why children are angry, explain that I can see they are trying to keep control, tell them that I think they are really a decent person who doesn’t want to hurt anyone.

Children are so used to being asked “who started it” etc. it takes awhile to realise that I am not trying to control them and that I will stick to what I say. They will then talk about how they feel, and what they think about school. What do they want from school, why food fights, music at lunch time would be good, about not having to ask permission to go to the toilet. About learning about interesting things like protests, rebellion, school students’ strikes, Mohammad Ali, physics.

Explaining and talking to the children about why they shouldn’t use violence, why they can’t leave school and climb the spiked fence, why someone might be frightened by something they’ve done, does work in my opinion. And it can be done without a threat to back it up.

After a while this strategy works. One time I talked to one of the boys who was always aggressive and in fights . He swore at me endlessly but he did control his aggression, didn’t hit anyone and after recognised he’d done really well (though he was too cool to admit it.)

Another time I talked to a boy who was expelled from his previous school for fighting and being out of control. I tried to teach him how to ground himself when angry, stop him getting told off for petty rule breaking, ask him what sort of person he wanted to be, what interested him... He is very bright and wants to know about how things work but is sick of being told to stand still, don’t talk when the whistle goes, walk in silence to class etc., etc.

If I see a child is frightened by the behaviour of either another child or, more often, frightened of a teacher I’ll talk through how best they should deal with it.

From one end of the day to the other a complicated system of punishment and reward is inflicted on children. As well as becoming hardened to it or scared, children seek control through refusing to eat at lunchtime, or trying to outwit those who are controlling them.

It is undoubtedly easier to make threats and punish because you get immediate results, but in the long term you end up reinforcing a world view which says respect authority, do as adults say or you will take the consequences. Adults in that role forget that the power given to you to demand respect regardless of what you do damages children’s view of themselves. Regardless of how interesting your teaching the main thing they will take from school is “know your place”.

It is not a rational system. For instance children with learning disabilities are — including one boy with Aspergers’s Syndrome — are sometimes yelled at by teachers for bad behaviour. Other children can’t understand this. They know the boy with Asperger’s couldn’t help his behaviour, so why is he being yelled at?

One of the teachers in my school is very strict and uses the threat and reward system. She has a large number in the class with a variety of behavioural problems. What she doesn’t realise is that she has the children “onside” without those threats — they liked her lessons. She could have done them more good if she didn’t resort to threats.

One new teacher to the school agreed with me on why punishment and rewards doesn’t help develop children’s confidence in their own abilities and wanted to try something different. However he didn’t have was confidence to stand up to the other teachers and head and challenge the dominant opinion.

Teachers and other staff face all sorts of problems but that shouldn’t mean we don’t address the way children are treated by adults in school. Children’s opinions are not heard when they are treated unfairly nor can they usually articulate why the way they are treated is wrong. It is far too intimidating, and they do not have the experience or language to challenged the world view of parents and teachers.

That is why socialists have a duty to articulate and explain alternative ways of guiding and teaching children.

As Louise Michel said during the Paris Commune: we should strive for an education system in which there should be no punishment or reward apart from your own feeling of having done your duty or having acted badly.

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