Corporal punishment and “positive discipline”

[Individual articles from the Summer 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Part one (by Claire de Brun)

Multiple studies have shown that corporal punishment is injurious to students, teachers, schools and the community at large, yet many teachers fear giving it up as it is the only form of control they know. Helping teachers move toward a non-violent, positive approach to discipline is good for everyone, but takes time, hard work, determination and patience.

In 2013 we spent a year at Maphutseng Primary School in Lesotho, working with the MCC pilot project to move from corporal punishment (CP) to positive discipline (PD). We found four important ingredients that helped teachers make this shift:

  • Taking time to build trust and “walk alongside” teachers;
  • Helping teachers understand the negative effects of CP;
  • Empowering teachers with alternative strategies for responding to inappropriate student behavior and establishing a positive classroom
    culture;
  • Equipping teachers with more effective instructional techniques that prevent misbehavior by engaging students more successfully in learning.

In settings where CP is widely accepted and practiced, it is imperative to establish a climate of trust and openness in order to have a meaningful conversation about change. It takes time to create trust with teachers and a safe place where issues can be discussed, change can be challenged and fears and doubts can be expressed. We worked with teachers at Maphutseng for months to develop this trust. The keys were partnering with the school, leadership and vision from the school principal and bonding with the faculty (respecting, observing and listening to them and showing an understanding of the issues in their world).

One sign that teachers feel safe is when they honestly share their struggles and failures. At one meeting a teacher shared that she had thrown her punishment stick away and had been working hard to implement PD, but one day she became very angry with her students and in frustration she stormed out of the room to find another stick. When she returned the children were singing quietly as they waited for their punishment. She was moved to tears, threw the stick to the ground and sang with her students instead.

Corporal punishment cannot be eliminated by simply writing it into the school policy manual. Change is born from the passionate care of adults who understand the harm CP can cause children, adults who are moved to make a commitment to non-violence toward children and to respect their dignity. Change comes from talking about the harmful effects of corporal punishment, including its crushing of students’ spirits and a stifling of students’ desire to learn. We spent a great deal of time listening to the teachers, having open discussions and presenting research on the negative effects of corporal punishment.

To be sustainable, child protection policies must be embraced by teachers and parents. Most parents and teachers want to be seen as protectors of children. Many still use CP because they do not know another way to control students. Teachers with whom we worked were open to hearing alternative ways to deal with behavior and class management, but it was a journey for educators who desired to move from a strictly authoritarian teacher model to a shepherding one.

While CP is a violent and retributive reaction to inappropriate behavior, positive discipline is a non-violent, restorative response. PD also includes positive strategies for prevention and, when used consistently and appropriately, is highly effective. It is critical in PD that educators believe that the child who behaves badly is not inherently “bad.” PD allows the
educator to focus on restorative, not retributive, goals, understand the causes behind the children’s behavior and hold students accountable for their actions with non-violent consequences rather than physical punishment.

Numerous PD alternatives to CP exist that teachers can use to restore and guide students rather than punish them (see, for example, the writings and videos of Doug Lemov and Harry Wong). PD is not only a method of responding to misbehavior—it is equally important to prevent misbehavior by establishing a positive classroom culture from the beginning. Procedures, expectations and consequences for not following the rules need to be made clear to learners. Specific praise, encouragement and affirmation are also key ingredients for positive classroom culture and are good deterrents for unacceptable behavior.

The most important lesson from our experience was that for educators to be in control of their classes they must use effective teaching methods first. When students are bored, confused or feeling incapable of learning they are more likely to misbehave, but when they are truly engaged in learning and feeling successful discipline issues are reduced.

There are of course very real challenges to effective classroom management, including large classes and a lack of books and other educational resources. Such challenges must be addressed to help teachers and students be more successful. However, even with those challenges, an intentional two-pronged strategy of implementing best-practice teaching
strategies and introducing PD techniques can create more effective classrooms in which learning can take place without CP.

When PD is implemented, it leads to a more caring classroom environment and less anger. Teachers feel more empowered with a relational, restorative approach to their students based on respect, not fear. But this change is not easy: the race to stop CP is a marathon, not a sprint, and necessitates that teachers have a safe space to discuss challenges and receive specific training in PD and encouragement for their efforts.

Part two (Me MaLintle Mantutle)

In 2011 our school, Maphutseng LECSA Primary, was identified as one of the pilot schools for the Child Friendly School (CFS) project. Pillars of the CFS project include safety, protection and psycho-social care and support. Positive discipline practice is one of the components of this pillar.

In 2013 when we desperately needed assistance, MCC nominated Claire and Harlan de Brun to spend a year at Maphutseng to introduce the strategies and methods of positive discipline in our school. The de Bruns organized meetings and school-based workshops to equip our teachers with various classroom management techniques to use in different
situations. They also visited teachers in their respective classrooms to help implement the strategies, provide guidance and encouragement and practice patience with the process.

The teachers visited other schools that already practiced positive discipline such as The Leseli Community School in Maseru and Samuel Johnson Secondary School in Zastron. Our school in Maphutseng reciprocated and hosted the principal and several teachers from the Samuel Johnson School later that year. It was during these visits that we learned from
other educators how successful they have been in administering positive disciplinary measures in their schools. We learned how records of misconduct are documented and kept for each class so that educators are able to monitor student progress and report to parents and school boards.

Thanks to MCC support, I attended a three-day parenting conference with the de Bruns. Then together we disseminated this knowledge to educators and parents in Maphutseng by conducting two all-day seminars. This training was also extended to the villagers in the seven surrounding villages in Maphutseng. The seminars helped both teachers and parents to realize how important it is for us as adults to conduct ourselves as good role models for our children. The training equipped us with skills and knowledge to nurture children so that they develop self-discipline in the long run.

We also had a large group talk with learners about the concept of a child friendly school and acceptable behavior and practices that they are expected to display in their daily studies and other activities. Claire gave reading lessons in some classes and taught composition. During her lessons she demonstrated various techniques that can be used to call learners into order. Harlan visited and modeled positive discipline and appropriate
teaching methods with math, history and reading lessons.

At two different points in time learners and teachers completed questionnaires that helped gather information to see how we teachers were progressing in implementing positive discipline measures. These surveys assisted us in identifying what issues needed to be addressed and what strategies to implement to help teachers deal with those identified areas of concern.

We work hard to promote positive discipline in our school because we have learned that corporal punishment promotes animosity between educators and learners. Learners tend to lose trust and respect for their teachers when they are disciplined with corporal punishment. Now we look at misconduct displayed by learners with a different eye. We know what steps to take when we come across such challenges. Positive discipline helps us to focus on behavior rather than on viewing the child as “bad.” We work on changing students’ behaviors to help them grow as learners.

Children who are physically and emotionally abused become abusive and stubborn in turn. They do not have self-respect and as a result they do not respect others. Children are looking up to us for their protection and if we fail to love and protect them they get frustrated and become depressed, leading to failure in their studies and their future lives. However, the change is not easy. There are still challenges for both teachers and parents, including the risk of losing hope when a child repeatedly displays unacceptable behaviors. There are times when the adults think that a stick will prepare the child to be a more responsible being. We still educate one another and encourage one another to always opt for positive discipline regardless of challenges.

Claire de Brun taught school in the United States and Lesotho for thirty years and served with MCC in Lesotho.
Me MaLintle Mantutle is principal of the LEC Maphutseng Primary School, which was awarded Child Friendly status under her leadership.

Learn more:

Lemov, Doug. Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to
College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

Wong, Harry K. The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications, 2009.

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