‘Positive discipline’ replaces corporal punishment at school

A project in Jamaica shows a nurturing alternative method to improve behaviour

Young children in Jamaica are often desensitised to physical punishment at home, according to Abigay Roberts*, a preschool teacher in the country’s capital, Kingston. “When they come to us, it’s as if they are not given a spank, they don’t know any other way to behave,” she said.

Such attitudes aren’t unique to Jamaica. Using corporal punishment against children remains common in classrooms in many parts of the world, often bound up with deeply ingrained social norms.

Providing alternative ways to manage students by using positive discipline techniques is widely viewed by campaigners as one of the most crucial steps to reducing corporal punishment. Now, a new project in Jamaica is seeking to spread positive discipline methods to teachers across the country. But can it work in poor, high-crime areas where violence is common?

Emotionally supportive classrooms

Positive discipline encourages teachers to be sensitive and responsive to the developmental needs of young children and create an emotionally supportive, nurturing classroom environment with clear boundaries and expectations. Encouraging teachers to pay attention to positive child behaviours is a core aspect of the practice.

It can be a clear alternative to corporal punishment, which has been proven to be ineffective, contributing to poor mental health and hindering children’s cognitive development and educational attainment.

As it presents violence as a solution to problems, corporal punishment has also been linked to increased aggression and anti-social behaviour, factors which contribute to continuing cycles of violence.

Positive discipline programs have existed in the developed world for years but are often expensive and require resources unavailable to schools in lower-income countries. The Incredible Years program — from which Irie Classrooms was adapted — has trained thousands of teachers in economically developed countries, but is costly and requires video equipment.

In Jamaica, there is a “culture where domestic violence and violence against children such as harsh discipline is normalised,” according to the Evidence for Better Lives (EBL) report, a global assessment on violence against children run by the Violence Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.

The report added that in the country, corporal punishment — any punishment involving physical force and intended to cause some pain or discomfort — is “a cultural practice”. Younger children are particularly at risk. While corporal punishment remains legal only in primary and secondary schools, the youngest children in preschools still suffer violence at the hands of their teachers.

Working in preschools with three to six-year-olds in inner-city Kingston, an area characterised by poverty and high crime, research for the Irie Classroom program found 88% of teachers used corporal punishment in class, often slapping or pinching.

“Everyone knows in Jamaica it’s widespread,” said Prof Helen Henningham of the University of Bangor, who led the project.

Local interpretations of corporal punishment and violence can vary, however, and Henningham highlighted the importance of ensuring definitions are clear to all actors involved.

In many lower-income countries, teacher training does not sufficiently cover classroom management, and stressful working conditions can trigger corporal punishment, particularly in an environment where it is normalised.

But “when you give teachers strategies and help them to learn alternative approaches, the majority of them take it on board and are very excited and enthusiastic about doing it,” said Henningham.

Tools against violence

In response to the high levels of corporal punishment in Jamaica, Henningham’s team developed the Irie Classrooms Toolbox. The project introduced free, evidence-based positive discipline methods to preschool teachers in Kingston.

Participating classrooms have seen corporal punishment reduced by nearly 70%. “We also found improvements to the quality of the classroom environment, improvements in children’s behaviour and for teachers’ wellbeing,” said Henningham.

The Irie Classroom Toolbox is a violence prevention program training teachers in behaviour management, and promoting children’s social and emotional competence.

There is a strong focus on developing an emotionally supportive environment and teaching children skills, such as how to share, and behaviours expected in the classroom, such as talking quietly.

Designed to be used in a low resource context, it is supported by resources including lesson plans, activities and visual aids, which are freely available online.

Through workshops and in-class coaching, teachers are trained in behaviour management methods, such as strategic praise and withdrawing attention.

For instance, if a student is running instead of walking in class, the teacher will praise the students who are not rushing, and then add their praise to the running child when they slow down.

While the toolbox emphasises promoting positive behaviour and preventing negative behaviour, it also encourages teachers to problem-solve around a range of common scenarios of student misbehaviour and generate solutions.

“The strategies are drawn from evidence-based programs for classroom management that are used all over the world,” said Henningham. It leaves out complicated or resource-heavy techniques.

“We’ve tried to make everything suit the context,” she added.

Teachers can choose the strategies which work best for their classes, which see fast results, and for which they have the resources.

“We use a very non-judgemental and non-critical approach to training and supervision which I believe is core to the success of the program,” said Henningham.

Following the intervention, there was a 67% drop in corporal punishment in classes where teachers used the Irie Classrooms toolbox, said Henningham. There were also improvements in children’s behaviour and the emotional quality of the classroom, she added.

Roberts, who teaches at a preschool in west Kingston, said receiving Irie Classroom training was “so beneficial”.

“Before the program I felt I was sometimes spending the entire day just disciplining instead of teaching,” said Roberts, who has 18 years experience in the job and received Irie Classroom training in 2016.

“I’m very happy because I’m seeing results, I’m relieved, I’m stress free,” she added. “I have better classroom management and can do more activities, and I relate to the students better.”

An unintended secondary outcome of the project was the improved mental health of teachers.

“They are less burned out, less depressed, more confident in their teaching strategies,” said Henningham. “It’s very important that teachers feel better and more positive about teaching because that means they’ll do a better job.”

Henningham’s team also noticed a higher staff retention rate in the schools which adopted the Irie Classrooms toolbox, highlighting an economic benefit to the program.

Roberts, along with other parents, is also using the Irie Classroom techniques with her own children, demonstrating its relevance to the wider community.

Henningham’s team are also working on extension of the program called the Irie Homes Toolbox, which transfers the same positive discipline techniques to the domestic environment.

There are now plans to scale up the classroom project throughout Jamaica, and it may soon be used further afield.

Henningham said: “Most of the content would be relevant to most countries … there’s nothing there that is very culturally specific. I doubt whether you have to take things out.”

Introducing the toolbox abroad would require strong expertise in the local early childhood education context, and further content might be required. The illustrations, drawn by a Jamaican artist, would also need to be changed, added Henningham. As in Jamaica, specialists to train teachers in how to use the toolbox would be required to maximise its potential.

Meanwhile, children and teachers in Kingston continue to benefit from the program. “It helps me to be a better practitioner,” said Roberts. “I don’t spend all my time disciplining children; I get to do more. I now have a better classroom relationship.” —Will Worley

*Not the teacher’s real name

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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