Complexity of defining violence of against children at school
Part of the explanation lies in how we frame and conceptualize the issue. Preventing violence against children in school is a complex problem. The complexity emerges partly from the widening of how we understand this issue beyond only acts of commission, such as caning, to also include acts of omission, such as the inadequate implementation of laws to protect children, as defined in the 2011 Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In this context, preventing violence in school evolves into the complex task of influencing the child’s experience of school rather than just eliminating certain practices such as corporal punishment. Since experience is subjective and influenced by a wide range of factors, the task is daunting1.
A systematic approach
Over the past 15 years, Raising Voices has focused on preventing violence in Ugandan schools. Below we articulate five key things that have allowed us to build a systemic approach to prevention:
Begin by preparing the “opinion infrastructure.”
The education sector is still reluctant to own the problem of violence in school because of an underlying assumption that violence against children is a social problem that is best addressed in the home or the community. Therefore, the limited time and resources of a school should be reserved for addressing other tangible outcomes, such as acquisition of cognitive skills and fostering learning outcomes.
In such a circumstance, any credible intervention at scale that goes counter to this status quo needs to persuade educators and officials that the psychological health of learners has a profound influence on their process of learning. Thus a significant proportion of actors within the education delivery system needs to be galvanized to subscribe, endorse, amplify and implement the central ideas underpinning the intervention. It requires popularizing an expansive vision for schools and enlisting diverse stakeholders to promote such a vision. Without investing in developing such an opinion infrastructure, the efforts won’t succeed.
Innovate the learning process.
Many school practices are mired in a deeply hierarchical structure and are profoundly influenced by outdated models of the learning process. A significant proportion of education practitioners believe that fear and stress are the primary psychological levers for fostering learning in students. To dismantle this assumption and create a more progressive approach informed by evidence requires input at the policy, oversight, as well as at school levels. It also requires engagement of parents and opinion leaders at the community level using tools, learning materials and learner-centric processes that make the case that when the environment is respectful and safe, more learners are able to take the risk of exploring new ideas and integrate them in their emerging worldview.
School is part of a larger education system.
Each school is embedded within a larger ecosystem. For example, schools may have a mandate to act as a repository of fresh ideas and innovation and therefore the community is likely to tolerate a level of exploration that it may not in the home or elsewhere in the community. Therein lies an opportunity to introduce a carefully designed innovation aimed at fostering a school-wide reflection on values and norms that determine attitudes and behavior. The aim here is to influence the school’s operational culture instead of targeting narrow range of behaviors that could be identified as violence, resulting in longer-term and sustained outcomes.
Offer overarching principles and a process instead of a prescription.
Instead of disembodied messages or isolated behavioral prescriptions, offer an overarching vision of the journey with easy milestones that can be managed and navigated by a significant proportion of the school system. Integrate collective learning and a tracking system that allows the entire school to witness and recognize progress. If the process is efficient and elegant, it will allow the psychologically important phenomenon of ownership and agency to emerge, and it will likely create preconditions for sustainability.
Count on local leadership.
The intervention may have been conceived elsewhere, but the implementation has to be led by people near the school. Thus, the design has to embody clear, meaningful and leadership roles for multiple members of the school community, and it has to be flexible enough to accommodate diversity of skill and capacities, including those of children. The ideas promoted by the intervention may be innovative, but the activities have to be familiar and linked to behaviors and values that speak to the identifiable values that the majority of the school aspires to.