The Malta Independent 22 October 2017, Sunday

Indiscipline In schools – Who is to blame?

Malta Independent Sunday, 26 March 2006, 00:00 Last update: about 13 years ago

Lack of discipline in schools is not just a fleeting concern voiced in the last few months. The subject has long been debated and has featured repeatedly on school as well as national agendas both in Malta and abroad. However, whenever the subject crops up in public debate, no positive conclusion seems to emerge because the contenders quite often appear to ask the wrong question – “Who is to blame?” The problem can better be tackled perhaps if we address the question, “Who is responsible?”

Responsibility vs blame

Who is responsible for behaviour and good order in school? At face value the answer is the school administration and the teaching staff. In fact, the school administration is responsible for all that goes on in school, be it positive or not. However, this statement needs qualifying. While the above assertion is valid, one cannot leave out an important factor in the whole equation. While the teaching staff is in constant contact with its pupils, parents who are also important stake holders in their children’s education, carry a significant weight by providing the stable home background that help children fit in their school. Parents should also fully support the educational endeavours of the school administrators, teachers and other ancillary workers, who together provide opportunities for students to grow and develop in a sound and meaningful manner.

The student, who holds the central place, is often forgotten or taken for granted in the whole issue. At the present time we need to consider the child and listen to what s/he has to say in matters that concern them directly. Most schools have well-functioning student councils that often have direct bearing on behaviour and good order in school.

Old systems die hard

In days gone by, the teacher was solely responsible for the entire teaching and learning processes. He was the arbiter who controlled all initiatives in class. He or she was the dispenser of all knowledge and the student was expected to take in (and often memorise) all the knowledge that pleased the teacher to pass on to his faithful disciples! Although this may sound a rather cynical way of viewing the picture, there is still a great deal of truth in it. There may still be the tendency in some (not only teachers but also parents) who favour this form of authoritarian practice in the classroom at present. Where this attitude persists, the responsibility for learning is assumed by the teacher and the student is only expected to behave and pay attention to what is being said and done. In this way the student becomes a passive receptor while the teacher takes full responsibility for what the student knows at the end of the day.

The above scenario or variations of it, does not allow the student to assume responsibility for his or her learning. Doing well in school and in examinations seems to be the fruit of the teacher’s own labour and of the parent’s constant nagging, promises or even threats.

Punishment as a deterrent?

For some, the only means of controlling children in class is to impose some kind of punishment, thinking that this is the most effective means of deterring children from repeatedly failing to behave properly in class.

However, we all know that quite often punishment produces anger and rebellion in the student and frustration and a feeling of inadequacy in the teacher. Punishment is often repeated and rarely yields the desired results, that of correction and a change of heart.

Students assume responsibility

Let us consider the concept that advocates responsibility as one of the central characteristics of a well-ordered school. The only reasonable and meaningful alternative to school indiscipline and lack of good order, in my way of thinking, is to revise our system by training our students from an early age to gradually assume responsibility for their learning in school. They will then consider school as a privilege not a punishment. Learning will, increasingly, be owned by the pupil and less by the teacher.

Consequence as the positive alternative to punishment

If punishment does not work, what is there to replace it? What deterrent will stop children from playing truant, failing to do their homework, being late for school, disrupting lessons, etc? As the student assumes more responsibility for his actions he or she will be helped to understand that their choices are tied to consequences they will have to face as a result of any misconduct. Misdeeds and other failures will have their consequences that the students will know about, which they would have accepted. They will know that they have the choice of either doing what is required of them or else suffer the consequences of particular infringement. The teacher’s task will be to teach and to see to it that the consequence for errant behaviour is enforced.

Parents as partners

Parents too will not only be made aware of the consequences of faults and infringements in school, but they will, above all, be consulted when drawing up a Code of Conduct. Parents will also be encouraged to apply, where possible, similar strategies at home, which will reinforce the school system that does not base its discipline on enforced punishment but on assumed responsibility by the student. Thus, the school-home partnership will be strengthened and the relationship between parents and teachers be built on sound educational principles.

School Code of Conduct

One other instrument that ought to promulgate the transfer of responsibility from teacher to pupil and at the same time strengthen the school and home partnership is the School Code of Conduct or better still, the School Code of Good Order and Behaviour. A good number of schools in Church, State and independent schools have drawn up a document that spells out clearly school and class regulations or “ground rules” that help the students know what is expected of them in order to maintain a well run and organised educational institution. Students too are encouraged to contribute not only to the “rules” but also to the consequences that will be directly related to the particular infringement. In doing so, all stake holders are committed and responsible for carrying out their obligations in promoting healthy and happy relations in school.

Prevention as an alternative

The principle that governs this way of conduct in school is based on prevention. The more steps taken to prevent “the law from being broken or ignored”, the more likely school and class behaviour will be positive. Learning will thus become more possible and the results of school life will be more enduring.

The incorrigible student

What do we do with the students who, no matter what positive action the school takes, constantly exhibit antisocial behaviour? Some have been advocating that the student who cannot be made to see the sense of his or her misconduct, ought to be clustered together in one school and special provision be made for their “reformation”. This argument is flawed as it is reminiscent of years gone by when Approved Schools were in vogue. We all know the results of that system and one hopes that Malta will never go back to that most damaging system.

The Liverpool experiment

Some years ago, the De La Salle Brothers embarked on an experiment that had the backing not only of the Lasallian schools in the area but the financial support of the local authority. Students from subscribing schools who exhibit antisocial traits and are considered to be potential delinquents, are screened by a small team of professionals who consider the child’s social, intellectual and academic background. The parents are also interviewed and their assistance is sought to help the team draw up a comprehensive profile of the child. Where it is considered necessary, the team makes recommendations to the school for the student to be sent on a full or part-time basis to the Lasallian Centre for a period ranging from one or two weeks to a full school term or more.

At the Centre, the student is counselled and a tailor-made programme drawn up by the staff at the Centre to help the student learn relational skills and to adjust to school and class requirements. In this “reformation” programme the help of parents is enlisted throughout the entire process.

Once the student shows signs of positive attitude and disposition, he or she is gradually allowed to return to school even if for limited periods. Conferences are organised with the school on a regular basis as each case requires. Eventually, the student returns to his/her school permanently as a full time student. There have been cases of a second withdrawal of students from school for a further period of “rehabilitation”.

If we can adapt this system to Malta, we may be able to usher in a new spirit in those students who are tempted to play truant, misbehave, are disruptive and so on. This may be the most appropriate initiative where the government could invest its resources for better schools today and tomorrow.

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