What's the difference between a class of forty and one of sixty!

Cassandra's Candid Corner
Stabroek News
July 29, 2001

There have been several reports and letters in the media lately on the issue of corporal punishment. And most of these reports have disturbed my sensibilities and set me thinking about the issues involved in the perception, form, administration, legality/morality and effectiveness of punishment.

One concept of punishment is that it is a planned attempt to influence either the behaviour or the development of the child through exposure to an unpleasant experience. It is a conscious product of a decision made by a person or group. Of course, such a definition ignores, as our theologians would be hasty to point out, the notion of retribution. In fact, criminal justice experts might add that one concept of punishment is that it is intended to vindicate the victim, in addition to correcting the attitude of the miscreant. Furthermore, the concept of punishment is further confused by those who maintain that the word itself has an emphasis that is already too punitive. For example, behavioural psychologists, like educators, often employ the term 'aversive consequences' which presumably is more in line with educational purposes. Others speak of `sanctions' and `disincentives,' instead of `punishment.'

Of course, the receiver of the punishment has his or her perception, and this perception will in turn impact upon the effectiveness of the punishment. If, for example, a habitual truant is suspended from school, he/she might not feel too badly about the whole episode. If a student is sent out of the classroom until his or her conduct improves, such a student could well view the suspension from class activity as a respite from the harrowing demands of the teacher. One has to balance the degree of pain caused by the punishment with the value of misbehaving (as seen through the eyes of the child). Putting a child in detention is valueless per se. If the child has to be in detention on Saturday morning when all his/her friends are playing, however, then the child's wish to oppose authority should logically decrease.

Of course, the degree to which any punishment will hurt the miscreant will be influenced by several factors, including age and sex. A toddler in nursery would have fewer problems with wearing a dunce-cap than a pupil in First Standard.

Beating a girl on her buttocks, I think, would be much more devastating than issuing that same punishment to a boy. I am convinced also that corporal punishment by a hated teacher will never be as traumatic as when it is meted out by a teacher who is loved and respected. Teachers who spend a lot of their time punishing kids should consider the effectiveness of the punishment.

This brings us to the various forms that punishment takes. A teacher can either punish through the vehicle of frustration or insult, or via pain and terrror both psychological and physical. Not being a teacher myself, and not having researched the use of frustration as a corrective instrument, my belief cannot withstand the tests of statistical, analytic or scientific scrutiny. Or perhaps it can. Anyway, my empirical observations incline me to believe that frustrating a student via detention, removal/withdrawal of privileges, suspension/expulsion, more homework/classwork often has questionable value and effectiveness. Many pedagogues have, in fact, argued that depriving a student of schooling (e.g., suspension) reinforces the concept that schoolwork is aversive.

Here in Guyana, school teachers can argue, perhaps with some degree of credence, that detention, more classwork and homework would tend to diminish their (the teachers') own valuable free time, which is used to carry out some activity which is associated with income enhancement or finding solutions to stave off the general pressure of trying to survive in these harrowing times. In other words, the impact of the punishment must not compromise the punisher, or else it would be counterproductive and ineffective. So we come to 'insult' and 'psychological battering' as types of punishment. Insult is a tame form of psychological abuse. There is an ocean between insult and the obscenities that are perpetrated against a child's psyche, as will be discussed later. However, a repeated dose of insult may be as damaging as just one cataclysmic incident of psychological destruction of a child's ego. Saying "Boy, did you fall out of the cradle and bounce your head as a child?" is seemingly harmless as an insult, since the message of 'dotishness' is jocularly implied. However, continuous and unrelenting admonition using the words 'dumb' and 'dunderhead' soon becomes psychologically damaging. And all this can be escalated to some supreme forms of cruelty to a child's belief in himself or herself. For example, in one school, a much-loved teacher made a seven-year-old male child drop his pants to his ankles and shuffle the length of the classroom in his red jockey shorts. That child has not recovered since. If that teacher believed that she chastised the boy alone, she is mistaken. She traumatized the entire classroom. The rest of the pupils will never see her in the same light again. The pupils will always live in terror that it could happen to any one of them. This act of psychological sadism cannot be compared with the wearing of dunce-cap and sitting in a corner.

Deliberate, mechanical trauma exerted by an adult against a child is unacceptable in any form. The editorial of the Stabroek News (6.2.94) apologetically mentions the "tired, underpaid and overstressed" teachers with their large classrooms of today. You, who are reading this article, please place yourself in the classroom of your youth. Were your teachers not tired, underpaid and overstressed then? Were there not forty (or more) of you in a classroom? Do you truly feel that there is a great difference in terms of control, between a classroom of forty and one of sixty? Did you do well/badly in certain subjects? Did you love/dislike certain teachers? Was there a positive correlation between the loved teacher and your best subject? Or, rather, was there a nexus between the brutalizer and the subject in which you were least successful?

The serving of blows by a 180-pound man on a quivering 40-pound boy or girl is brutality and bullyism, plain and simple. No `ifs,' no `buts.' By the way, since we are answering questions, how come it is usually the same boy who gets the beatings most of the time? Obviously, the corporal punishment is not effective. And one doesn't even have to be 'bad' to receive blows. A child who writes the letter 'C' or the figure '3' in a mirror image, as many children do, may supposedly be `corrected' by physical abuse. Of what value is such corporal punishment? Worse, much of the corporal punishment meted out in our schools is illegal.

We will continue this debate next week. Stay tuned.