I couldn’t help but write a reply to this accusation that educators who work in schools which have strict rules, routines and high expectations are complicit in child abuse. The author cites the DfE guidance on what constitutes emotional abuse and then states that certain practices in schools up and down this country also fall within this category of child abuse by alleging that they cause the child to feel the same way. The DfE guidance is here and I have summarised the definition of emotional abuse as:
- adversely affecting emotional development
- persistently causing serious emotional distress through through telling them that, eg, they are worthless
- stopping children from expressing themselves/silences them
- being forced to witness the maltreatment of another
- involving bullying, exploitation, corruption
So now I will deal with each bullet point in which the author alleges constitutes evidence of child abuse.
“Forcing children to publicly apologise for their behaviour”
I’m not really sure how the above constitutes emotional abuse, but I’m assuming that the author is thinking that if a child does not feel sorry, then it is emotional abuse to force him to say sorry against his wishes because this may cause him to feel upset. However, there is a clear distinction between the occasional feelings of guilt and embarrassment that come from being called to account in such a way, and the persistent emotional distress described by the definition of child abuse above. Also, we need to remember that a single teacher on their own in a class of 30 simply cannot leave the class with the one child to ask him to apologise because that would mean 29 others unattended. Further, some things just have to be dealt with straight away and what’s so wrong with guilt and embarrassment? These are normal human emotional responses that galvanise the young person into thinking twice before throwing that chair again, ultimately protecting them from future difficulties with relationships. What is emotional abuse is turning a blind eye, not expecting an apology and therefore simultaneously allowing a child to carry on not understanding that his actions may cause the misery of others: THIS will definitely interfere with his emotional development!
“Publicly listing all children’s results so that low-achieving children are humiliated”
No one does this.
Actually, where you do see public ranking, it will be those children who can access and have received the curriculum content; this will not include those with diagnosed SEN, for example. Ranking, despite not being popular with children who don’t like listening or working hard, provides a great incentive for those children who do work hard and see their results improve. We know that being ‘good’ at something comes from receiving explicit instruction and practicing lots and it is nothing to do with somehow being ‘naturally good’ from birth; therefore, ranking also rightly provides public praise for those children who have worked hard. It is also an honest way to inform parents where their child is. It is also how the real world works.
“Giving detentions for low achievement in tests”
I think the implication here is that children who can’t help but get low marks in tests are going to be punished and made to feel bad about it. However, I don’t know any teacher who punishes these children, rather every teacher I know works hard to give them extra support in the run up to the test to ensure they have a fair crack at it.
We need to bear in mind that in real life, if you don’t work hard, you will probably be ‘let go’. If your boss is feeling nice, then he might give you a second chance and ask you to do a few extra hours to make your quota. This is not emotional abuse, this is called running a business. Better to just learn this lesson well before getting a ticking off from your future boss that ends up with your not being able to pay the mortgage eh.
“Demanding conformity to a highly exclusive ideal in order to be accepted as part of the school “community” ”
Children love to conform because it makes them feel safe. For those children who are not lucky enough to receive The Rules of Life from parents, the provision of rules, routines and etiquette expectations by the school gives them a basis with which to conduct themselves and have happier conversations and relationships as a result. Further, the wider world that will receive them will have similar expectations, unless of course you don’t expect some children to join civilised society – who would admit to that? I would hope that if you’re reading this, you are one of us educators who actually expects and would give children a chance to join the more ‘exclusive’ parts of society as it were.
“Preventing student questioning”
During the lesson, there will be times when a question from a student is appropriate, and there will be times when a question will shatter the carefully curated thought processes of 29 other children and derail the teacher’s instruction. Stopping a child from asking a question at an inappropriate time is not child abuse, it is common sense. Most/all teachers have rules for when you can and can’t ask questions and if the child breaks the rule and then ends up feeling a bit silly, then he will learn from that one-off event. A moment of feeling silly is not the same as persistent emotional distress.
“Enforced silence outside of lessons”
What? Even on the playing fields at breaktime? I don’t know any school that does this!
Silence is liberating. In corridors where bullying would tend to flourish, it protects those who would otherwise be subjected to cruel comments. Many, many children with SEN benefit from these sorts of rules. Hey, we’re expected to be mostly silent in libraries, museums and in the parts of church services where people bow their heads in prayer, but is anyone accusing librarians, museum staff and little old lady churchgoers of being child abusers? No. Just the teachers. Those nasty teachers out to get children. Seriously, a bit of safety-first enforced silence does not constitute child abuse.
“Teachers criticising students openly in classes”
There was one time, many years ago, when some aspect of my accounts was 10p out. Oh I never heard the end of it! Going back even further in time, I once got diddled by two recently released prison inmates and was ticked off by my boss for somehow letting them take an extra £20 from the till. Today, if a child has not followed repeated instructions, then they will rightly receive public criticism, just as the child who has followed instructions to the letter will receive a great deal of public praise. However, the author’s insinuation that a teacher telling a child off is really an attempt to make that child feel worthless is really quite wrong – when I tell a child off, I am not saying to him ‘You are worthless’, rather I am saying to him ‘I am disappointed. You can do better than this. I expect you to learn from this and I care enough to ensure you hear this message loud and clear’. I do not have time to produce a simpering and robotic ‘Don’t worry, we can fix that window’ for the child who is not thinking of others or who cannot be bothered to listen. The one off criticism for poor effort, behaviour or manners is not child abuse, it is actually a difficult and caring attempt to nudge the child towards future happiness and success.
“Forcing children to wear signs around their necks for uniform violations”
No one does this.
“Forcing children to smile at teachers or suffer sanction”
No one does this.
“Forcing children to praise their teachers or suffer sanction”
Never heard of this one either, unless the author is confusing praise with thanks and the expectation that children say thank you to a visiting expert or music teacher, for example. Being expected to say thank you is good training for little ones and will help them to have more friends as they grow up. It is definitely not child abuse to expect a thank you!
“Pushing children into exclusion or even offsite units”
Interesting and I’m assuming deliberate choice of words with ‘pushing’ conjuring up images of teachers literally shoving innocent children into windowless cells. No one does this.
“Separate lunch areas for different children”
OK so, um, we do this. I don’t know how providing special quiet and small supervised lunch rooms for those children who struggle with sensory overload in the main dining hall constitutes emotional abuse? I would say that for these children, many of whom are on the spectrum, forcing them back into the main hall would cause them a lot of emotional distress. Let’s move on.
“A draconian no-excuses policy with heavy sanctions for any minor infringement”
I think many would take offence at the inappropriate use of the word draconian, but in any case a no-excuses policy can provide real clarity for children who struggle with right and wrong or who have not been lucky enough to receive all the rules of life from parents. I don’t know any school that is giving out heavy sanctions for minor infringements though – I’m pretty sure there aren’t any. I think what we need to remember here is that not all children are uber-confident in the way the author might imagine – some really need us adults to ensure rules are followed so that they are then protected from the peer pressure that results when rules are slackened in favour of liberal interpretation and ‘self expression’. Further, hard and fast rules also remove the endless and really quite tiring negotiation expected of teachers under the conditions whereby many children naturally test those boundaries to see where they really are.
Perhaps the author, and many who also share his views, is thinking that if a child feels sad at any point = then the ‘instigator’ of the sadness is automatically a child abuser. This really is a conflation too far and risks tarring anyone who works with children as (potential) child abusers. This kind of thinking also seriously undermines authority – yes, authority is needed in this world to keep it safe – who wants to live in a world in which children who have not been parented are then allowed to do, say and take whatever they want by those who are responsible for their education? Not I!
So, let’s be courageous and hold our children to account. They need us to help them learn those good habits.
Who’s with me?