Is it a teacher's job to decrease violence in Jamaica?
Decreasing violence in schools must be a national effort.

Over the past several weeks we have all been deeply troubled watching the violent behaviour of some students in Jamaican school settings. The latest is of a young student hurling stones into a classroom at Homestead Primary and Infant School. I watched this news report over and over, feeling confused.

What could go so wrong to compel a primary school student to pick up stones repeatedly and throw them directly into a classroom with other students present?

Why was this little boy picking up the stones over and over even when a teacher tried to block his actions?

Why was the teacher holding her phone the entire time? Was she filming the situation as it unfolded, or was she calling for reinforcement? Why did the teacher's body language appear so helpless, ineffectual, and demotivated?

I had many questions with no answers.

Ultimately, a wave of sadness overcame me because something snapped in this child and no one seemed able to console his anger. It was frightening, as I recognised that we are not only fighting violent behaviour externally but also watching it growing from within our school system.

The news headlines recounting some recent events are a chilling reality check that we are in deep crisis: 'Tivoli teacher attacked for trying to break up classroom gambling session, say police', 'Shock at Kingston Technical as girl stabbed to death by fellow female student', or '16 students suspended after brawl at Meadowbrook High; fight reportedly caused by love triangle'.

Research says when a child turns 18 they would have spent approximately 13.36 per cent of their waking life in a classroom.

What if we were to enforce measures in our schools to curb violent behavioural patterns in our students from early childhood through to secondary, would we have less violence in our society? But whose responsibility is it to equip our children with proper social behaviour and discipline? Is it the teacher or the parent?

There are currently 726,302 students enrolled in schools across Jamaica from early childhood to pre-tertiary. Thirty-three per cent or 240,226 make up zero to six age cohort (Planning Institute of Jamaica [PIOJ] 2020/2021).

However, medical research proves that the most impactful years of any child's life are in their first three years, as the human brain has the highest rate of development between zero to three. Between ages five years to 6 years a person's personality, and how they will behave emotionally in the future, is already in place.

"The brain develops in a certain way. For example, if a child defines the world as a hostile or loving place by one year old, they will act accordingly. How a child is treated, and their reaction, is learned behaviour. The first 1,000 days of a human's life will determine brain development and personality. Therefore, children need proper stimuli for their positive brain development. If you miss that window, then you must try to modify the stimuli to the brain in adolescence." (Consultant psychiatrist Dr Earl Wright, Jamaica, June 2022)

Therefore, before a child enters basic/infant or kindergarten in Jamaica many of their personality traits would already have been formed based on their socialisation and interaction within their home and community environments.

Dr Wright asserts that Jamaica is paying a high price for some of the adverse environmental effects our children are experiencing, which is the leading cause of personality disorders, and it is people who have developed antisocial personality disorders from an early age who commit the crimes and end up in prison.

Some adverse environmental factors contributing to people feeling hopeless and helpless include general poverty, extreme physical punishment, emotional abuse, and inconsistent or no access to education.

Children having children

HIV/AIDS officer at the United Nations Sub-Regional Office for the Caribbean Dr Denise Chevannes says 20 per cent of Jamaica's population are adolescents, and we have the third-highest adolescent pregnancy rate in Latin America and the Caribbean. She noted that the health and well-being of adolescents have a significant effect on the health of the whole nation. The disruptions of the pandemic have intensified the problem of adolescent pregnancy, leaving more of our girls susceptible to teenage pregnancy.

Research studies have highlighted that adolescent parenting is one of the major risk factors associated with inhibiting early childhood development in a child's social and emotional well-being. Adolescent mothers tend to have limited knowledge about child physiological and cognitive development, often misjudging their infant's or toddler's ability to adapt and learn. As a result, this leads some teen mothers to shout and beat their toddlers out of irritability and frustration to get a toddler to conform.

Moreover, children born to teenage mothers have worse outcomes, poorer health, less schooling, and lower earnings in adulthood (Journal of Human Resources July 2021). Therefore, it stands to reason that adolescent parents need more support avenues, especially emotionally.

Currently, Jamaica has three formally trained child/adolescent psychiatrists and 20 child guidance clinics. However, child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Garnish Shetty says that more than 95 per of our children and adolescents experiencing a mental health issue may go unnoticed and untreated.

What's next?

In a comprehensive report to the Public Accounts and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) this week the Ministry of Education and Youth (MoEY) outlined several psycho-social and preventive programmes currently underway.

One is the development of a National Guidance and Counselling Policy to provide direction for the delivery of guidance and counselling services in schools. Presently, they are "1,016 guidance counsellors, of which 918 are fully engaged, while 98 guidance counsellors operate through the cluster of schools-based approach. Guidance counsellors provide comprehensive services in 836 or approximately 83 per cent of our schools. They are engaged in 100 per cent of schools at the secondary level and approximately 80 per cent of the primary level. Of this number, 108 primary schools are served through the cluster-based approach". The goal is to have a guidance counsellor in every school islandwide. (MoEY's responses to PAAC, November 2022)

Additionally, the inclusion of mental health literacy in secondary schools, targeted for students in grade nine, character education in schools across all grade levels, the expansion of regional trauma/grief support teams with support from external partners, increased monitoring, coaching, and support for behavioural initiatives in schools by MoEY's personnel, and the training and exposure for teachers in the areas of adverse childhood experiences (ACES), health and family life education, development of life skills, mental health literacy, and social-emotional learning character development through character education.

Moreover, the ministry intends to support reintegrating school-age mothers into the formal school system exclusively. This will include access to quality educational spaces, home visits, empowerment sessions for the young ladies and their significant relatives, the provision of identified wrap-around services, and sessions targeting their coping and resiliency skills.

Back when I was going to school it was unheard of for a student to be verbally disrespectful to a teacher, let alone get into a fight with one. But those values were instilled from at home. Our teachers put themselves on the line daily to impact our lives for eternity. Decreasing violence in schools must be a national effort. As parents, its our primary responsibility to provide our teachers with safe environments through the disciplined character of our children so that effective teaching can take place. If, as a parent, we may face difficulty raising our children, then we also have a responsibility to say it, so the school can provide support or point us in the right direction for help.

Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People’s National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.

Lisa Hanna

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