Technically, teacher violence against young students is illegal in Jamaica. But as in many countries, this law against corporal punishment is rarely enforced, and it remains common for frustrated teachers to hit their students.
Worldwide, researchers and educational specialists have developed a number of tools to reduce such violence. But a recent study in The Lancet Global Health is novel for assessing a program involving preschool teachers, including directly measuring instances of physical and verbal violence both immediately and one year after a teacher-training program.
This program, the Irie Classroom Toolbox, was developed by Helen Baker-Henningham, an education researcher at Bangor University in the UK and the University of West Indies in Jamaica, along with Jamaican teachers. Baker-Henningham explains, “There are few evidence-based interventions to reduce violence by teachers and The Irie Classroom Toolbox is the only intervention that has been trialled in pre-primary settings. This is important given the importance of the early childhood years (including the provision of safe, secure, nurturing, and stimulating caregiving environments) in predicting long-term health, wealth and well-being.”
The program was rolled out in Kingston and St. Andrews, Jamaica. It involved five days of training, eight sessions of classroom support, and text messages. The aim was to provide teachers with alternatives to hitting, threatening, and yelling at their students, for instance by teaching emotional and social skills and suggesting nonviolent ways to manage classrooms.
The toolbox has four modules:
1) “creating an emotionally supportive classroom environment”
2) “managing child behavior”
3) “promoting social and emotional competence”
4) “behaviour planning”
Teacher materials include a tool book, an activity book, picture cards, and a storybook.
The focus is on practical strategies, rather than abstract beliefs. As the authors of the paper write, “The Toolbox does not explicitly challenge teachers’ attitudes towards violence against children. Rather, the theory of change suggests that the Toolbox reduces violence against children by helping teachers to gain skills, motivation, and opportunity to use positive discipline techniques.”
The main acts of violence observed during the study included physical punishment like pinching, verbal abuse like threatening to call the police, and other abuse like banging a stick on a desk. The trainers didn’t see any severe acts of corporal punishment, which they would have been obligated to report to the authorities. Baker-Henningham is confident that the presence of an observer in the classroom didn’t unduly influence a teacher’s behavior, as the observers were unobtrusively sitting in a corner over the course of a school day; and, as casually dressed young women, they weren’t viewed as authority figures by the teachers.
The results were impressive: there was a median of 15 violent/aggressive acts before the training, 3 afterward, and 6 one year later. In other words, the Irie Toolbox drastically reduced the number of instances of aggression by teachers, and much of this reduction was sustained for a year.
Following this research, the program is being expanded across the country. According to Baker-Henningham, “The Toolbox is currently being disseminated nationally across Jamaica by the Early Childhood Commission (ECC) (the government body with oversight for early childhood educational services in Jamaica).” The training has been rolled out in a cascade: the team that developed the toolbox trained the regional senior ECC officers, who in turn trained the regional field officers, who in their own turn trained the teachers. “In the coming year, these regional field officers will be training early childhood teachers in their subregion to use the Toolbox,” Baker-Henningham notes.
The materials are available for free online through a Creative Commons license, and the researchers believe that it can be easily adapted for other locations. They’ve already developed a complementary program for parents (the Irie Homes Toolbox). “The idea is that teachers who have been trained in the Irie Classroom Toolbox will implement the Irie Homes Toolbox with parents of children (aged 2-6 years) attending their school,” Baker-Henningham explains. A study on the Irie Homes Toolbox has not yet been published, but is currently under review.
The Irie Classroom Toolbox isn’t perfect. While it did reduce violence by teachers (although most teachers were still resorting to some forms of violence afterward), it had no measurable effect on violent behavior among students. And of course it doesn’t address broader issues of deprivation and limited resources that make violence against children more likely.
But as a practical way of addressing violence in the classroom – which affects children’s attitudes toward education and their overall life chances – the Irie Classroom Toolbox is worth further investigation and possibly tailoring to other places.