Columnists

School unrest a case of stressed children

unrest

Summary

  • The cases of unrest are characterised by wanton destruction of school property with arson predominating.
  • The rising trend of indiscipline and unrest in Kenyan secondary schools is worrying and raises many questions among parents and other members of society.
  • There has been an almost unanimous call for the reinstatement of corporal punishment in schools with many feeling that the school management is too lax and permissive on corrective measures.

Secondary schools in Kenya have had perennial incidents of unrest in the past but there are growing concerns that these incidents have escalated to unprecedented levels in recent years. The cases of unrest are characterised by wanton destruction of school property with arson predominating.

These acts of rebelliousness not only lead to considerable learning disruption and untold losses in terms of school property but also lead to injuries and even loss of lives.

The rising trend of indiscipline and unrest in Kenyan secondary schools is worrying and raises many questions among parents and other members of society with most of them laying the blame squarely on the teenage children who are seen as being deliberately deviant.

There has been an almost unanimous call for the reinstatement of corporal punishment in schools with many feeling that the school management is too lax and permissive on corrective measures.

A parliamentary report presented by the Education and Research Committee of the National Assembly in 2019 outlined a number of causes of indiscipline in secondary schools.

These reasons were lack of communication between students, parents and teachers, exam stress, increased societal permissiveness as well as lack of proper training of school managers among others.

Several task forces have come up with detailed recommendations on how to address these problems. Some of the recommendations include strategies to enhance dialogue between parents, teachers and students, engagement of guidance and counselling professionals in schools and motivational talks.

The Kenya Paediatric Association (KPA) sees the root cause of indiscipline in schools as a cry for help from children burdened by stressors that are leading to the breakdown of their coping mechanisms.

KPA is an organisation that brings together health professionals working with children and adolescents. These professionals include paediatricians, paediatric nurses, clinical and medical officers working with children as well as other allied health workers.

Under the mantra “Afya ya Watoto Wetu” (translated as “The Health of Our Children”), KPA champions the right of every Kenyan child to good health and nurture, protected from harm and neglect.

Optimal child growth and development is very closely linked to environmental influences. A growing body of scientific evidence shows that nurture plays a more crucial role than nature (genetics) in determining the future health and well-being of a child including learning abilities.

Children who are nurtured in a favourable environment thrive in terms of growth and development meeting their growth targets and achieving their milestones.

A nurturing environment is essential right from conception and is especially critical up to two years when maximal brain growth and development occurs.

The basic elements of nurture that are needed right from birth include nutrition, sleep, responsive parenting and later, play. Proper nutrition entails food that provides adequate nutrients and calories for a growing child.

Children must be supported to ensure they get enough sleep during all stages of development. Sleep not only allows the body to repair itself but during sleep the brain makes new neural connections enhancing learning.

Responsive parenting requires that a caregiver be attuned to the needs of the child right from birth and responds by meeting the need in a timely manner. This need may be food, comfort or alleviation of discomfort. In contrast, the neglectful caregiver ignores the child and attends to their needs in a random and chaotic manner.

Such children may end up being malnourished and lacking skills needed to navigate the world such as problem-solving and critical thinking with long-term negative effects on their development.

These developmental deficits may manifest in school-age children as behavioural and learning disorders characterised by inattentiveness, impulsivity and other disruptive behaviours that hinder learning.

Early life stress has also been associated with the later development of chronic diseases including diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

A close look at the Kenyan education system reveals glaring gaps in providing the optimal environment needed to foster all-round care to the developing child. In pre-school, children as young as three years are expected to sit for long periods learning to read and write when at this stage, they should be learning through play.

Many schools have not set aside adequate spaces for free outdoor play and neither do they allocate sufficient time for this activity.

A majority of the secondary schools in Kenya are boarding and do not offer non-boarding options. A visit to many of these schools reveals that students live in appalling conditions.

The dormitories and classrooms are overcrowded and the ablution facilities are dirty and inadequate. To add to their misery, students are expected to be in class for morning prep before 6 am.

As health professionals tasked with promoting and protecting the health and well-being of children, we recommend that strategies to address the adversities facing children should form the core of interventions to prevent further harm.

The first strategy should be to support caregivers to practise responsive parenting or caregiving. That means we must not only equip them with skills to care for children in a manner that makes them thrive, but we must support policies and legislature that improve the environment for the growing child.

The next strategy is to support rest and play for children of all ages. Additionally, recreation and sporting activities must be included in the school curriculum.

Dr Karanja and Prof Agweyu are board members, Kenya Paediatric Association