Sunday, February 25, 2018

Children caught in the middle

Experts: School protests can trigger negative behaviour


'WHAT ARE WE TEACHING THE CHILDREN?': Teachers protesting outside the Chief Personnel Officer's office in Port of Spain. –Photo: STEPHEN DOOBAY

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IDLE TIME: Students stand idly on this compound as teachers stayed away from school. –Photo: TREVOR WATSON

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Schools throughout Trinidad and Tobago continue to face numerous challenges. Just three weeks into the new school term, various problems have forced some schools to remain closed.

As more and more problems continue to plague the school system, children are unfairly caught in the middle of a plethora of issues which can threaten not only their academic future but can also trigger various negative behaviour patterns.

Recently, dozens of young pupils joined their frustrated parents in protests demanding an end to teacher-shortage and infrastructural issues. While parents and teachers are within their rights to protest for better working / school conditions, various experts believe the turmoil can negatively affect young children.

For most children a new school term is a period of uncertainty, filled with excitement and all the emotions that come with a new experience. As if struggling with their new experiences was not difficult enough, children are faced with additional stress and disappointment—schools are closed, teachers are absent / shortage of teachers and their parents are frustrated.  

This term is especially critical for primary school children who are about to face a new curriculum in the form of the Continuous Assessment Component (CAC), which was established this term. It will see 20 per cent of the marks in SEA given to projects and assessments of various new subjects including physical education, visual and performing arts, creative arts, agri-science, citizen development, character development, ethics and more. It means that loss of class time could equal to a more challenging learning experience.

In a recent Express report, the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) said 90 per cent of the teachers employed throughout the country adhered to the call to stay home and "rest and reflect".  TTUTA is threatening more widespread protest actions if the Chief Personnel Officer (CPO) does not settle salary negotiations with teachers in a timely fashion.

The Express spoke with various educators and psychologists on the effects of this turmoil on children. Some believe that there are major repercussions to pay if the actions by education stakeholders continue. Some, like guidance counsellor Camile Swapp, who is also the director of Swapp and Associates, a consultancy dedicated to the development of people, said the mayhem reflects negatively on young children. An advocate for the rights of all learners, she said schools need more timely support and less turmoil. 

"Schools need now to be positioned as positive developing agents for the advancement of citizens and their communities. Governments need to place emphasis on having all stakeholders including children excited about the benefits of learning environments for joy to learn, self-improvement and national development," Swapp said. She said schools need DEPTH (Dignity, Equity, Peace and Professionalism and Tenacity for improved systems and Height).

Parents and teachers, Swapp noted, need to show young people different ways to negotiate. She said involving young children in protests is not a positive solution. "Parents and teachers should handle their issues as adults and leave the children out of it. We have to be careful because there is a demarcation between childhood and adulthood and if we want to be role models do we need children to be part of adult issues? We are there to provide for them; we are their leaders and exemplars. What is happening with the school system is also a reflection of what is happening in our society and with our young ones."

She added: "Show youngsters that there are different ways to bargain to get what you need. We have to negotiate in new ways. Is staying away from school an effective way to protest? Staying away should not be the only tool to get results especially for the advancement and growth of any nation. Teachers' unions need to include suggestions for improved working conditions, improved curricula to match children's development, tools for them to assess their working conditions and have meaningful feedback and salaries.

"If we say education is important then leaders should put urgency on having schools well-equipped in a timely fashion because we ask youngsters to work hard and respect time. Shouldn't we be role models and have schools prepared on time, and all learners, teachers and parents feeling a sense of accomplishment and value. The time is now; let's work towards having more DEPTH in learning environments," Swapp said.

Secretary of the Association of Psychiatrists of Trinidad and Tobago, Varma Deyalsingh, has condemned the behaviours of education stakeholders. Deyalsingh said children are at a formative period in their lives where they do not need additional stress. "We are actually teaching children that this is what you must do and this is how you must behave to resort to getting things done. What we find is that children tend to mimic; they tend to have learned behaviour especially in the formative period of their lives. The young ones are looking at the actions of teachers and parents and they will be thinking that this is the way to solve life's problems.  

"Children are already facing so many anxieties about entering a new school term. Adding protest action and keeping them away from school will now be giving them additional burden of stress. I think it's unfortunate that the strike action happened now and not in middle of the year where children are already settled in the new term. Children will now have to deal with all sorts of stress including finishing their syllabus," Deyalsingh said. 

"The stakeholders have a right to protest and the government impotency in handling their issues but probably they should do it on weekends showing the children that yes you should deal with important issues but you have to balance it with the more important issue which is education so you are teaching the children the concept of priority.  Children look for structure in their lives and unfortunately broken homes do not produce that type of structure so they depend on that order from the class rooms and their teachers. If they are not getting it because classes are closed and they are not getting it at home they may have a sense of abandonment of their