When children who have barely reached their teens commit suicide because they fail an exam or are bullied by teachers or fellow students, there must be serious problems with our schools, and with the parents, teachers, head teachers and the society’s values at large.
Don’t children count even if they fail an exam, or just get a C instead of an A or a B? Don’t teachers keep an eye on bullying in the schoolyard? And still worse, don’t head teachers, school management committees, parents and other pupils and teachers notice if the students are harassed, beaten and bullied, yes, but fellow students and indeed by teachers?
The ‘first task’ of a school is to protect the students, the girls and the boys, so that it is safe for the parents to send their children to school and so that the children feel safe there and dare and wish to go to school. It must be a safe and happy place to be, only then they can learn and develop best.
The ‘second task’ of the school is to teach good values and behaviour, so that the parents and the communities to which the school belongs to are satisfied with it, as they see that it adds to what they impart informally outside the school, helping children to socialise well and be able to become good members of the society. Often teaching of values is based on religion, but much is based on universal moral and ethical standards. Children understand those values anywhere in the world, such as being honest and behaving in accordance with the “golden rule”: “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you.”
Only as the ‘third task’ comes the school’s task to teach the subjects, impart skills, knowledge, competences and good work habits. As students reach higher grades, the subjects become more important, but they must never be made to overshadow the broad goals of education, which are to help the parents in making good human beings and citizens out of their children. Well, in the end it is the children, as they grow older, who must take responsibility for themselves and their own behaviour and participation in society.
When tragedies of the kind we have recently seen in Pakistani schools happen, it shocks everybody and we are all left with questions that we may never find answers to. The causes are broad and complex and it is difficult to know what it was that triggered the young persons’ final drastic decision.
As is common with suicide at any age, the action is often a desperate cry for help and attention, not a wish to succeed with the action. I am sure the young boys had wanted to discuss and solve their problems, not end their lives. If parents, teachers and others had been there for them, the tragedies may not have happened. At the same time, we must also be careful about pointing fingers at those close to the children, unless there are clear indications of neglect and abuse.
Let me revert to the growing importance we today give to educational achievement, especially among middle class children in the urban areas. Children must get good grades and perform well in school subjects, get awards and scholarships, and so on. Parents, perhaps mothers in particular, push their children to be successful, and that may well mean that they must do better than the parents did themselves. In their social and other ambitions, the parents may not realise that their behaviour can be very negative to the child’s overall development.
True, students should be committed to their school work and reach a minimum level in various subjects. They should every year add to their knowledge and overall personal development. Often or always, a child’s performance should be evaluated on an individual basis. A child should not necessarily be compared with how well other children do, but he or she should be evaluated on the basis of own progress.
Sometimes, a child may be at a “learning plateau” without much progress for long periods, and that should be accepted by the child, the teacher and the parents. Overtime, this will even out and the children, who are not pressurised, will be able to sort out most of their difficulties themselves, with the advice and encouragement from adults, fellow students and siblings. We adults should remember that we too learn and solve issues in our own tempo and our own ways.
Teachers should realise that a certain percentage of children in a class may have genuine learning difficulties of some sort or the other, say 10-20 percent, and they would benefit from the help that they get from the class teacher or a special education teacher. For example, it is today known that at least 5 percent of the children, boys in particular, have some degree of reading difficulties (dyslexia). It is a handicap that requires special help, but the children often perform above average in other fields.
Teachers must keep their eyes open for special education needs, even if the resources to help out are limited. A class teacher should be able to identify most such problems and do what is possible within the class, and discuss the issue with the parents and colleagues. It is very important that stigma is not attached to special education needs. Such needs are not the child’s fault in any way.
It may be useful to know that in Scandinavia, and in particular in Finland, where education achievement is very high, special education classes or lessons are periodically used for a very large proportion of the pupils.
Furthermore, the school does not put overdue pressure on the students, and after school it is plays, games, sports and social activities. Extra-coaching of children in the afternoon and evening is hardly ever used, neither by parents nor private teachers. In comparison, in highly competitive cultures, such as South Korea and Japan, extra-coaching of children is common, robbing the children of a normal childhood and social development. That has also resulted in a higher percentage of child and youth suicide than in other countries.
We may want to copy the economic development achievements of South Korea and other South Asia States. But we should not copy much from the way they too often make students into robots, rather than young, precious human beings. Luckily, Pakistan is still a caring and kind society, with great family and community values - yes, in spite of other political and equity shortcomings.
Let me underline one particularly important set of causes for children’s worries becoming overwhelming, and in extreme cases resulting in suicide. Child abuse, including physical, mental and sexual, are more common than we want to admit - in Pakistan and in other countries. It can be that there is violence in the home, and the child worries about the mother’s well being, a sibling’s well being, and so on. Or, it can be a father or another adult who suffers from substance abuse.
As the child grows older, he or she becomes increasingly concerned and worried about it; boys, perhaps, more than girls in the culture. In our time, with many economic difficulties, children will also begin worrying about issues related to the family’s income. If the burden on the children is not made too big, it may be positive to include them in such issues, but it must be done with caution.
In all spheres of life, communication is important, and we must talk about issues in non-judgmental ways, without pretence and too many hidden agendas. It may even be good to be ambitious, contrary to what I have underlined above, but it is the student who must find out what they want to be themselves. Teachers, parents and society at large should be all-inclusive and accommodating so that each and all of us can do well!
Most of us will actually do ‘OK’, and we will do better if we are supported in a positive way and worse if we are criticised and treated harshly. As long as we do our best, that is what counts. If we have such well rounded attitudes, children and adults will be happier. Tragedies of the kind we have seen this spring will be rarer. But it takes us all to contribute!
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.