Schooling and Youth Violence

By Rattan Khushiram

The bomb is ticking. We have no choice but to overhaul our whole education system such that it that delivers for one and all

There is a great concern about the incidence of violent behaviour among children and adolescents. This complex and troubling issue needs to be carefully understood by parents, teachers, and other adults. Many scholars have documented on the root causes of youth violence. It is widely believed that we should seek to identify the cause/s of violence to be in a better position to prevent violence in the first place, or at least be in a position to treat or rehabilitate those identified as violent offenders.

A number of academic disciplines, including anthropology, biology, criminology, psychiatry, psychology, social work and sociology, have developed specific theories to explain the onset and persistence of violent behaviour. Some of these theories focus on how individual propensities, including biological and psychological disorders, increase the probability of violence. At the other end of the spectrum, structural theories propose that variables like poverty, oppression, social inequality and racism must be considered in any explanation of violent behaviour. Still others maintain that the source of violence lies in family dynamics, neighbourhood characteristics or peer socialization processes. It is quite difficult to summarise the plethora of ideas, hypotheses and empirical findings that mark the study of violence.

Where do we situate the kind of youth violence we had seen recently, especially with the schoolboys and girls attacking symbols of authority like the police. Have we reached a turning point? Some people believe so: « On est passé à un palier supérieur. On s’attaque aujourd’hui à des symboles comme la police. C’est dangereux et inquiétant. »

Being aggressive might mean standing for one’s own beliefs and being forceful, getting one’s way in personal or professional dealings and attempting to solve one’s own problems. Some provocation factors must be in place for aggression to manifest itself, for the repressed feelings that reproduce themselves unconsciously to resurface again into consciousness. What are these factors?

For Jacques Lafitte, pedagogical adviser and trainer, the root causes of our type of youth violence are: the family, the school and exclusion. Indeed, family dysfunctions such as domestic or intra-family violence, paternal alcoholism and/or absenteeism can be causes of youth violence. Similarly, exclusion and inequality are closely linked to violent conflict and insecurity. But what about our schools?

Schooling and youth violence prevention

When children enter formal education, the provision of safe school environments is critical for them to learn and develop new skills. The school must also create environments that strengthen children’s life skills. Life skills programmes include those that develop children’s social and emotional skills, such as empathy, self-respect, problem-solving, anger management and effective conflict resolution.

Unfortunately, both in terms of imparting academic and life skills that would have helped in violence prevention, our education system’s elitism fails us miserably by reinforcing exclusion. It perpetuates inequality of opportunities. Jacques Lafitte decries that our elitist education system is perpetuating exclusion and generating the type of violence we have recently been seeing. He says:

“Quand j’étais prof, ma grande ambition était les 40% qui ne réussissaient pas. Ce sont des jeunes qui ne se sont jamais retrouvés dans le système et qui ont été handicapés par un environnement familial douteux. Si on ne s’occupe pas de ces rejetés du système, ce sont eux qui briseront nos maisons, etc. Lorsqu’ils se regroupent, ces “drop-outs” constituent une force, une bombe. Donc, plus on favorise l’élitisme et on ne s’occupe pas de ces jeunes rejetés, plus on laisse l’exclusion faire son œuvre. On parle de lauréats mais de l’autre côté, c’est la violence pure qui s’accumule… Cela donne ce qu’on a là. »

The ZEP project is another abomination of our elitist education system – a mere patch up where we persist in applying the same traditional approach, the small touches at the fringes in an attempt to improve the system. With uncommitted teachers who fail to identify themselves with their students, with the uncommitted attitude of some teachers that explains partly the very high rate of failure in these schools in the deprived regions, the ZEP project was doomed and thus in a few words we can say there was no commitment and sense of belonging.But with commitment and belonging, schools, parents and the government can break the exclusion and poverty cycle through education. Success, some recent studies say, lies not in early intervention and implementation of traditional cognitive skills (reading, math) but by teaching the “non-cognitive” skills – like persistence and curiosity — that noteworthy people appear to have in abundance since toddlerhood.  Moreover, if the teacher acts as a buffer, offering love, support and emotional investment, children are much less affected by the socio-economic conditions in which they live. Teachers do compensate for the missing investment in their early years by fostering what some studies sum up as “character”. The components of character include resilience, self-control, optimism and grit. It helps young people absorb and act on criticism, overcome setbacks and meet frustration and obstacles with renewed determination. More committed teachers are more likely to instil in the ZEP students the discipline and persistence and demonstrate the ways and means to overcome adversity. That’s why it is preferable to have teachers from the same culture as the students in the ZEP schools. That means a totally different approach to our ZEP project — an approach which will be relying more on the teaching of non-cognitive skills by well-paid creative and committed teachers who can make a difference to the 40% that we have earmarked as “failures”.

The bomb is ticking. We have no choice but to overhaul our whole education system such that it that delivers for one and all, putting greater emphasis on social and emotional learning, on life skills and on teaching children to think critically. This is especially important for children from poor families for whom innovative thinking and entrepreneurship are so valuable.

* Published in print edition on 1 March 2019

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