Treat the cause not the symptoms


BY DR CHIAM HENG KENG

A SIXTEEN-year-old was bashed up by Form Five seniors. The assault was so severe that his liver was damaged. His offence: speaking to a female student without seeking the consent of his seniors – an unwritten rule at this technical secondary school in Batu Pahat, Johor. 

Around the same time, a Form Five Student in a Mara Junior Science College was attacked by five fifth formers. He sustained a broken right arm. His offence was not taking part in the cleaning up after eating durians with the others in his teacher’s house. This incident occurred in Jeli. 

Hot on the heels of these two incidents came reports of an attempt to revive the “High Council” – a highly feared gang among residential students many years ago. Twenty Form Five students in Sekolah Tuanku Abdul Rahman were subsequently expelled for their involvement in gangsterism. 

These three incidents show that delinquent acts do occur among schoolchildren in any part of Malaysia and that problematic behaviour is not confined to underachieving students. If the 16-year-old victim’s father, who is a teacher in the same school, had not reported the incident to the police, and the matter was not highlighted in the media, would the other two incidents have been publicised? Probably not.  

BE KIND AND WISE: Counselling is important as schoolchildren muts be nurtured not only to acquire knowledge but also to mentally healthy and have the ability to manage their emotions well.

If politicians had not taken an interest in the incidents and the Education Ministry had not been urged to act against indiscipline in school, the interest of the media and the public would have waned long ago.  

However, the action taken to curb indiscipline in schools may not bear much fruit. For instance, the expulsion of the 20 Form Five students for gang activities will not reform them or help them become useful citizens.  

In fact, it is highly probable that these 20 students will bond more strongly and become more determined to show the authorities that the expulsion has not hurt them in any way. They will be more active in recruiting members, eager to boost their self-esteem through more gangster activities. The expulsion removes them from school but not from society. 

Studies show that those who become gang members through threats or coercion are not committed members and usually drop out as soon as they can find ways or excuses to do so. Committed members are usually those who join gangs out of a perceived need, or who upon on joining a gang find that belonging to one satisfies needs that parents, school or the authorities fail to provide.  

A gang is a highly structured organisation and the initiation rites give new members a sense of belonging and loyalty. Loyalty is not only demanded of members but is also fostered by a willingness on the part of members and their leaders to come to each other’s aid, financially, morally or physically. 

Thus, youngsters from dysfunctional homes are attracted to gang membership as the set-up and cohesiveness give them security, attention, love and a sense of belonging that their families fail to provide. Others are drawn to gang activities because it gives them a sense of power and self-esteem. 

Allow me to cite two case studies to demonstrate my point” 

 

Case study No. 1 

‘A’ was a 15-year-old whose mother worked in a karaoke lounge from five in the evening till the wee hours of the morning. His father, a lorry driver, was hardly at home and on the rare occasions he was home, his parents quarrelled. Their squabbles were mainly over who should be responsible for their three children’s expenses. ‘A’ had to look after his two younger siblings, by cooking their meals, etc. 

A’s gang gave him money when he had to pay for his and his siblings’ school fees. He was often scolded and caned for failing to complete his homework, poor results, rude behaviour and truancy. While the school looked upon him as a liability – owing to his poor school performance and delinquent behaviour – the gang regarded him as one of their own, a valued member. 

Owing to the support and care he received from the gang members and leaders, ‘A’ worked hard and rose from the ranks to become a leader himself. His commitment and loyalty to the gang was such that he was prepared to die for it.  

 

Case study No. 2 

‘B’ was the only boy in a family of three. His two sisters were better in their studies and were often praised by their father. Though ‘B’ was much loved and even spoiled by his mother, his father paid him little attention, even refusing to go to the boy’s school to talk to his teachers when requested to do so. 

When they dined out, ‘B’ often found himself the topic of conversation when, invariably, his elder sister would run him down. Family outings became so painful that he refused to go out with them. 

In school, ‘B’ received endless reprimands from his teachers who were mainly female and was caned on numerous occasions for offences such as rudeness to teachers, disruption in class, failure to complete homework and truancy.  

He could not understand why teachers were allowed to be rude – by calling him names and humiliating him in very offensive ways – but that when he retaliated he was punished. 

On the other hand, B’s gang respected him and listened to his ideas and suggestions. They made him feel good and useful, and treated him like a man. Hence, his loyalty to his gang could not be shaken. 

‘B’ was active in recruiting members and worked hard to rise in rank in his gang. Except for his mother, he loathed females and yearned for the respect of males. His hatred for females and the longing to be regarded a man could one day turn him into a rapist, if these two strong emotions are not addressed appropriately. 

 

Nurture instead of punish 

If Vision 2020 is to be attained, the present set of schoolchildren must be nurtured not only to acquire knowledge but also to be mentally healthy and have the ability to manage their emotions well. Using punishment to curb social ills and discipline schoolchildren will not enable them to grow up as wholesome individuals who are capable of managing stress effectively. 

Counselling helps but merely allowing students to air their problems will not help them develop the ability to understand themselves and others, acquire coping skills and inculcate good moral values. Counsellors must step out of counselling rooms and go to students’ homes to work with their parents and the community. 

Invariably our case studies show that students’ problematic behaviour and emotional problems begin at home. Instead of helping these children overcome their emotional and psychological difficulties, the school reinforces them and, in the process, creates new ones. 

In most cases, for the counselling at school to be effective, parents must be included, and parents themselves need help.  

Thirty-two experts were handpicked to participate in the Oxford Symposium in School-based Family Counselling in August. The conclusion was that schools and parents need to work closely for changes in children’s misbehaviour to take place.  

Our counsellors tend to be reluctant to step outside the school compound because we do not have this culture of close cooperation between school and the community it serves. Instead of going to the people and the grassroots, the school expects people to come to it.  

During the Q&A session after I presented my paper, Bringing Family into Community and Community into Schools: A Treatment for Social Ills, at a conference organised by the Asia Pacific Forum on Families in June, a participant commented that she rang some students’ parents but that they refused to see her to discuss their children’s problems. 

Understandably many parents dislike hearing problems concerning their children. They probably have enough of the child’s problems at home and it would only increase their anxiety to hear more bad news. 

In addition, parents of low socio-economic standing (unless they have some political backing), feel helpless, inferior and fear authority, including teachers.  

If we are serious about helping our youngsters become mentally, healthy and useful citizens by 2020, we need to examine very carefully our nurturing practice, the professionalism of our teachers and counsellors, and our educational goals and societal values. 

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