One billion children experience violence each year—over half of all the children in the world. Experiencing violence as a child has huge consequences for mental and physical health and for educational outcomes.
Children spend more time in school than anywhere else outside the home. They need to be safe there. Here, we examine the problem of teacher violence, drawing on studies from low- and middle-income countries. Teacher-perpetrated violence is widespread and unacceptable and the education sector must do more to eliminate it from schools. We offer five strategies that we hope will be helpful for policymakers, practitioners planning interventions, and donors funding interventions. We also highlight the substantial evidence gaps in low- and middle- income countries.
Teacher violence—physical, emotional and sexual—is widespread
Physical and emotional violence as discipline is pervasive. Corporal punishment in schools is currently lawful in 64 countries with half the world’s school-aged children. Corporal punishment in schools continues in many countries even where it is legally banned, often with the support of parents. A study with 8-year-olds in four countries found that the majority had witnessed a teacher using corporal punishment in the last week. Teacher corporal punishment in the United States, while in decline, is still legal, and in three states is used in more than half of schools. Emotional violence, such verbal abuse or humiliation, is also common, and at times children can even find it more upsetting than physical punishment.
Violent discipline in schools continues to be an everyday reality for many children around the world, and is a clear violation of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.
Data are even more limited on sexual abuse by teachers as it is sensitive and difficult to collect data on, yet what evidence we have shows it is shockingly common. One study estimates that 18 percent of girls and 7.6 percent of boys worldwide experience some form of sexual abuse in childhood. A previous blog by Susannah (with Lee Crawfurd) highlighted the worrying extent of teacher sexual violence, suggesting that one in eight boys and girls in Senegal and Zambia had been sexually harassed by a school staff member in the last four weeks. National Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) found that schoolteachers in South Africa were the most significant perpetrators of rape against girls under 15 in 1998, accounting for 33 percent of rapes. Qualitative research found in Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Malawi that teachers’ sexual relationships with pupils were common and linked to gender inequality. And in Uganda forthcoming work by Ellen shows the institutional nature of different forms of teacher sexual violence.
Sexual violence by teachers is part of a global school sexual violence crisis, and considerably more needs to be urgently known, and done, about it.
Five strategies to reduce teacher-perpetrated violence
Over the last three decades there have been impressive policy developments globally to prevent violence against children. Almost all countries in the world—with the exception of the US—have now ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Unfortunately, the convention and other policy efforts have largely been ineffective to prevent violence.
There is now a growing interest in school-based interventions run by governments or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to address teacher violence. A forthcoming systematic review found four interventions globally (box 1) that were rigorously evaluated whose main aim was to prevent teacher violence (and one further that had a secondary aim and impact on it). We draw on these, a handful of other interventions, and a number of global reviews to pull out five strategies to reduce teacher-perpetrated violence.
Box 1. Four rigorously evaluated interventions to reduce teacher-perpetrated violence
Good School Toolkit, Uganda
The Good School Toolkit was designed and implemented by Ugandan NGO Raising Voices. It is an 18-month whole-school approach to violence prevention. It was found to be effective in preventing physical violence by school staff in primary schools in Uganda, leading to a 42 percent reduction. It is currently being adapted for use in secondary schools and is being scaled up to national level.
Irie Classroom Toolbox, Jamaica
The Irie Classroom Toolbox was developed in Jamaica to prevent violence in preschool settings. It is a one-year teacher-training programme for early childhood teachers. It was found to be effective in reducing teacher physical and emotional violence, and improving the classroom environment.
Interaction Competencies with Children for Teachers (ICC-T), Tanzania
The ICC-T is an intervention designed by psychologists to prevent teacher violence in secondary schools. It is relatively short intervention (5.5 days) and was found through evaluation to be effective at reducing teacher violence. It is also currently being evaluated in Uganda.
Empateach is a psychological intervention designed and implemented by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in partnership with the Behavioural Insights Team. It is is a 10-week programme for use with primary and secondary school teachers in refugee settings. It has been evaluated in Nyarurgusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania, with results forthcoming.
1) Interventions should help teachers reflect on social norms and beliefs about violence and provide them with alternative discipline strategies
Discussion and reflection on social norms, values, and beliefs can help change teachers’ views on violence. But to stop using violent discipline, teachers need to be equipped with a range of alternative discipline strategies they can use in the classroom. When these two approaches are used together, they reinforce each other, becoming more powerful. When teachers are committed to non-violence, their motivation to use alternative discipline strategies increases. When they see that alternative discipline strategies are effective in managing students’ behaviour, their attitudes towards using violence change.
2) The views and perceptions of teachers need to be part of the intervention design
Teaching is challenging work. Teachers often work in overcrowded and poorly resourced classrooms, experience high workloads, sometimes have little training and support, often teach children who face many challenges due to living in poverty, and may be paid poorly or inconsistently. Interventions to prevent corporal punishment need to understand these experiences and acknowledge that teachers can’t be solely responsible for changing disciplinary practices—for example, family members use more violence against children than anyone else.
When teachers feel blamed for using corporal punishment, or when they are asked to lead interventions they don’t agree with, it can backfire. Effective interventions bring teachers on board, listen to their preferences and are seen to support them rather than adding additional pressures.
3) Whole-school approaches are an effective way to reduce violence
Interventions that work at multiple levels in the school (e.g. with teachers, school management, children, the physical school environment, the school community, and parents), have great potential for preventing violence. More evidence is needed on how successful these approaches are generally, particularly on gender inequality, boys’ and girls’ involvement, and the gendered aspects of violence in schools, but global evidence reviews emphasise their potential. When done well, interventions can also prevent teacher violence even when directly addressing other aspects of school life, such as a Right to Play intervention addressing peer violence in Pakistan. Combining work at multiple levels in the school is therefore promising for long-term change.
The Good School Toolkit is an excellent example and currently the only whole-school intervention to be rigorously evaluated in a low-income setting. The WHO and UNGEI have useful resources on implementing whole-school interventions.
4) Framing interventions positively is important
Effective interventions frame their aims as being broader and more positive than preventing teacher violence. Focusing on a “good school,” or on teacher-student collaboration and dialogue, can work better than focusing on reducing violence. A focus on good teacher-student relationships and a positive school environment is a key aspect of all effective interventions. Understanding this emphasises the importance of good contextualisation, and doing research with communities to understand how violence is viewed and what will be well-received in schools.
5) Reporting teacher violence is challenging, and needs effective collaboration with a range of actors outside the schools
Finding effective means of reporting violence that children feel comfortable using is a challenge globally. Sexual violence is particularly sensitive, and the national violence-against-children survey in Zimbabwe found that only one in five children who had experienced forced sex sought help. Reporting violence in resource-poor settings faces a range of challenges. Policies in and around schools to report violence can be implemented poorly and children don’t always get the care they need. Even when referral structures are in place, children can still be reluctant to disclose violence. Previous work by Susannah (with Lee Crawfurd) highlighted the shockingly poor accountability for sexually-offending teachers, further reinforcing why children may not want to report.
There is little evidence on how interventions to strengthen reporting for teacher perpetrators can be effective, and can work well with external structures. A study into a national code of conduct in Ethiopian schools found useful insights for school committees and tools for referring violence. But they also found that teachers or children who report violence feared repercussions from perpetrators and could be left very vulnerable. Even when they are reported, accountability is poor and sometimes teacher perpetrators can simply be redeployed elsewhere.
We urgently need more action and research to find out the best ways of handling teacher perpetrators of abuse.
Our efforts to get boys and girls into school and learning will mean little if children are not safe in school
Levels of teacher-perpetrated violence against children are unacceptable and yet we do not know enough about how to tackle it. We have identified four areas where new research should be prioritised:
First, addressing the sustainability and scalability of interventions. We need to know how reductions in teacher violence can be sustained over the long-term, and how they can be effectively scaled up to district, national, or regional levels.
Second, understanding the differential impact on boys and girls. Many interventions addressing teacher violence aren’t explicitly gendered and we need to know more about how they affect girls and boys differently and their impact on gender inequality.
Third, preventing teacher sexual violence. Currently interventions tend to focus either on violent discipline from teachers, or on peer sexual violence, rather than teacher-perpetrated sexual violence. We need more research on the best ways of addressing teacher sexual violence or that combine approaches.
And finally, working with actors around schools. We need more evidence of how school interventions can work effectively with policy and child protection actors around schools, and how they can engage parents and community members to expand violence prevention efforts.
Violence in schools is an urgent and critical problem to address. The education sector needs to do more to address it. The research field has advanced recently and this evidence should be incorporated into policy and programs. But, big knowledge gaps remain. We urge more investment in research so that children are safe in schools and able to learn.
Thanks to Shelby Carvalho, Lee Crawfurd, Karen Devries, David Evans, and Clare Tanton for helpful comments on an earlier draft.