INDIA: A chance to rethink school discipline

Despite vigorous and unambiguous efforts to eliminate corporal punishment, the practice persists in schools around the world. Violence is a part of the lives of those children who experience and witness it and their physical safety is compromised in one of the spaces in which they should be most protected. India’s experience with corporal punishment has been painful. In April of this year, news headlines told the story of an 11-year old girl in a Delhi municipal school who died two days after she lost consciousness at school, allegedly after being beaten by her teacher and forced to stand outside the classroom in the sun for two hours. If true, this terrible incident happened despite a court ruling that corporal punishment is unconstitutional eight years ago. Nor would such an incident be an aberration – a 2007 report revealed that two-thirds of children around the country reported undergoing some form of corporal punishment, while that very year the national commission for the protection of child rights had told all state governments that the practice had to be “nipped in the bud”.1

Why does corporal punishment persist long after debates about its validity have been largely resolved in many courts, state governments and civil society and education organisations? This article suggests that corporal punishment will be difficult to eliminate unless teachers are effectively trained in alternative forms of discipline and behaviour management. Although a well articulated alternative plan lies beyond the scope of this article, new and creative disciplinary measures should recognize the evolving capacities doctrine articulated in Article 5 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Recognition of children’s evolving capacities – the recognition that children have abilities and skills that are not generally attributed to them and are always deepening and developing these - is often lost in school administration and classroom management. As a report by UNICEF states,

Teachers, like parents, tend to view children as passive recipients of adult wisdom and their own ability to exert control, diminish the respect they receive from children and produce bad behaviour. Yet, as with families, the evidence points to the contrary:

Research from the UK, for example, demonstrates that when children feel respected and are involved in decisions affecting school life, the relationships between staff and students improve, as do educational outcomes, leading to less conflict and violence and greater commitment to education.2

Indeed, while schools in general and discipline policies in particular often offer little space for student input and participation, schools are the environments best suited for building children’s participation and competence. Schools must both recognize children’s capacities, as they develop over time, and recognise their own role in developing them. School discipline policies that start with the recognition of children’s unique capacity to participate in securing their own well-being and development will lay the foundation for schools that are safer, better run and better able to contribute to the education and development of their students.

India is certainly not alone in facing the challenge of corporal punishment (a recent Human Rights Watch report documents the widespread use of corporal punishment in U.S. public schools 3). Given this, India’s disciplinary systems can learn from and provide insights into new and evolving methods of discipline in different parts of the world. As but one example of disciplinary models that India schools can learn from, Positive Behavioural Support systems in some U.S., Canadian and Australian schools require teachers and students to work together to develop shared norms and expectations for behaviour. Children are involved both in deciding what is acceptable behaviour and are treated as partners in matters of school discipline. Rather than following up attention-drawing with censure and punishment, this method uses discipline as an opportunity to build children’s skills to behave differently the next time a similar situation arises.4

Creatively developing such time-intensive frameworks that treat instances of student misbehaviour as opportunities to engage the students in a positive way present challenges in situations where, like in many of India’s government schools, classrooms are overcrowded and under-resourced. However, fully explaining, practicing, and implementing such programs may prove even more indispensable in the Indian context. Given the reality that schools bring together children who otherwise live apart and are separated by caste, religion or language, the ability of schools to provide individual attention for children’s joint development and increase children’s capacity for and confidence in participation along with their peers is crucial. Thus, just as schools need to use instances of student misbehaviour as an opportunity for student growth, recent attention to corporal punishment might create a chance to develop a robust system for school discipline that takes into account the rights of children to be treated as active participants in the shaping of their environment and the importance of such participation for their own development.


1) National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights Official Guidelines on prohibition of corporal punishment, p. 1. Available on NCPCR website at as of May 18, 2009

2) Evolving Capcities of the Child, p. 59. UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre report. Available on Centre website at and as of May 18, 2009.

3) A Violent Education: Corporal Punishment of Children in US Public Schools, a joint report of Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (August 2008), details the current widespread use of corporal punishment in public school districts across the United States and its disproportionate impact on African-American students and other minority students. The report is available at as of May 18, 2009.

) Positive Behavioural Support engages teachers and students in: (1) developing shared norms and expectations for behaviour, (2) teaching those norms and supporting students in learning behavioural skills, (3) reinforcing positive behaviour, and (4) intervening proactively when behavioural problems arise. Teachers receive staff development to implement PBS and staff time is allocated to mentoring and counselling. See National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS), What is School-wide PBS?, Available as of May 18, 2009.

Owner: Vaidya Gullipalli


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