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Trusting relationships

2016-08-21         SHUKLAB

I am sure that of late, like me, all of you, have been  inundated with  information, enquiry and suggestions about child safety in schools. It somehow appears that the responsibility of keeping  a child safe and  secure has been transferred to the   police, governing authorities and media in general. While I may not agree with it totally, there is some element of  efficacy in this shared  responsibility. The police  must take care of the law and  order situation, the  governing  authorities must correct illegal practices in the name of education and the media must draw attention to many unspoken voices. But the true responsibility of keeping children safe lies in the hands of the caregivers – the parents and the school. And I think the reason some deviations happen is  because  many a times we forget to be that caregiver.

I do not think that the incidences of perversity have increased.  Perverse sexual and social behaviour  has been there from times immemorial, from the times of Socrates andShakespeare.If you take a dip-stick survey in an honest focus group, I am sure that you will come  across a  large  number  of  men  and women who have encountered some kind of sexual abuse in their childhood but did not talk about it because of fear of social censure. That is changing. Many of us have emerged as  more independent and confident individuals and therefore a vast majority of us are less fearful of speaking  our minds. And that is why the frequency of this kind of news in the media is becoming so claustrophobic.

Because  of  the  unfortunate events  of  the recent past, the focus of our attention has got diverted  to just keeping  predators  away.  I believe that the safety of the child goes much beyond  just that  and  is  interlinked with  the wholesome well – being of the child at home and at school. And this well- being is entirely dependent on the culture and value systems in the  home  and  school.  In  the  Parikrma schools  we believe  that  the education philosophy of  the  school  determines how happy and safe the children are.

In the four Parikrma schools that we have for 1700 children from  69 slums and  several orphanages, we have to make special effort to create  a safe environment because  our children come from dysfunctional homes ravaged by poverty. This task has not been very difficult  strangely  enough.  And  that  is because we have teachers who have joined us with the sole purpose of giving the childhood back to these under-served children.  We expect our teachers to be more than teachers, to be surrogate parents. Once we successfully bring that spirit of nurturing in place,   the  entire  dynamics  of  the  school changes. We have many human security cameras all over the school that have to keep the children not just safe but also  happy. It is important to be alert not because  one fears but because one cares.

The Parikrma  school motto is to Love, Explore and Excel and we believe that  every individual, whether an adult or a child,  must learn how to love each  other, love oneself and  love life  itself.  It may  sound either too simplistic or esoteric but let me assure you that if it is possible to embed  these elements in everyday living  and  in all school  activities, then loving, exploring and excelling with the children  does work. That is  the  reason that although our children have many more attractive choices  outside  the  school, they come to school regularly because they like to come to school. Our children want to come to school even though there is  no one at home to force  them  to do so. We therefore  have had more than 96 percent attendance and less than 1  % drop the last twelve years.

Wholesome health and well-being of children in school can happen when children have a sense of  freedom to  speak  their  mind,  to participate in decision  making and  get  a chance  to participate in creating the school culture. Children can  feel unsafe even with each other when there is bullying in school. It is therefore very important to foster a climate of respect  and  trust all  around.  We  have to reinforce at all levels of the school community positive  behaviour, respectful interactions and pro social behaviour. We have to ensure that  teachers, staff, and  administrator stake fair and consistent action when they learn of a situation that might require intervention and discipline.  We have to teach  and encourage students to use  conflict resolution, peer mediation,  active  listening and  other  non-violent ways to solve problems. We have to develop anti-bullying programs and educate students, parents, teachers, staff  and administrators on what  steps to take  if they know bullying is occurring.

Trusting relationships between  adults  and students   are  the product of  quality connections, respectful communication and frequent  interactions.  Schools,  in  which students feel connected to each other and to adults, promote a  safe educational environment and encourage, communication between  students  and teachers. It is  important to ensure that each student  has a  trusting  relationship with  an adult, whether it is a teacher, coach,  member of the custodial  staff, a school nurse or the counselor.

Whenever there is  an unpleasant incident in school  everyone  presses the panic  button and  starts to  fortify the  school.  In  my view schools are  supposed to  be places  where parents entrust  officials to oversee the development   and education  of their children, not pen them in. Traditionally, openness is unfettered by fear of physical or emotional violence. Turning our schools into armed fortresses          would be counterproductive, unrealistic and for the vast majority of  our  children, entirely unnecessary. I think it is very important for schools to have long term strategies  to  prepare the children  and  staff  of  the school to deal with emergencies of  all  kinds. Children should know who to call, what number to dial  and  where  the  emergency phone  is  kept.  Schools need  well-designed disaster preparedness plans that are familiar to  staff and  students and  that  have been practiced regularly. I     think it is  important for schools  to  constantly promote communication. Schools  have  to  foster  a climate where  students  feel  comfortable sharing information  they  have  regarding  a potentially threatening   situation  with   a responsible  adult. Teachers and  students need to become aware  of situations which will make them notice and report behaviour among  their peers and teachers that seems concerning or the presence of people  who do not belong in the school at all.

It is important that students, parents, teachers and  staff  are  familiar  with  how  to  report behaviour  or  communication they learn about  that  raise concern. Such behaviour and communication includes, among others, expressions of  hopelessness,  knowledge of drug  use: suicidal  gestures  or  statements, depression, gang activity, threats of violence and   problems outside of  school that negatively impact  the student’s learning and well-being.

Finally, parents  have  particularly  important responsibilities in   making  our schools safer. They should talk to their children calmly and reassuringly about   the  true  rarity  of  these horrific events that have happened and not get·our children lose trust in all adults and life itself. If  the  school  authorities  and  parents have transparent communications on a consistent basis and  not get involved in any blame  game,  it is  then that  the children will feel truly safe. In Parikrma what has worked is that we have actually hired our parents as our non-teaching  staff.  They are  treated   with respect and dignity and in return they are our best allies in the community. In  mainstream schools the same spirit of trust and  working together for the child can come  in if parents are hired  as teachers. I think this culture  of working  together as a family  has the  most powerful impact  in the health and  the well-being of the child.

This is how a nurturing environment is created in  the school which  promotes sensitivity and tender handling of the children. And this spirit also  inspires very   diligent    and   vigilant interviewing  of teachers  and  staff members before  they  are  invited  to  enter  the  family circle. Appointment of teachers is a marriage alliance where all the checks and  balances are to be made  before the decision is  taken. And  much  of the  decision  is  based  on the attitude of the person, his or her sense of joy, willingness to learn rather than just possessing skills and degrees. If as school administrators we  shift  our  priorities  to  the children’s measurement of joy  and  happiness  rather than just learning, then I believe that children will feel safe  and  secure and learning  will automatically happen.

I therefore  believe  that  apart   from  being aware, having a plan, drafting  a procedure manual, training  of  teachers  and  children, what plays an important role is the intent that each  of us have  to see our children  happy and to what  lengths we are ready to go to achieve it.  And schools must learn from each other rather than constantly competing with each other.

– The article was published in The Mentor

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