Friday, October 6, 2017

The power of positivity: Positive discipline improves rural Cambodian schools

By Shruti Gogia and Theavy Leng

Son Sambath, school director of Wat Cheng Primary School, 
poses for a photo with a bevy of children from grades 2 to 5; 
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Shruti Gogia

Battambang, Cambodia, July 2017: It’s July in Battambang Province, the height of the rainy season in Cambodia. In this fertile northwestern region, the rice fields have turned a vast sea of vibrant green, rippling as far as the eye can see. Narrow dirt roads run along the paddies, providing access to small rural villages like Wat Cheng. About 350 families live here, working primarily in the surrounding fields. Their children attend Wat Cheng Primary School, which sits at the heart of the village down a road lined with the students’ humble, thatched roof homes and tall palm trees.

Wat Cheng Primary School is a treat for the eyes and ears: A neat fence encloses the school’s courtyard, which is filled with well-maintained plants. Garbage cans outside every classroom ensure students enjoy a clean environment. Children’s voices sing out from the school—about 370 students, including 203 girls, are enrolled here—energetically reciting the day’s lessons.

The primary school achieved advanced Child-Friendly School status last year, Son Sambath, the school’s 39-year-old director, proudly reports. Established by the United Nations but adapted by individual partner governments to suit the local context, the status means the school has an environment conducive to the holistic development of all children, ensuring their right to healthy, safe and active participation in school.

Wat Cheng’s senior school management and all teachers were also recently trained to employ positive discipline and effective classroom management, in in-service sessions provided by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, with support from UNICEF.

Positive discipline is a pivotal part of the child-friendly schools approach. It emerged as an important area of focus in Cambodia following the 2013 Violence Against Children Survey conducted by the Government of Cambodia, which indicated that at least half of Cambodian children younger than 18 have experienced some form of physical violence. The frequency of emotional violence and neglect – encountered in one in four children – was also staggering. Children reported that punishment at school often involved some type of physical or emotional consequences.

In response, the Ministry of Education and UNICEF developed a specialized training module to sensitize Cambodian teachers and school leadership to the multitude of negative effects of violence against children and familiarize them with the concept of positive discipline. The training provides school leaders, like the director and deputy director, and teachers with tools and alternate methods to manage the classroom, aimed at maintaining a positive, non-violent and open relationship with children.

Pilot trainings were conducted at 12 primary schools in three focus provinces (Kampot, Prey Veng and Battambang) in 2015. Based on their success, another 160 schools participated in the five-day training in 2016, including Wat Cheng Primary School. So far, over 1,600 primary school teachers and 51,000 students have benefitted from these lessons in positive discipline. UNICEF also conducted a study to gauge the training’s impact, with very encouraging results. Wat Cheng Primary School staff and students can personally attest to this.

In the year since staff were armed with these new methods, promising changes have taken place at school. The numbers speak for themselves: Wat Cheng Primary School has recorded a jump in attendance and promotion rates and fewer dropouts. School Director Son Sambath applauds the positive discipline training in this regard: “The attendance rate has increased from 90 per cent to 95 per cent and the dropout rate has reduced from 5 per cent to just 2 per cent since the training,” he says. “I believe children are less afraid to come to school and feel more comfortable with their teachers as a result of the positive changes we are making.”

Grade 5 teacher Vat Phally reports that the principles imparted through the training have truly been adopted in the school. The training has led to a paradigm shift in the teaching methodology used in the classroom, he says. New mechanisms like a classroom rule-making process, which is mutually driven by students and teachers; anger management practices; and knowledge sharing via stories and discussions, are visible in the school.

Vat Phally and his Grade 5 classroom at Wat Cheng Primary School; ©UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Shruti Gogia

“Earlier when children misbehaved in the class, harsh methods were used,” Phally says. “After learning anger management techniques through the positive discipline teacher manuals, I can now calm myself down and then use soft words to positively discuss issues with my students. Now, children are not afraid of me and discuss their concerns openly. Even though teachers receive the training, it’s the children that benefit the most. I am now driven to be a positive role model for all my students.”

Exuberant 12-year old Ra Sopheanaing is chief of the Wat Cheng Primary School Student Council, which is responsible for environment maintenance in the school. He explains how one of the new mechanisms -- rules developed jointly by the class and teacher -- has also benefitted his home life. “We decided that all waste disposal has to happen in the garbage bins,” he says. “We should not throw garbage around and dirty the environment. At home, we had no bin. So I proposed the idea and explained its importance to my grandma. She now completely supports me and we have bins at home, too.”

Ms. Veng, a 55-year-old grandmother of a second grader at the primary school and an older child in secondary school, has also seen changes at home. “Both of my grandchildren like going to school and like their teachers. In fact, they have been voicing their criticism against any violence at home, as teachers also don’t use it in school.”

Another example of the extended benefits of the training came from a 14-year-old girl, Keo Chanrey, also a member of the student council. “Our teacher explained the importance of washing hands before eating and we now have a class rule to wash our hands with soap,” she reports. “I make everyone at home also abide by this rule. I want to be the village physician when I grow up, so all the people in my village are healthy. Washing hands is the first step to being healthy.”

Fifth-grade teacher Phally is also using his new techniques and experiences at home. “My child is very young and used to run or play on the road with other children. In the past, I threatened to slap him if he ventured out on the street. But he still did not listen to me. Now, I show him a picture of an accident on the road or tell him a story about road safety. He gets interested in the story and understands that he should not be playing on the road. He’s more careful now.”

Given these promising results, ambitious targets for the positive discipline initiative have been set for 2017. Another 229 primary schools in the target provinces are scheduled to receive the training by end November 2017.

One of the simplest but most noted changes at Wat Cheng Primary School has been the replacement of the feared ‘wooden stick’. School Director Sambath says, “The stick was recognized by the children as a punishment for any mistake. Now the only stick in the class is made of paper—and it’s used by the teachers to point to the board and teach the kids valuable new lessons.”

As Cambodian teachers incorporate these important lessons on positive discipline, not only is the immediate goal of reducing violence in schools being achieved, but education is surpassing the traditional boundaries of books and exams toward a very important goal: the holistic development of all children, at school and at home.


  1. Great news - positive behaviour management is a great and successful strategy for managing young people.