Battambang, December 2020, In a small wooden house in rural Battambang, 10-year-old Van Niza sat one afternoon in December, trying to study. Schools had closed across Cambodia as a result of another outbreak of COVID-19 and so she was again at home. As usual, it was difficult concentrating in a small house that was always full of relatives, including her grandmother, mother, aunts, cousins and brother, but Niza felt supported. “My mother always finds time to help me with my homework,” Niza said.
Niza’s mother, 36-year-old Van Veuy, also received support, reaching out to the teachers at her daughter’s school whenever she and Niza encountered a homework challenge they couldn’t solve themselves. Samboth Vibol, a teacher at Niza’s school, confirmed this was true. “Yes, Niza’s mother is one of the parents who is always reaching out to me, trying to help her child get over any learning difficulties.” It was obvious from his smile that Mr. Vibol was glad to be contacted so often, and to see the positive results, evidenced in improved homework and assignments arriving punctually.
If this seems like a perfect example of parents and teachers working together to support a child’s education during the pandemic, in many ways it is. But it didn’t come without a lot of work. Earlier in the year, life had been much more difficult for Niza and her mother.
Mrs. Veuy started 2020 as a migrant worker in Thailand, one of tens of thousands of Cambodians working overseas for higher salaries than they can find at home. However, her employer had to close due to the pandemic, and Mrs. Veuy returned to Cambodia stressed and worried about the future. Sometimes, she confessed, her children had suffered as a result, when she would discipline them with harsh words or even physical discipline. “Just negative ways of working with children, old bad habits and bad attitudes,” Mrs. Veuy remembered regretfully.
Things improved in mid-2020, when Mrs. Veuy attended training on parenting skills in her community, organized by the local NGO Improving Cambodia’s Society through Skillful Parenting (ICS-SP) and supported by UNICEF. This was part of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) Positive Parenting Programme, which has operated since 2017 and aims to provide parenting support for parents and caregivers through a series of group-based sessions in the community. It particularly aims to end the use of violence, which has been found by some studies to affect as many as 50% of Cambodian children.
During the training, parents and caregivers learnt about the damage caused by different forms of violence, including physical and emotional violence. They were also introduced to various methods to create positive and nurturing relationships with children without using such harsh techniques.
After attending the training, Mrs. Veuy became an enthusiastic advocate for positive training techniques. “I learned more about my roles and responsibilities as a parent,” she explained. From that point on, she took more time to listen to her children, pay attention to them, teach them, play with them, and support them with homework. Not only did she practice these excellent parenting skills with her own children but also tried to share them with her relatives and neighbours, encouraging them to leave behind more harsh techniques.
While parents are the most likely to use violence against their children, teachers were also found by studies to use physical punishment as a disciplinary technique in schools. Recognizing the importance of addressing the issue, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) has promoted a method called ‘Positive Discipline’ among teachers and school directors since 2015.
Positive Discipline is an approach that helps teachers manage their classrooms more effectively without using violence. It can have profound and lasting benefits in terms of improving the self-confidence and self-esteem of students. Since 2015, MoEYS has reached 9,497 teachers with this training, benefiting approximately 343,000 girls and boys. UNICEF was proud to support the programme.
Mr. Vibol, Niza’s teacher, attended the Positive Discipline training in 2018 and said it transformed his approach. He admitted that in the past he would sometimes be harsh in the classroom. He would shout at students who didn’t know the answers to questions, or use techniques that caused embarrassment, such as forcing children to stand until another student could come up with the correct answer.
After receiving training on Positive Discipline and effective classroom management, he has focused on more child-centred, child-friendly learning practices. He said, “Now we teach very differently from the old traditional teaching methods. We try to make students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom. We use “yellow cards” or “red cards” to give students who misbehave a gentler form of warning.” If a student doesn’t know an answer to a question now, Mr. Vibol prefers to coach and encourage than punish.
The Positive Parenting and Positive Discipline training programmes, which are generously funded by SIDA, USAID, Primark and the Japan Committee for UNICEF, became even more valuable during 2020 as parents, teachers, and children alike went through unprecedented stresses and disruptions. Damaged mental health in parents can lead to greater risks of violence for children, so the Royal Government of Cambodia acted swiftly to take action and provide extra support.
As a result, MoWA made sure that additional training around mental health and psychosocial support was integrated into the Positive Parenting programme. Printed leaflets on mental health, including the parenting tips during the pandemic, were distributed to parents and caregivers, as well as disseminated by UNICEF through public posters, videos and social media posts. Ms. Nun Chany is the second deputy chief of Kanteu Commune, where Niza lives, and was responsible for ensuring that parents and children received the right support throughout this difficult time. She said that the additional training was invaluable.
The best evidence of the success of both Positive Parenting and Positive Discipline is in the achievements of children like Niza. While Niza is aware of the challenges the pandemic has created for her, her family and her teachers, she has felt taken care of throughout the crisis rather than exposed to it. She knows her mother and teacher are working together towards a positive future for her, which gives her the encouragement she needs to stride confidently towards that future.
Funding for these programmes came from SIDA, USAID, Primark and the Japan Committee for UNICEF.