Sharon Johnson Aug16 copy

Dr Sharon Johnson

Dr Sharon Johnson is a senior lecturer at Cornerstone Institute’s Psychology Department. This was inspired by the Institute’s Critical Dialogue on the State of Education in South Africa.


The need for care in schools may seem out of place in classrooms challenged by overcrowding and the disruptive behaviours of many children, with more and more focus being placed on discipline, harsh treatment and what is effectively known as “crowd control”. Conversations around safety usually focus on the presence of police and army, and the need for more security measures like metal fencing and surveillance cameras.

Teachers not only feel that their hands are tied when it comes to discipline, they feel that their hands have been cut off. When corporal punishment was banned 20 years ago, no effective measures were given to teachers to replace this practice and shouting has become the norm to discipline learners.  However, whether a child is being hit or screamed at it affects the same part of the brain. As a result, we haven’t gotten any better at treating children with more functional disciplinary measures.

Despite efforts by the Western Cape Education Department to introduce positive behaviour in classrooms, teaching educators to handle disruptions and have more kindness and compassion for traumatised learners is extremely difficult. They themselves are suffering from stress and burnout, with feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and unmet needs.

In order to improve the state of education in South Africa, we need to take ownership of our own healing, stress levels and burnout. In order to heal from the multiple traumas suffered by both learners and educators, we all need to take responsibility for our collective generational traumas imposed on us by slavery, colonialism, apartheid and economic disparity.  There are no quick-fix solutions, but the concept of care needs to be introduced into schools, classrooms and families, so that we can start to heal as a nation.

What this means practically is that schools must join in the world-wide trauma-informed movement which focuses on empathy, kindness, healing and compassion in the face of multiple traumas suffered. There are historic, intergenerational, developmental, complex, secondary and vicarious traumas present not only in schools, but wider society, to name a few. On-going violence means communities are exposed to continuous trauma.

Learners who suffer from the physical and emotional effects of trauma are unable to access their thinking cognitive brain and will therefore be unable to learn. They are at risk from being misunderstood, labelled and harmed further. I have attempted to run trauma workshops in schools where there are gun shots and the threat of gang warfare out in the streets, and it is extremely difficult to focus on the lessons that need to be learnt in the fight/flight/freeze response mode.

We need to make our schools safe spaces.  There needs to be appreciation and acceptance of the children by professionals who are responsible for their optimal development.

Once safety and care become the focus in schools, they can become centres of civil society in communities.  Schools can reach out to parents and families, teaching and demonstrating the principles of compassion and healing.

Schools are making a valiant effort under difficult circumstances.  Let us find empathy and compassion in our hearts for the teachers reaching out to the suffering children.  Let us unite to strengthen their efforts and be grateful for all that they achieve.

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