Which comes first, changing behaviors or changing attitudes? Applying behavioral science to real-world problems reveals how complex this question can be, especially for the challenge of reducing corporal punishment in the classroom.
Every day, students in many countries experience some form of physical discipline at school—like being slapped or hit with a stick—which is linked to lower academic achievement, higher dropout, and other lifelong issues.
There are a few interventions proven to decrease this violence, particularly in settings affected by conflict and disaster. However, they’re often multifaceted and can take over a year to complete. It’s not always clear which elements are having the effect.
In 2017, BIT partnered with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to design and test a new program. Our goal was to create a leaner intervention that could still reduce teachers’ use of physical punishment.
The first phase of our work appeared to change attitudes. We designed a randomized controlled trial to see if behavioral insights could help shift educators’ beliefs around harsh discipline in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, Tanzania. An empathy-building approach was most effective. Exercises asking teachers to take the perspective of children reduced their level of support for corporal punishment by 31%.
Given these findings, we were optimistic about the second phase of our partnership: developing and testing an intervention. We designed a short and nimble program based on these insights as well as on interventions that have worked in the past.
Unfortunately, our program did not reduce teachers’ use of physical punishment. Although we didn’t significantly shift the target behavior, our results are critical additions to the small (but growing) body of evidence around violence prevention.
An intervention that went beyond a nudge
We designed a school-based behavioral intervention called EmpaTeach to reduce physical and emotional violence against students in Nyarugusu. EmpaTeach is a 12-session program, delivered over the course of 10 weeks by teachers selected from the community. Teachers receive basic training in the curriculum to carry out the course.
EmpaTeach includes exercises to build teachers’ empathy for students, as well as group work to learn and practice self-regulation techniques, positive disciplinary methods, and strategies to promote well-being. New concepts are taught through culturally-relevant stories and games.
We sought to motivate teachers to create clear plans for changing their responses to students and reflect on how they can positively react when they encounter problems in the classroom.
Implementation and evaluation
The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Innovations for Poverty Action independently evaluated EmpaTeach, with support from IRC on implementation. The trial and evaluation ran from November 2018 to February 2021. Fourteen primary and secondary schools were randomly assigned to receive the program intervention and 13 served as the control group.
Roughly six hundred teachers took part in EmpaTeach, with around half of the educators attending the majority of the sessions. To assess whether the program was working, we asked students about their experiences in class.
A random sample of 1,493 students were surveyed three times—once before, during, and 10 months after the end of the intervention. The primary outcome we explored was whether children experienced different forms of physical violence from school staff in the past week. The survey also included questions on emotional violence, depressive symptoms, and school attendance.
As reported by students in both treatment and control schools, we didn’t find evidence that EmpaTeach reduced physical or emotional punishment from teachers.
Understanding evolves over time
Although the intervention didn’t have the intended effect, there’s still much to learn from the work.
- Attitude change and behavior change isn’t always linear. Our hypothesis that shifting teachers’ attitudes toward corporal punishment would help them shift their behaviors was well-founded. Despite the null result, this work adds new perspective to discussions around the connection between beliefs and behaviors.
- Null results are valuable. EmpaTeach was the first intervention aimed at reducing violence against students in a humanitarian setting. Our results push the fields of behavioral science, education, and humanitarian aid forward and help us learn more about why other violence-prevention programs are effective.
- Going beyond a nudge. Though our intervention was much more intense than a simple nudge, it may not have worked because it wasn’t intense enough. Compared to EmpaTeach, effective anti-violence programs can last for over 50 weeks, often mobilize communities, and are embedded into schools’ incentive structures.
- Context is key. Nyarugusu is the third largest refugee camp in the world and widely under-resourced. Teachers navigate stresses from hunger, overcrowded classrooms, and more that may contribute to their use of corporal punishment. EmpaTeach could not solve these problems caused by systemic issues, which may have affected its success.
Creating solutions to unsolved problems is never easy, much less for habitual or entrenched behaviors. We’re proud of our work to help build the evidence base around preventing violence against children in the classroom. To learn more about EmpaTeach, read the full paper here.