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Is Violence in Schools Maintained by Social Norms?

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

by dr kate mcalpine

Many of us believe that there is no place for violence in schools, but if you were to learn that a child had experienced harm in school would you intervene, or stay silent?

Results from a recent study conducted by Citizen 4 Change looked at the forms and prevalence of violence in schools in Tanzania and revealed that 35% of students think that adults would not intervene if they witnessed harmful behaviour towards a child. Students think this is because adults either approve of harmful behaviour, criticise it but do nothing, or simply do nothing.

Although 84% of participating students believe that the people in their lives disapprove of harming children, 87% were able to tell a story that involved harm being inflicted on themselves or their friends by close authority figures. These results demonstrate that there is a disconnect between adults’ claimed beliefs that they disapprove of harm and their actual actions as perpetrators of harm or as people who say “It’s none of my business” when they witness harmful behaviours towards children.

These results are worrying and led us to start investigating whether violence in schools is maintained by social norms or other non-social factors, that may include economic, legal, political, religious, or technological reasons.

What are social norms?

Social norms are informed by peoples’ beliefs about the behaviours that they think are considered to be acceptable by those people whose opinions matter. A social norm tells us how we think we ought to act. People prefer to follow social norms because they expect that people whose approval matters to them will also comply with the same behaviours.

Applying social norms theory

Citizens 4 Change applied social norms theory to our research design in order to gain an understanding of how violence in schools may be related to social norms. To do so we sought understanding about:

  1. The nature of children’s reference group — identifying whose opinion matters to children.

  2. Children’s beliefs about others — what do children believe about the beliefs of people in their reference group and about how they behave, otherwise known as students’ normative expectations.

  3. Children’s anticipation of social approval or sanction — what do students think is socially approved or disapproved of.

The Results

The study indicates that violent behaviours in schools may not be caused by social norms, but that they are maintained by social norms. Our reasoning is:

  1. The student’s reference group is formed by their parents and teachers. These adults are also the perpetrators of harm.

  2. Students frequently witness harmful encounters perpetrated by people in their reference group, despite the claims by adults that they disapprove of harmful behaviours.

  3. Students see that there is no real social sanction taken against the perpetrators of harm.

Are social norms changing?

While many children’s story involves violence, 84% of students believe that people disapprove of harm. This suggests that change is on the horizon. This is because change in people’s beliefs that a behaviour is socially approved of is a precursor to actual behavioural change.

Previous studies in Tanzania indicate that physical violence against children may have decreased over the last decade (Ministry of Community Development Gender & Children, UNICEF, Centre for Disease Control, & Muhumbili University, 2011; Haki Elimu, 2020). This may be attributed to an increase in awareness of children’s rights and the government’s National Plan of Action to eliminate violence against women and children.

What are the next steps?

We have preliminary evidence from children that violence against children in schools is maintained by social norms. We are validating that by seeking out the perspectives of teachers, caregivers and public servants using an innovative SMS platform. We will then compare these results to those collected from the students in the initial study.

Citizens 4 Change will also conduct repeated surveys to determine if the social acceptance of violence in schools is indeed changing. Our ongoing research into the collective action problem of violence against children will provide evidence of progress in Tanzania’s commitment towards SDG16 — peaceful and inclusive societies.

Follow the progression of our work on @C4CEastAfrica.

If you are in Tanzania and ready to champion change or if you are already uplifting the lives of vulnerable children in your community then join Citizens 4 Change by dialing #149*46*11# or you can register on our website.

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