«At this stage, the promotion of psychological safety in schools is more responsive than proactive», – notes Daniyar Mukambetov, independent expert, in his special article for CABAR.asia.
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- The time spent in school is the longest and the most inclusive in terms of adaptation to the perceptions of the world;
- Psychological safety of students in schools of Kyrgyzstan has become a challenge due to the unprecedented phenomenon that appeared a few years ago, i.e. online suicidal games;
- In addition to established school mechanisms promoting psychological safety, there’s a need to develop integral forms of relationships between schools and out-of-school actors;
- Existing laws and regulations regarding school security do not cover the whole range of existing problems;
- Currently, existing problems of psychological safety in schools are persisting, multilevel and systematic.
One of the priority areas of national strategy-making is a complex development of human dimension. Strengthening of the human potential acts as an essential driver of systemic transformations in the society, as a source of improved socio-economic well-being and a promise of permanently improved living standards of our citizens and the entire state. The educational system in all of its links and levels has a task to raise awareness of the need for social and humanistic reorientation of the state towards quality improvement and approval of human capacities in their variety.
The time spent in school is the longest and the most inclusive in terms of adaptation to the perceptions of the world, establishment of dominant value and behavioural models in student’s life. It means that the role of the educational environment for a student, according to expert assessment, is crucial in determining the level and nature of social agency and setting basic trajectories for the life ahead.
This is the reason why one of the key directions is the organisation of educational environment, structural coherence and complementarity of educational functions, quality staffing and focus on result, self-organisation and self-development of educational environment given the actively changing reality. Together with the conditions above, one of the priority tasks is to create a healthy, optimistic psychological climate in schools.
Psychological safety of school students is a new phenomenon for Kyrgyzstan generally and for schools and teachers in particular. Psychological safety of students in schools of Kyrgyzstan has become a challenge due to the unprecedented phenomenon that appeared a few years ago, i.e. online suicidal games. This problem gathered significant public attention back in 2016 in Russia and Kazakhstan due to the emergence of the Blue Whale challenge and the activities of social media groups that made children commit suicides.
In 2017, this problem became one of the most important in the system of school security in Kyrgyzstan as more and more teenagers were involved into such kind of challenge and social content. Thus, according to the prosecutor-general of the Kyrgyz Republic, in 2017: “22 claims of suicides of teenagers and involvement into these games were reported”.
Complex measures to counter these threats were taken amid raised awareness of state institutions and public concern over adolescent mental health. The launched initiatives contained establishment of an interdepartmental task force with the participation of the ministry of education and science, ministry of internal affairs, and ministry of health for early prevention of cyber threats. Social councils at the ministry of education and science were deeper involved in terms of promoting psychological safety, preventive activities at schools were improved, etc. A joint project of ministry of education and science, BIOM ecological movement and EU was launched to improve complex mechanisms in the school educational environment safety involving the psychological aspect.
In addition to the much-needed information security, the launched initiatives identified a whole set of additional problems, which makes it difficult to promote psychological safety in schools. This will be discussed below in detail.
It should be mentioned that according to the 2016 data of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Kyrgyzstan showed a marked decline in suicide rate in all age categories for 26 years.
This rate made Kyrgyzstan close to the general global trend. However, it ranks the second in the total rate of suicides in Central Asian region, falling behind Kazakhstan.
Methodological and conceptual (mis)understanding of psychological safety
As the psychic space is not the same as the physical borders of the school, it becomes difficult not only to capture responsibility to promote psychological safety, but also to determine causal reasons of psychological disorders or vulnerability to self-harm in a student, which can follow from the out-of-school reality. In addition to established school mechanisms promoting psychological safety, there’s a need to develop integral forms of relationships between schools and out-of-school actors (parents, local governments, etc.).
Another important problem is the lack of generally accepted perception and understanding of the concept of mental health and its dimensions, as well as the tolerability of risk and its proportions. Various actors, which usually have no structural links between them, have isolated impact from various positions on the promotion of psychological safety, which, of course, cannot have any long-term and due effect.
Laws and regulations and legal regulation
Existing laws and regulations regarding school security do not cover the whole range of existing problems, but only local issues related to this topic. A list of laws is given below.
The law of the Kyrgyz Republic “On the status of a teacher” provides that according to article 4, educational activity of a teacher is based, inter alia, on the humanistic education and upbringing approach, which ensures respect for the rights and freedoms of a student, national and cultural traditions. According to this law, the teacher may not commit violence against students or discriminate against school students, and also is committed to ensure the necessary level of psychological comfort in the school educational environment (art. 14).
The law of the Kyrgyz Republic “On education” provides that parents (guardians) of minor children have a right, inter alia, to demand that the rights of a student to education under national educational standards be observed. As to the responsibilities of parents (guardians), it should be noted that they must create proper conditions for their life, study, development of their abilities, basic education, and also take constant care of their physical and mental health (art. 27).
The code of the Kyrgyz Republic “On administrative responsibility” (art. 65-1) imposes a penalty on citizens for the failure to take measures to prevent bodily injuries to children, to promote their physical, intellectual, mental, spiritual and moral development, as established by legislation of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Shortage of school resources and need for further training
The need for school psychologists is another major point on the list of issues regarding the promotion of psychological safety in schools. Representatives of state authorities, experts and school social workers recognise the need for the opening of the new vacancy in schools.
Youth counsellors typically work with vulnerable children, children with asocial behaviour, and use reactive approach. At the same time, a school psychologist must form constructive relationship in school between students and teachers persistently.
In general, all the teaching staff and members of the school administration should take further training in terms of ethics, culture of relationships. Interaction with students should be based on the best possible set of skills and methods of communication.
Insufficient involvement of out-of-school actors
It should be understood that the shortage of school resources involves the school environment into the wider systemic context, which can be exposed either to positive or to negative influence. As risks increase in the society, it’s important that state institutions (ministry of health, ministry of interior affairs, etc.) and local governments take measures to strengthen the principles of the civic identity and non-discriminatory attitudes in schools, including improvement of religious (GKDR) and inter-ethnic (GAMSUMO) accord.
Given the fact that a wide range of problems, especially with behaviour of students, is a result of family influence, basically coming from early childhood, there’s a growing need for parental participation in the upbringing of school-aged children.
Therefore, it is necessary to create mechanisms of complex promotion of psychological safety, as well as to divide and assign responsibility for school-aged children between all actors.
Responsiveness of schools
At this stage, promotion of psychological safety is more responsive than proactive. School administrations usually don’t have valid mechanisms and systemic measures in place to prevent destructive behaviour and to strengthen non-discriminatory and positive attitudes in schools.
One of the major factors that could reduce the risk level in educational system is focus of schools on self-development. Development of school governance system, formation and popularisation of constructive ideals and behavioural models, organisation of meetings with public activists at schools, opening special interest groups – all these approaches channelize energy generated by students into a constructive course of action preventing its stagnation and thus reducing the risk-generating factor.
Additional factors that influence the mental health status
- Availability and condition of school infrastructure. A lack of or deteriorated domestic, sports, cultural facilities have impact on the status of social relationships within schools. The level of compliance of schools with health and hygiene rules and standards (SanPiN) is a relevant issue in terms of health and logistics of the learning process, including ventilation and lighting of classrooms. Special focus is given to the overloaded classes due to the shortage of schools in the country. In general, the schools (especially in regions) are under equipped with special training aids, CCTV systems, medical rooms, etc.
- Training aspect of psychological safety. According to experts, high level of academic load among school-aged children, usually regardless of their gender- and age-based peculiarities, causes their frustration and irritability, and also opens room for conflicts at schools. Moreover, subjects related to the instructional component of education (ethics, etc.) arouse concern because they fail to carry out the tasks assigned, which raises the need to revisit the content of such subjects or to introduce alternative methods.
- Funding. The funding issue must be the most common to all the above issues and it has its own content and relevance. Therefore, the solution of the majority of issues will be closely related to the funding issue and improvement of mechanisms in all of its areas by all participants involved.
As the above analysis shows, existing problems of psychological safety in schools are persisting, multilevel and systematic. This analysis reflects the common theory of problems, with various levels of certainty, which are relevant both to city and regional schools. It means that necessary social capacity building for school environment optimisation must have two related approaches – top-d0wn and bottom-up – and cover all participants involved in school.
However, state institutions should have primary agency. I’d like to emphasise the following high priority measures to promote psychological safety in schools in addition to the suggestions given in the review.
- Despite the fact that the comparative analysis of functional duties of a youth counsellor and psychologist finds that these positions overlap at some points, it seems reasonable to introduce a full-time position of school psychologist in schools in the short run. However, as practice shows, a psychologist must have not only general knowledge, but also narrow specialisation in order to work with children and adolescent groups in schools.
- One of the serious issues at this level is responsibility for ensuring psychological safety of a child. Therefore, there’s a principle of separate responsibility or co-working in the global practice, which determines the areas of responsibility between school, parents and social services at certain time intervals of physical presence of a child in order to distinguish responsibility in a more correct way. Moreover, these actors cooperate closely with each other at all stages of adolescent development and get involved early either together or separately in various situations a student can face.
- The practice of school governance (school parliament) has proved successful as it helps involve students into the process of school study optimisation and gives students a room for self-realisation. The experience in school space organisation makes it possible not only to establish stable horizontal communication, but also to determine the forms of vertical communication with the school administration, which are usually absent.
- Yet another important aspect in the implementation of the “Safe School” concept is the increase in the level of legal awareness among students and increased civic literacy, which will help students feel confident in schools and be able to set their mental and physical health boundaries. Moreover, every school should have a teacher-of-trust, hotlines, anonymous boxes, etc. in addition to legal awareness subjects.
- The work of the interdepartmental task force established on the basis of the ministry of education and science, ministry of interior affairs, specialists of the ministry of health, social councils and IT experts should shift from target and situational response to arising threats of online games to sharing positive experience with school educational environments, where interaction is more intense, which means that responses are faster. Also, distant learning technologies should be developed for youth counsellors and psychologists for them to be able to recognise game challenges and prevent new ones at schools.
Risk, as emphasised by the authors of the Risk Society concept, Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman, “belongs to progress as much as a bow-wave belongs to a speeding ship.” The bow-wave is generated by the society itself in its strive for complication and reaching new horizons.
The year 2019 was declared the Year of Regional Development and National Digitisation, where one of the priorities is the promotion of digital technologies in school educational environment. This would provide students with new methods and tools of interaction in the social and information space, and improve the openness to the outside world.
The assumption is that it would enhance threats in the spheres that were not seen traditionally as risk-generating ones in the Kyrgyz society, for example, cyberspace online games. The need for improvement of the mechanisms to promote psychological safety in schools becomes more relevant. Therefore, it is important that the technology covering the country, including school environment, be developed along with the mechanisms of protection from potential information and digital threats.
It’s to be hoped that the state administration system will focus on promotion of psychological safety in school educational environment as part of large-scale initiatives proposed by the state for this and coming years. And, hopefully, psychological safety approach will become a model of high development rates and constantly improving adolescent safety.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.
 In 2012 all schools in the country opened a position of a youth counsellor, whose duties are to supervise relationships between students, vulnerable children. Funding is provided from the budget. As the practice in schools shows, often a position of a youth counsellor is concurrently taken by teachers of other disciplines, who don’t have necessary skills in this area.
At the moment, the state does not have a system of psychological aid to school students in place. A range of agencies should take care of promoting psychological aid and safety of students in schools. For that reason, only schools located in Bishkek do have school psychologists. They are funded from the local budget.