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Opinion: Children account for 13 percent of suicides:

Scrapping Life Skills from syllabus: Is it a wise move?

Thirteen percent of the suicides reported in Sri Lanka every year are committed by children under 18 years of age. Suicide - the act of taking one's own life - is a serious issue and according to statistics, Sri Lanka is ranked 11 out of 193 countries in the rate of suicides.


A typical classroom in Sri Lanka

Roughly, 24 out of 100,000 people commit suicide annually and 13 percent of them are below 18 years. Another 10 percent of children have admitted that they have felt suicidal at some point of time.

Regarding child abuse and crime too, we have an unenviable record. Children get killed, raped, molested and harassed every day. What has gone wrong with the system? Where can we start inculcating good morals and valued behaviour? The school? Yes, that may be the best option, yet the training needs to come before children reach adolescence or the success rate may be lower. Unlike adolescents, youngsters don't defy teachers.

Society is currently going through a roller-coaster of change. The children have been thrown into this nerve-wracking roller-coaster with adults pinning on them sky-high expectations that the children neither wish for nor could cope up with. A raging society could also be the result of children growing into adults with these unrealistic expectations.

With both parents away at work and grandparents living in elders’ homes, children look for alternative means of guidance, which is extremely dangerous. Drug addiction among adolescents is no lesser an issue in Sri Lanka.

A new subject - Life Skills - was introduced to the junior secondary syllabus in State schools by the Health Education Bureau and the Education Ministry to inculcate these much-needed values and life skills in children, sometime ago.

To train them into positive thinking adults, who don't shy away or look for shortcuts when faced with challenges and the demands of living, was the objective.

The aim was to minimise social discord and unrest, to teach them how to say no when a difficult request is made by a pervert, to turn down a proposal by a boy or a man in a manner in which he will not feel dejected and resort to murder and/or suicide; basically, to protect human life and teach children to lead a happy and successful life.

Alarmingly, Life Skills, which used to be an important subject in the junior secondary curriculum, has been discontinued from last year.

Fatal blow

This short-sighted decision is a fatal blow to society and the consequences may be seen before long, the Head of the School Health Unit of the Family Health Bureau, Consultant Community Physician, Dr. Ayesha Lokubalasooriya warned.

Already, the country is burdened with certain doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers and politicians who are worse criminals than criminals themselves, she pointed out.

The World Health Organization defines ‘Life Skills’ as the ability to adapt to the challenges and demands of daily life and positive behaviour that enables individuals to deal with them.

The subject in schools was a welcome step by the UNICEF, which supported a study among adolescents between 10 and 19 years carried out by the Family Health Bureau in 2004. The study highlighted many flaws in the education system that lacked features to produce ‘balanced individuals'.

The study revealed that 53 percent of children thought that finances were important for success and social status while only 10 percent believed that good social conduct was an important feature in life.

Among them, 75 percent said they had a mind-disturbing problem and one fifth said they did not have a close friend.

Disturbingly, 14 percent of the sample group said they smoke (32 percent of those between the ages of 17 and 19 smoke) while 24 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls have taken alcohol at least once in their life. They had picked up the habit of smoking or drinking at the age of around 14-15.

The study also covered child molestation and the revelations were alarming.

It showed that young boys were more prone to sexual abuse than girls and also that boys in pre- or post-adolescence were more sexually active, which increased their exposure to sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

Of children between the ages of 14 and 19, six percent have had sex with people of same gender while 10 percent had carried out sexual acts with members of the opposite sex.

Ten percent of students in the pre-adolescence age group have been sexually abused while this figure is 14 percent for adolescent and post-adolescent students. Almost all of them have been abused by a close relative.

The study prompted the introduction of Life Skills-based education in schools. The subject was later combined with ‘Civics’ which is taught to students in grade six, seven and eight. Last year, it died a natural death. It has been completely removed from the syllabus.

Generating change

Practising life skills lead to qualities such as self esteem, the lack of which leads to suicides. It also helps sociability and tolerance and teaches children how to generate change and be what one wants to be instead of being backward, unsocial and subject to victimisation.

The subject strove to impart skills such as self awareness, facing emotions, coping with stress, inter-personal relations, communication skills, critical thinking, analytical thinking and decision making - the 10 life skills identified by the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

These represent the psycho-social skills that determine valued behaviour. Given that the values and morals of Sri Lankan society have deteriorated to an unthinkable level, the decision to remove Life Skills from the junior secondary curriculum and replace it with highly popular subjects such as IT need to be reviewed.

This doesn't mean that teaching IT should be discontinued.

According to experts, Life skills are an important component of learning and are distinctly different from physical or perceptual motor skills, such as practical or health skills. They are also different from livelihood skills, such as crafts, money management and entrepreneurial skills.

Children learn life skills as group work and it helps timid children to share experiences with more outgoing children, who always have a ready answer for any issue. For example, Dr. Lokubalasooriya said, once children discussed a situation when one is in a bus with only a few commuters.

What would they do if a man makes an indecent proposal and try to get them down at the next bus-stop? When some students stumbled for answers, others came up with many tactful solutions.

The discussions vary from topics such as identifying and avoiding child molesters, HIV/AIDS, physical and emotional changes during adolescence, smoking and drinking habits and drug abuse.

Dr. Lokubalasooriya said the education authorities should seriously think of re-introducing Life Skills-based education, for literacy levels of the population alone will not contribute to the success of a country.

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