Recently, during a workshop on student mentorship held at a school in Kigali, I observed that some students had isolated themselves; they sat in corners, in twos (boy and girl), chatting, and others held hands and were deep into their own conversation.
I later came to learn that the pairs were actually couples. According to some of their fellow students, that was not a new thing.
Teachers agree that romantic relationships in school are affecting students’ academic performance, and life in general.
This kind of relationship is considered ‘unhealthy’, according to educators, because it does not add anything beneficial to a learner’s academic life.
Teens can build healthy relationships and encourage each other to put their education first. Courtesy.
Although most schools prohibit or condemn these kind of relationships, there are still many cases, and educators believe that how to handle the situation matters greatly.
How does this happen?
Adolescence is a time of incredibly physical, social and emotional growth, and peer relationships – especially romantic ones – are a major social focus for many youth.
As a teacher, Jane Nakaayi, head of humanities at Riviera High School, says it’s important to watch closely any kind of relationship you think is unhealthy among your students.
She says it’s the role of teachers to find out what is going on, and in case there is any inappropriate relationship among students, finding ways to guide them should be a priority.
Nakaayi says the school has senior male and female instructors who are supposed to guide and mentor students.
She says students are given the liberty to choose a teacher they are comfortable with and can confide in, and they are mentored by them for a period of one year.
“It’s better this way because learners can open up to them easily; they are comfortable with them, thus quicker to provide the help needed,” she says.
Since students are still experiencing physical growth, Jackyline Iribagiza, a counsellor and matron at Martyr School in Remera, says there are many emotional changes they go through.
The changes in their body, she says, sometimes lead to unhealthy relationships.
According to The Psychologist, a forum for communication, discussion and debate on a range of psychological topics, hormonal changes, triggered by brain and body developments, are strongly implicated in the intense feelings of sexual attraction and falling in love.
Nakaayi says this, coupled with the influence of the internet, play a major role in how teens communicate and act on their emotions.
Also, she says, sometimes they end up in relationships because they feel appreciated. And others do it because they want to ‘fit in’—peer pressure playing a strong part too.
Falling in love is an emotional upheaval at any age, but for adolescents, the feelings are likely to be even more difficult to manage.
The Psychologist mentions that, on the downside, romantic relationships can sometimes lead to unhealthy outcomes. Young people can become too exclusive when they pair up, cutting themselves off from friendship and support networks in ways that do not advance optimal development. Identity formation may be compromised if a teenager closes off developmental options through a partnership in which unhealthy living choices are made.
Therefore, aftermaths vary, and sometimes, students end up suffering psychologically and emotionally, making it hard to concentrate in class and perform well.
This, Nakaayi says, can happen when, for example, one student is dumped for another. Again, if the situation is not handled, and early enough, it could result in deeper issues. Also, some girls might be pressured by their boyfriends into having sexual intercourse, which could lead to pregnancy and or sexually transmitted diseases—both of which will definitely sabotage their education.
Even in schools where relationships are forbidden, some students are known to find hiding spots where they engage in harmful behaviour.
Diana Nawatti, the head teacher at Mother Mary Complex School in Kigali, says if this is ignored, there is a high possibility that many other students will pick the same behaviour, making it harder to curb.
Nakaayi notes that the unhealthy relationships divert learners from what they are supposed to do. Also, time for reading is divided and rather than focus on their studies, they do their own stuff.
“In cases where the two are in the same class, it is even harder to concentrate on what is being taught because there is someone making them uncomfortable,” she observes.
For healthy relationships, Nakaayi advises to encourage students to form group discussions, embrace peer learning and sports, and have mentors who can guide them.
How to handle it
These relationships, teachers say, are very common among learners, and even happen at the upper primary level.
At Mother Mary Complex School, under their policy ‘discipline and behaviour’, boyfriend-girlfriend relationships are completely unacceptable.
Nawatti says that close friendships are followed up and intervention is made as soon as something ‘off’ is sensed.
She explains that when one is found in a romantic relationship, they are taken for counselling and sensitised on the consequences and dangers of their actions.
When that fails, parents are alerted, and discussions are held in the presence of the counsellor.
“If this kind of misconduct is allowed or condoned in any school environment, it’s easy for learners to fall into traps that could destroy their future,” Nawatti says.
Mathias Nkeeto, a mathematics teacher at Green Hills Academy, says student leaders can be of use in curbing this behaviour, and that is by informing teachers on any misconduct.
He says it’s easy this way because there is a lot that students share amongst themselves, as opposed to their parents or teachers.
It’s also important to allow them (student leaders), to counsel their colleagues and seek help when things aren’t moving on well.
Also, Nkeeto says, as a teacher, talking to such students separately is the best way to go.
Iribagiza says schools should have a hub where they take students through the development of their bodies.
She says they should understand that at this stage, they are going through different physical changes, and therefore, need good guidance on what to expect and how to get through it.
Iribagiza adds that schools should also have religious assemblies to help students grow spiritually.
“As teachers, it is important to first try to handle such cases without involving parents. The parent can come in when things are getting out of hand,” she says.
Iribagiza says that it is also very important to listen to and understand students because it makes it easy for them to follow advice if they do not feel threatened.
The counsellor goes on to add that helping students get over these relationships is important, and that being part of the solution makes things easier.
Surprisingly, Nawatti says, some parents seem not to have a problem with this.
“Some want to assume its modernity and that there is nothing threatening about teen love, but in the real sense, there is a lot that could happen,” she says.
She notes that parents shouldn’t take this lightly; they should allow their children to make friends but determinedly find out what kind of friendships, they are, with the help of teachers and other students.
Nawatti observes that there are also parents who want to make their children happy the wrong way, not aware of what they are setting them up for.
Parent-teacher regular meetings are important to help guide not only students, but also their parents, on how best to deal with their children, Nawatti says.