This morning as I was doing the proverbial parent dance of balancing meal preparation, wiping counters, and stuffing backpacks with clothes and books, my eight-year-old son charged at me and slapped me hard on my back. I winced from the pain and shock, because having been preoccupied by the chaos of Monday morning, I hadn’t seen it coming. I found myself pausing in that moment, reflecting on writing this very article based on CTF-FCE’s 2018 meta-analysis and research review of violence in the classroom across Canada.
My son is not only an occasionally unpredictable kiddo, he is also a child at the heart of this research review; a nonverbal child with autism, epilepsy, and severe intellectual disability, who can be physically aggressive to himself and others. I reflected on what the research had revealed: that children and youth, with and without disabilities, may engage in verbally, physically, and psychologically aggressive behaviour, and they do so, frequently as a form of communication. My son, as it turns out, was hungry, having only been offered a single waffle that I had haphazardly tossed onto his plate. He’d whined a little, and I had heard the beep of his speech-generating device, but in the midst of the chaos I’d overlooked key tasks. He turned to aggression to communicate his hunger needs and my back bore the brunt of them.
I asked myself if my son was being violent, and quickly concluded that his behaviour was certainly aggressive, but like many other children, his behaviours often had their roots in a large spectrum of unmet needs. These needs include access to tangibles (food, toys, etc.), sensory needs (seeking or escaping input such as lights, sounds, and textures, etc.), escape or avoidance of demands, need for attention or help, and autonomic needs (some children engage in “stimming” type behaviours that have an internally rewarding feeling). The great majority of children and youth, therefore, are not violent in the ways we typically understand violence: purposive and done with the intent to injure or harm. The majority of “violence”, and the CTF-FCE research review confirms this, is aggression, with roots in behavioural challenges. These challenges may or may not be connected to disability; indeed, the research review identified that children who engage in aggressive behaviours at school can have mental health, medical, developmental, behavioural, socio-economic, relational, and other challenges.
The reality, though, is that my back and I experienced the aggression as injury and harm. Because I was home alone that morning, without adequate support, with a million other tasks to attend to, with a nonverbal child with complex medical needs, and a lapse in his behavioural plan (feeding a child on time is truly a behavioural must-do), I experienced his aggression/communication as painful and violent. And, this is what our teachers across Canada have told us is happening in our classrooms and schools on a daily, significant, and growing scale.
Over the past year, the CTF-FCE conducted a research review comprised of a first-ever multi-thematic literature review on violence in schools, as well as a meta-analysis of seven CTF-FCE Member organizations’ (QPAT, ETFO, OECTA, MTS, STF, ATA, BCTF) survey findings on violence in schools. The research review findings were presented at the CTF-FCE Canadian Forum on Public Education in Edmonton in July 2018. The findings revealed that a staggering 41% to 94% of teacher respondents indicated that they had reported or experienced violence at some point in their career (with a large majority within the past 3 years). A majority of teachers also indicated that the number of incidents have increased and that violence is a serious and growing issue in their schools. Teachers also indicated that incidents are becoming more severe—threats, assault, and incidents involving weapons.
The findings aligned with what the literature on violence in schools demonstrates; that aggression against teachers and educators (education assistants, in particular) is a growing phenomenon. Further, aggression against teachers and educators is almost exclusively perpetrated by students (93-96%). The most common form of aggression is verbal assaults, followed by property damage, and physical aggression. Rates of violence and aggression were higher for the following groups: female teachers (verbal aggression), male teachers (physical aggression), elementary school teachers, special education teachers, and teachers in urban schools.
The research also revealed that teachers underreport their experiences for multiple and complex reasons, including fear of reprisal for self or student, lack of trust or support with administration, being discouraged from reporting, feeling as though they can manage the situation, internalized normalization of violence (it becomes “part of the job”), and lack of knowledge on how and to whom to report.
The review strongly pointed to key drivers of aggression against teachers; namely severe and/or growing deficiencies in school-based, systemic, and community/governmental supports and services. The research pointed to deficits in classroom and specialized supports, challenges of large and complex classes, lack of teacher preparation and collaboration time, and challenges with accessing overextended health care and community services, as well as teachers’ professional learning needs.
My Monday morning, therefore, is a tiny microcosm of larger education systemic dynamics, but many of the ingredients are the same: complex needs, lack of supports, attempting to meet multiple needs with one set of hands, and so forth. Because to teach and support students, to prevent aggression that becomes experienced as violence, teachers need to have stable and adequate classroom supports, appropriate pre- and in-service training, access to a spectrum of supports and services, and safe and caring working and learning conditions. Overwhelmingly, the research shows that teachers work hard to understand and support their students, and are attuned to complex needs in their classrooms. The research, however, also shows that aggression and violence against teachers has a strong and negative impact on teacher well-being and is associated with depression, burnout, professional disengagement, changing schools, or leaving the profession. It is time to listen to teachers’ voices on violence in classrooms and schools, and it is time for governments across Canada to address these challenges through sustainable improvements in public education funding, resources, supports, and services.
Sherri Brown is Director of Research and Professional Learning at the CTF-FCE.