Recently, the news has been filled with stories about the level of violence in school classrooms in Canada, leading to lost instructional time and injured or stressed teachers. Some parents and teachers are worried about what this means for kids in schools and school safety.
Last year, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF/FCE) conducted a review of research completed by member organizations about experiences with violence in schools. Their study included surveys from across the country, each with different design and sampling techniques and definitions. Violence was defined as ranging from verbal harassment or swearing to physical threats or assault.
CTF/FCE reported that between 41 and 90 per cent of surveyed teachers (depending on the jurisdiction) had experienced or witnessed violence directed toward teachers from students or parents, with most violence being verbal violence.
If our society expects teachers to meet the increasingly complex needs of students and to address students’ social and emotional learning, we need to provide them with the training to support students with mental health and behavioural challenges. There are evidence-based school interventions to support students with more intense needs, but they require adequate supports to be implemented effectively. Teachers cannot implement these independently.
When teachers have too many students with high needs and not enough resources, this is a recipe for problems. As they attempt to meet the diverse educational, mental health and behavioural needs of their students, they face high rates of burnout.
At the policy level, long-term visioning and securing adequate resources for educational assessments and supports should be part of a solution. For teachers in their everyday classrooms, short-term strategies, such as using de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques, can help to meet student needs.
The needs are not wrong
Through my experience as a former school psychologist and a researcher in school-based mental health and in applying neuropsychological principles in schools, I have learned that it is important to spend time understanding that student behaviour is an attempt to meet a need. The need is not wrong, but students sometimes have skill deficits that result in behaviours that are problematic in classrooms.
When educators can figure out what those needs are, they can often reduce the likelihood of the violent behaviour by changing aspects of the environment. They can also teach students skills they are missing to help them more effectively meet their needs.
Most school psychologists have training to support functional behavioural assessments and positive behaviour support plans — this can be an asset in supporting teachers.
While there are students who need a different level of support than what can be provided by a general education teacher with a class filled with students who have diverse needs, many students can be supported in regular classrooms.
For example, when potentially violent situations arise, there are steps teachers can take to prevent or de-escalate potential problems early in the process.
Aggressive and violent behaviour by children builds up, and there are early signals that something is escalating: increased volume, more aggressive language, increased energy level and movement.
Here are some common strategies discussed in crisis prevention and intervention:
Stay calm and non-confrontational: Avoid arguing or trying to reason with a student who is showing signs of escalation.
Give choices: Clearly, and using non-emotive language, give the student a choice of behaviour with clear consequences. “You can return to your seat so that we can finish our work and go to recess; if you choose not to return to your seat, you will be asked to leave the classroom.” Make sure that you allow time for students to consider their choices and to respond.
Acknowledge feelings: As students escalate, they often make claims about what is happening and perhaps that things are not fair to them. While their perceptions of fairness may not be accurate, you can always acknowledge that they are frustrated, disappointed or angry and make them feel heard. For example, a teacher might say: “I see that you are disappointed that you are not the line leader today.”
Provide space: Give the child space, reduce interactions between the student and the rest of the class and if it appears likely that verbal de-escalation may be unsuccessful, make sure that the rest of the class has a clear exit route.
There should be a plan for incidents that escalate in spite of efforts to prevent them. A school team, rather than individual teachers, should be involved in creating and implementing this plan as inadequate support increases the chances of violence.
Debrief the situation: After an incident, both teachers and students need an opportunity to debrief with someone on the team. Experiencing violence in the classroom can be a traumatic experience, so it is important to provide an opportunity to discuss the situation.
This can often be accomplished through school teams, but it may sometimes require access to an outside mental health professional. This process is especially important as students who have had a violent incident need to have teachers who can treat each day as a clean slate. This can be exceptionally difficult emotionally for teachers who have experienced violence from students.
We need to take steps to ensure the safety of teachers and students, so that students can focus on learning and developing the skills they will need to be successful adults, and teachers can focus on teaching their students.