Skip to main content
kid wearing backpack

Interview: Taking Up the Question of Violence in the Classroom

ETFO Voice

VOICE: Teachers have been experiencing an increasing prevalence of violence in the classroom. I’m wondering if we can start by talking about what we can attribute this to. What’s going on?

CHRIS BRUCKERT: I think we are seeing the long-term impact of Mike Harris’s “common sense revolution” that undermined the mainstreaming mandated by the Education Amendment Act (1980). Between 1995 and 1997 education budgets were slashed by almost $1 billion. In the context of ever-shrinking budgets, school boards increased class sizes, made deep staffing cuts and outsourced services. Austerity-inspired cuts also impacted health care in ways that play out in our schools. For example, in spite of clear evidence that at-risk children who receive services and support have better educational outcomes and fewer behavioural problems, programs to identify vulnerable children disappeared in the Harris years. Austerity cuts are rarely reversed and the deep cuts brought in during the Harris years continue to ripple through the educational and health systems in Ontario. In 2014, Public Health Ontario estimated that only about one percent of students are screened for problems such as speech, hearing and/or developmental delays; even if a child is identified, costs can be prohibitive and wait times for funded services – which may or may not be available in rural regions – can stretch months or even years. Similarly, educational funding formulas remain virtually unchanged; the impact of this is compounded by inadequate funding overall and the failure to earmark monies for at-risk students. The predictable result is unsatisfactory staffing levels and frustrated, struggling children who ‘lash out’ reminding us that the five- or seven- or nine-year-old is not a perpetrator in the conventional sense. Framed in this way we can appreciate that the educator, students in the class and, indeed, the ‘violent’ and ‘out of control’ children themselves are victims of bureaucratic decisions made decades ago.

DARCY SANTOR: As a psychologist, I tend to think of violence as part of a continuum that starts with frustration and can eventually escalate to aggression and violence towards others. How people express frustration and whether that frustration leads to aggression or even violence will be determined by individual and societal factors. Individual factors include a student’s experiences with failure and not fitting in, exposure to bullying, victimization and trauma, as well as how students have learned to cope with frustration or the factors that contribute to that frustration. Societal factors include how the community and groups to which individual students belong have been treated, the resources that a society or community provide to students and whether or not the resources provided are sufficient to meet their needs.

From a psychological perspective, frustration is likely to arise whenever a goal, expectation or need remains unmet or unfulfilled. If a student is expecting or expected to do well, there will be frustration when that does not happen. If a student does not have the clothes or gadgets or is somehow ‘different’ there is going to be frustration. If students do not have the academic resources they require to succeed, there will be frustration, and the potential for aggression and even violence will increase. Over the course of a day, a week and a school year, teachers are confronted with and expected to manage this frustration, with or without the formal training that would make a difference or the resources or even time that managing frustration will require. Much of the debate about class size has been centered around academic success rather than around the role of teachers in fostering a wide range of academic, social and emotional skills.

VOICE: How do race, gender and other intersectionalities factor into violence in the classroom? What does the research tell us?

CHRIS: There is ample evidence that situational violence or violence that occurs in the course of workplace exchanges – for example an act of aggression against an educator by a student or a patient against a healthcare provider – is gendered. In fact, while we do not think of workplace violence as a violence against women issue we should; statistics demonstrate that workers in three women-dominated occupations – education, health, social services – experience the highest rates of situational workplace violence. Importantly women workers in those sectors are victimized at significantly higher rates than are their male colleagues.

That said, in relation to educators in particular, there are massive gaps in our knowledge not only in terms of gender but in how intersecting identities (e.g., gender, ethnicity, dis/ability, racialization) and the underlying interlocking systems of oppression condition vulnerability to violence, shape the nature of the violence workers experience and influence the response by administrators and colleagues. To the best of my knowledge there has been no explicitly intersectional Canadian research on educators. However, studies in another women-dominated labour sector – health care – highlight the importance of thinking about workplace violence through an intersectional lens; racialized nurses are targeted more frequently than their white colleagues and nursing assistants (disproportionally racialized, immigrant and working-class women) are exceptionally vulnerable. It is also important to document racialized educators’ experience of workplace microaggressions – the negative verbal or behavioral interactions that reflect and reinforce negative stereotypes. We currently have a research project underway which puts intersectionality at its centre and endeavours to document and start to answer these sorts of questions in relation to Ontario elementary educators.

VOICE: Are there differences between the experiences of teachers and occasional teachers? Also what about educational support staff (e.g., educational assistants, child and youth workers, psychologists)?

CHRIS: This is such an important question to ask. Unfortunately, researchers have not, to the best of our knowledge, examined it sufficiently. We simply do not have the empirical data to provide an evidence- based response. Indeed, because we will be surveying not only teachers but also other professionals such as educational assistants this is one of the things the research on elementary school educators we are rolling out in the fall will start to tease out. That said, we do know that rates of physical assault on educational assistants (EAs) are shockingly high; for example, a 2017 survey by CUPE Ontario found that a staggering 58 percent of EAs had been injured by a student over the preceding 18-month period with almost half requiring professional medical attention (i.e., not workplace first aid).

VOICE: What advice do you have for teachers/educators who are experiencing and/or witnessing violence, both in terms of self care and support of others?

DARCY: Violence is initiated by an individual but occurs in a context. That context includes all the challenges, unmet needs, histories of trauma and victimization and experiences of being treated differently by others that a person may not be well-equipped to manage. Sanctioning bad behaviour and ensuring the safety of others are an important part of any response to aggression and violence. Understating what frustrates students and promoting healthy and appropriate responses to frustration are equally important but will require adequate funding so that educators have the time, training and classroom supports for students.

CHRIS: At the same time, we have to appreciate that the complexity of the context in which violence occurs means the intervention of just one educator is unlikely to be sufficient. It also means educators have to be mindful of the interplay between structural, social and personal factors rather than engaging in self-blame. Accordingly, it is important that educators report and document violence and reach out to colleagues, administrators, union representatives and mental health professionals to develop both short- and long-term solutions.

VOICE: How does repeatedly witnessing violence normalize it and what short- and long-term impacts do these experiences have on students and their learning?

DARCY: The long-term impact of violence in the classroom has been the subject of considerable research. For example, psychologists in the UK found that bullying experienced in elementary and secondary school can continue to adversely affect individuals some four decades later. Recent studies have also shown that just witnessing someone being bullied can affect mental health. How young people deal with bullying, stress and mental illness during the school years will influence their long-term mental and physical health and vocational success. This finding is consistent with research on intimate partner violence that correlates an increased risk of psychological, social, emotional and behavioural problems to childhood exposure to violence. Moreover, there is no question that students’ learning potential is not realized when they do not receive the attention they require because an educator is focused on a disruptive child or are destabilized by routine evacuations and feel unsafe in their classrooms.

CHRIS: We also have to remember the ripples of violence in schools and the significant long- term and short-term impacts disruptive behavior in the classroom has. We can think, for example, of the friends and family of educators who provide support as their loved ones struggle with the physical or psychological consequence of violence, or with the stress of colleagues grappling with the violence experienced by their co-workers. And then there are the broader societal implications that have to be factored in – lost productivity, attrition as highly trained workers abandon their careers and experience increased illness due to stress.

VOICE: How do you understand the issue of under-reporting as well as school/board procedures in terms of dealing with violence at schools?

CHRIS: Of course, there is no one cause for the under-reporting of workplace violence by educators, nor is there a single explanation for the inadequate response by administrators. Research has shown that workers may not report violence because of how violence is defined, whether reporting brings any benefit, whether reporting violence is expected and the consequence of reporting. We can also think about barriers such as the perception that nothing will come of complaints, the already excessive demands on the worker’s time, self-blame and relatedly a (however misplaced) sense of shame or even perceptions that violence is part of the job. Regardless of the reasons workers do not report violence it is important to remember that when workers' experiences are not validated, when policies are absent or not followed and when violence or abuse is dismissed or ignored, isolation and stress are exacerbated. The lack of a supportive institutional and interpersonal response can be an additional form of victimization.

One thing we hope to investigate in our research is how gender is implicated in reporting and institutional response. Women have long been considered to be nurturing and having a ‘natural’ ability for care work. It is not surprising then that women educators are more likely than their male counterparts to normalize violence as part of the job and to perceive incidents as resulting from their own incompetence and professional inadequacy. Moreover, the same gender scripts may inform administrators’ responses; they may simply assume the worker must have done something wrong and implicitly or explicitly hold the worker responsible for the violence. Both self- and ascribed-blame are, of course, powerful disincentives for educators to report workplace violence.

VOICE: How do we curb violence? What would the education system benefit from?

DARCY: From a psychological perspective, managing aggression and violence is about addressing the numerous factors that lead to frustration and helping students manage their frustration in more appropriate ways. Children with mental health and learning difficulties, whether undiagnosed, untreated or only partially addressed, will experience more frustration with a range of tasks during school. Children with unmet socio-economic needs will also be prone to experiencing higher levels of frustration. Curbing aggression and violence in schools will, therefore, require not just sanctioning but also understanding frustration, aggression and violence and the context in which it occurs, and addressing those contributing factors in a manner that is consistent with the mandate of schools. There is overwhelming evidence to show that teaching students socio-emotional learning skills can improve academic, emotional and social outcomes. But realizing the full potential of every student, which means equipping every student with the skills to learn and to manage the challenges and frustrations they will face in both post-secondary education and throughout their careers, is an investment that starts in elementary school. My fear is that we are now entering an era, again, in which we believe that cost-cutting can lead to some overlooked efficiency that, when found, will magically guarantee the outcomes that previously required substantial investment. If only it were so simple.

CHRIS: From a sociological perspective, we can appreciate that many of the factors that contribute to frustration and aggression do not fall within the purview of educators. While schools and educators can provide students with opportunities to express frustration and even teach skills to develop better coping strategies, this necessitates adequate resources and a political commitment to providing funding to ensure that levels of staffing are adequate, necessary supports are in place, there is early identification of student needs and educators are trained to deal with frustrated children and have the skills to foster the social and emotional skills that students require.

Quite simply, large classes, understaffing and insufficient resources have become the new norm. This has had both immediate impacts on students’ learning and educators’ workload but is also directly implicated in the increasing level of student-initiated violence we see in elementary school classrooms. Clearly we need better resources in both the educational and health systems to ensure students’ needs are identified early and the necessary supports are available to address those needs both in the school and outside the educational context. My fear is that we are entering into another era of aggressive neoliberal reform that will see the opposite – further cuts to exactly the kinds of resources and services that are so desperately needed to address violence in the classroom. And that (predominantly women) educators will pay the price.

Darcy Santor is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa. He has a long-standing interest in mental health in young people and in school-based mental health. In addition to publishing in the area he has conducted hundreds of workshops for parents, educators and students on a variety of mental health topics as part of the online MyHealth Magazine program.

Chris Bruckert is a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa. She has been actively involved in researching and teaching about gendered violence for over 25 years; her co-authored textbook Gendered Violence: An Intersectional Approach (University of Toronto Press) will be published in October 2018. A long time feminist she is active in social justice movements and committed to mobilizing for social change.

With contributions from Kimiko Inouye and Izida Zorde, ETFO executive staff.