Footage shared online of school-yard fights is concerning. However, in responding, it is imperative to reflect upon causes of such violence and apply preventative strategies rather than ‘getting tough’.
For more than 50 years we have known that coming down hard in response to children’s aggression and violence goes no way to preventing future violent behaviour.
Causes of violence by children are complex, however, there is clear indication that a child or adolescent who is aggressive, start fights or bullies others may have a disability (such as a neurodevelopmental disorder) or is likely to have experienced childhood adversity, stress or trauma.
Contributors to adversity and stress, and trauma risk include home or community dysfunction or maltreatment (including physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect) poverty, housing insecurity, assault, disasters and institutional harm or abuse.
Unfortunately, policy makers, service providers and community members are largely unaware of the extensive evidence indicating that children’s experiences of adversity, stress and trauma strongly relate to their behaviour.
For instance, harsher parenting and lower parental warmth are associated with children having lower empathy and lack of remorse thus higher aggression and violent tendencies.
Being humiliated publicly is associated with higher risk of violence. Parental physical punishment is associated with increased rates of adolescent misconduct. But the impact of adversity, stress and trauma go beyond behaviour.
These experiences increase a child’s risk of learning challenges, anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, dissociation, eating disorders, schizophrenia, self-harm, suicidality and suicide.
In the longer-term adversity, stress and trauma in childhood are associated with increased risk of physical and mental health outcomes such as diabetes, heart disease, depression and anxiety.
Factors which influence the relationships between childhood experiences and these outcomes include learning and mirroring adult behaviours but also physiological impacts.
Research using advanced techniques, such as brain imaging, blood and hair sample testing indicates trauma and stress can influence size of some brain region and connections, the neuroendocrine system, and inflammatory responses.
There is also evidence that experiences can impact how genes are activated in individuals (also known as epigenetics) as well as their offspring. Hence, negative experiences of an ancestor, which alter the expression of DNA, can potentially impact their offspring. This affect has been detected in holocaust survivors’ offspring.
It is imperative that people who work with children understand the impact that adversity, stress and trauma can have on self-regulation, social development, mental health, and relationships.
And it is also very important to avoid re-traumatising or generating high stress in children and adolescents.
Also we must be aware that responding punitively to challenging behaviours can lead to increased risk of future violence, or other negative outcomes such as suicide.
Children impacted by trauma often require support and adjustments in the school setting. Funding for children impacted by trauma provided by the Tasmanian Government (the only state in Australia to do so) goes part-way to assisting with this higher intensity service need.
Unfortunately, what is lacking in many jurisdictions around Australia including Tasmania is appropriate and available public services with intensive interventions to address the needs of more severely affected children and their families.
Presently, many programs providing the necessary wrap-around services, such as social work, speech pathology, psychologist/psychiatrist and occupational therapy are short-lived due to unstable funding.
Significant investment by governments in comprehensive and services accessible in regional and urban areas is urgently required.
The Tasmanian Department of Education has invested in trauma training for all school staff. Interactive training will commence next year but phase one, online learning modules, started recently.
This incorporates educating teachers and other staff about how trauma can impact learning, mental health and behaviour and how to avoid retraumatising or generating excessive stress for students. Such an approach is known as trauma-informed practice.
Education will assist teachers to adapt their teaching strategy to the needs of the child resulting in pro-active approaches with less focus on behaviour management.
Responding to difficult behaviours is a highly reported challenge by teachers and contributes to teacher stress and burn-out.
Embedding trauma-informed practice in teaching is associated with positive teacher-student relationships and lower teacher stress and burnout.
In the School of Education at the University of Tasmania, we are embedding trauma-informed practice into our teaching content to ensure teachers commence their career with a sound knowledge about how adversity, stress and trauma impact children. This is the start of a plan to increase training and support of trauma-informed practice Tasmania-wide.
There is no simple fix to addressing childhood aggression and violence. Unfortunately, evidence-based and comprehensive interventions often take longer to work and are more expensive than a quick fix policy change which can be detrimental in the longer term.
We need to remember that children are our future and that providing nurturing environments in which they can flourish is our goal.
Karen Martin is a Professor at the University of Tasmania and head of the world first Trauma-Informed pedagogies Research Lab to lead trauma-responsive education, research, evidence translation and advocacy in Australia. Professor Martin spoke on this theme at Parliament House, Hobart, as part of a Social Sciences Week event.