Sunday November 19, 2017

Schools need more psychologists and counsellors to quell violence: expert

Some Ontario teachers' unions have launched campaigns to encourage teachers to report if violence at school.

Some Ontario teachers' unions have launched campaigns to encourage teachers to report if violence at school. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Listen 16:21

On Cross Country Checkup's show on the violence teachers face in schools, we spoke with guest Shelley Hymel, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia who holds the Edith Lando Professorship in Social-Emotional Learning. She is also co-founder of the international Bullying Research Network, linking 200 researchers from 17 countries.  

The role of teachers in preventing violence in schools

First of all, teachers get burned out. They're stressed. The classrooms are too large. The kinds of problems they face are too many and they get verbal abuse from parents and students, but some teachers also verbally abuse students. They use humour and humiliation. It's a two-way street.

Some of it is about how teachers run their classroom. But I'll back up and say it's about teacher training. How do we train our teachers? Earlier, a guest talked about how teachers are not trained to de-escalate. Not only are they not trained to de-escalate, but for decades we focused on the academics — back to basics: reading, writing, and numeracy, while the social side, everything to do with emotional wellness has been completely ignored.

Now across the provinces there is a huge push to train our teachers not only in how to deal with social and emotional problems in kids, and how to promote positive social and emotional wellness, but also how to set up classrooms so that they are places where kids do feel safe and accepted.

The one thing that is absolutely clear to me is that we need more time and more energy devoted to teacher training, to the training of school personnel like psychologists and counsellors, and especially to providing classroom management strategies. 

'My feeling is that we're running on an economic model as opposed to a child-focused model.'

The role of class size in preventing violent behaviour

Class size matters and schools are too big. My feeling is that we're running on an economic model as opposed to a child-focused model. We don't have enough school psychologists or counsellors. The wait times are way too long for these services. Kids are not getting help for both academic and social problems. The teachers are trying to deal with larger and larger classes with more special needs students.

B.C. has gone through this for a few years where the government said class sizes don't matter and we're going to add more special needs kids. That's just been overturned. This fall teachers could finally go back to fewer kids, but the classes are still gigantic. I asked one high school teacher if they noticed any issues in the last few weeks. She said, 'I have over 150 kids going across my desk every day. Yeah, there's drama every day.' So how do teachers cope with that many students and that much drama?

The role of school size in preventing violent behaviour

People don't have a place in a big school and it allows for more peer-to-peer violence. Kids have to feel engaged. They have to feel that they are connected to the school. The larger the school, the harder that is to do. We're finding a lot of kids feel no connection to their school. Part of that is the personality of the child, but it also has to do with how we discipline kids.

People talk about sending kids to the principal's office. That can work, but it depends on what principals do. Right now the main thing principals can do is give detentions and suspensions and those don't work. We've known that for decades. That works if it mobilizes the parents at the beginning of a problem, and they can nip it in the bud and get some support. But if a kid continually gets suspensions and detentions, it not working. 

Maintaining discipline in schools

We have to work with schools to create environments that work, and discipline practices that work. We're finishing some research where we asked kids what kind of discipline is used in the schools. Kids report a lack of discipline, or unfair discipline, or punitive discipline, like shaming and the loss of privileges. The more they reported this kind of discipline, the less they felt connected to the schools.

Kids feel more connected to the schools when teachers were using more restorative practices like collaboration, meeting with the child, and talking with the child. We also found that lack of discipline or unfair, punitive discipline according to the kids was associated with more bullying and victimization. Imagine you're the kid that is getting victimized by their peers all the time. Some of these kids get to the limit and they lash out and that might be at a teacher.

Someone said that violence is a form of communication — It is. But do teachers have the time with a classroom with 25-30 kids to sit down and talk to a child and find out what they're trying to say? That's really important too.

The need for increased education funding

I wish education was more of a priority. It has been suffering in terms of funding. We're driven by economics. Ideally teachers would have fewer kids, more support, better training and longer training. It's time for our schools to recognize all of these needs. But who has that time? We need to give our teachers the time because our kids are worth it, and these strategies could stop a lot of the long-term problems.

As a society, if we put our money where our mouth is we could actually give more funding to schools and more time for teachers more training. Then we can start solving this problem in a realistic way. 

Shelley Hymel's comments have been edited and condensed. To listen to the full interview, click on the audio link above. This online segment was prepared by Champagne Choquer.