The Sunday Magazine

Principals weigh in on how to fix violence in elementary schools

Principals from around the country reflect on the systemic factors that make it difficult to address chronic violence in Canada's elementary schools.
Principals say that everything from the way services are organized to the government's focus on testing makes it difficult to address violence in the classroom. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Teachers today are being asked to operate outside their scope of practice. They need to be psychologists, social workers, and mental health specialists too.

That's one of the many concerns expressed in a conversation with three school principals on The Sunday Edition, as part of the program's series on the problem of violence in elementary schools.

"You would almost sit back and think their [the students'] needs may be better addressed by a different agency, whether that's health or social services or mental health," said Bill Chaisson, who retired in January after three decades as an educator and 13 years as a principal in Corner Brook, N.L. 

He says he believes strongly in a child's right to education, but is concerned about students whose needs are so great and who are having so much difficulty that schools don't have the resources to help them.

Wendy Sharpe, who retired five years ago from her position as an elementary school principal in Toronto, readily agrees.

"Support within the Toronto District School Board was lacking, too little and too late. If you had a student who was having a crisis, there was a complex and cumbersome process that you had to go through," she said.

"The psychologists and social workers in the schools are spread very thin, so the school is left trying to contain this child with these very, very disruptive and difficult behaviours, and it's tragic for everybody involved."

The 'silo effect' 

Contributing to the problem is what Regina, Sask., elementary school principal Chris Keyes calls "the silo effect of services."

"Education is one silo, health is another, social services is another, and in a school all of these dynamics come together under one roof, yet we don't have the ability to easily reach out," he explained.

"A student could be suffering from something that's clearly to do with health, but to get that jump over to health, and for health to have the supports in place to assist us with the child, it's just almost impossible."

Keyes says it is essential for provincial governments to break down these silos and attack the problem with a coordinated approach.

Principals face attacks 

It was challenging to find principals who would speak openly on the topic of tackling violence in schools. 

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District threatened to sanction one working principal who wanted to be part of the conversation.

In response, the provincial teachers' association issued a statement condemning the school board and asking, "How are we ever going to fix the issues in education if those on the front lines, working directly with and delivering services to students, face disciplinary action if they speak out about their professional experiences and reality?"

All three principals who spoke to The Sunday Edition have also been attacked by students.

Violent incident reports by public elementary school teachers in York Region increased significantly between the 2013-14 and 2017-18 school years. (Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario - York Region)

Chaisson says he stopped wearing a tie for his last three months as a principal after a student grabbed his tie from behind and choked him.

Sharpe says she once had to call the police because a six-year-old student would not stop kicking and spitting and could no longer be restrained. And Keyes says students have thrown rocks at him.

Nevertheless, Keyes hesitates to use the word "violence."

"I'm thinking about children who don't quite know how to respond to an event that's going on around them or a set of circumstances where they just don't know how to cope," Keyes said. "I completely understand the violent aspect of it and I know why people go to that term, I just don't tend to frame it that way personally."

Traumatized students and parents in denial 

All three principals share the concerns of parents who say their children are traumatized by attacks on their teachers and by classroom evacuations, and that their education is being compromised.

"As a principal, your responsibility is not just to the students who are struggling, but to all the students," said Sharpe. "I was a parent before I was a teacher and I would not want my child to have to go through that. As a principal, you're usually doing the best that you can to manage this often unmanageable situation, so oftentimes I would have the child who was having a difficult time in my office, to give everybody a break as much as possible."

The principals say they also face parents who are in denial that their children are being disruptive, and lay blame on the school system.

Two students were caught on camera repeatedly punching a teacher in a public school classroom in downtown Toronto this past April. (

Chaisson says it is critical to confront them, to say "this is what your child's done, these are the consequences and here's how we're going to move forward."

"I go out and visit houses and explain to them on the doorstep what's going on," Keyes said. "The bottom line is, I've got evidence that would indicate this child is doing this thing. We've got witnesses to it, and I'm responsible for the well-being of everybody in the school. 'So I'm afraid for a few days your son's going to stay at home while we figure out next steps.'"

Consequences versus punishment

The Sunday Edition has received hundreds of letters about its series on classroom violence and the absence of consequences for bad behaviour is a running theme in the mail.

"There are definitely consequences for behaviours," Keyes said. "A kid throws a rock at another kid? If they're little kids it might mean the one is going to be off the playground for a couple of recesses to think about how we behave on the playground, and might be sitting in the office instead of playing with his or her friends."

Sharpe agrees, adding that the point of consequences is to try to change behaviour: "If you feel that a suspension will have a big impact on that child, then that's what you do. And the community itself needs to know that this inappropriate behaviour is not tolerated."

Often people call for punishment rather than consequences, says Sharpe, thinking "that somehow that's going to work. That's usually the first thing everybody tries and it never works."

Principals are frustrated when there are multiple incidents involving one child that are reported to the school board without effect.

"The child actually needs support beyond what the school can provide," Sharpe said. "You fill out six violent incident reports, nothing changes. There's data the board collects, but you don't automatically get the extra support for that child."

Verbal threats, physical assault and incidents involving weapons were among the most frequently reported incidents of verbal and physical violence, according to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

School boards and 'measurables'

She also believes one of the core errors made by school boards and politicians is to prioritize the aspects of education they can measure. 

"All of that data and all of that standardization and standardized curriculum and testing have taken the focus away from children," she said. "Teachers are rule followers. They want to do the right thing. They are driven to deliver the curriculum and make sure they can tick off all the boxes on the report card. That subtle shift is not so subtle because the results are in the fact that our focus is on delivering curriculum and not on looking after the needs of children."

I've got a sign on the door of my office that says 'Teach for joy, the data will follow.'- Chris Keyes

Chaisson says this has been a major hurdle in the schools.

"Equally important is the social and emotional health of children and the social and emotional health of teachers," he said. "My greatest success stories as a teacher and as a principal have been when I have made great connections with children. When you build a positive relationship with a child, the curriculum will take care of itself."

Keyes concurs: "I've got a sign on the door of my office that says 'Teach for joy, the data will follow,' so you know I believe that. We can improve reading scores and math scores if everybody loves coming to work every day."

It is also critical to change the conversation about schools and teaching, says Keyes.

"The one thing I would say to governments out there who hold responsibility for public education is celebrate the people that work for you in schools," said Keyes. "Let's get a little bit of respect going on. It seems to be constantly beat up the teacher, attack the system, nothing's going right. Let's turn that around. Let's celebrate these important people and change the conversation from one of deficit to one of capacity."