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Jo Lampert

Further information

About the author

Dr. Jo Lampert is a lecturer in the School of Cultural and Language Studies at the Queensland University of Technology. Her main fields of interest are Indigenous education, social justice and the impacts of September 11 on identity.

Publication details

Volume 18, May 2008

Mapping the field:
How are the links between violence and learning understood in the Australian context?

Our first assignment in home economics was to draw a detailed diagram of the house we each lived in, indicating the various rooms, the place where our mothers kept the linen, where the glassware was stored, and where the family dined. After hearing this, I decided to try and get out of this class in another way and, as the other girls began scribbling away madly, I walked up to the teacher and explained, in a low voice, that I did not have a home. I had come from Sydney two weeks ago and now lived in a women’s refuge.
The teacher smiled and patted me on the head. That’s all right, dear. Just draw a diagram of your refuge.
When my workbook was handed back during the next home ec class, the teacher’s only comment, written in neat copper-plate was Mandy, I wish you would take this class SERIOUSLY.

(Sayer, 2005, pp. 205-206)


For many children in Australia, violence is a daily part of their lives. The extent to which children who live with violence subsequently experience failure in the school system means that educators need to better understand the links between violence and learning. Multiple reports and papers looking into a range of social issues including Indigenous disadvantage, violence in schools, and family and domestic violence, conclude with recommendations that focus on the need for improvements in education. Explicit in what is written in the field is the assumption that the presence of violence in people’s lives and their failure in the education system are somehow linked, though the precise links that are implied take a variety of forms. This paper uses the Australian context as a case study to explore the three most common discourses on violence and learning. First, it looks at some of the recent literature on the psychological effects of violence on children’s learning. Second, it provides an overview of some the socio-cultural perspectives on violence and learning, and third, it summarises some of the literature on how schools may hinder or help children who are victims of violence. An overview of these three positions exposes both what we know about the links between violence and learning, and where there are gaps in that knowledge. It is hoped that this preliminary mapping of the field contributes to the ways schools might better address the needs of children and youth who navigate the education system under difficult, often traumatic conditions. Because it is regularly noted that women and girls are more likely to experience family violence (Carrington, 2006; UNICEF Australia, 2006; Sokoloff & Dupont, 2005), educators should become familiar with the impact of family abuse on the experience of girls in and out of their classrooms.

Defining violence

A variety of recent studies in Australia focus on the extent of the problem; the consensus is that violence is a significant problem for children in Australia. UNICEF (2006) recently issued a media report estimating that in Australia anywhere between 75,000 and 640,000 children have been exposed to domestic violence. Mulroney (2003) and Indermaur (2001) and are amongst those who report another gender-related issue - that up to one-quarter of young people in Australia have witnessed an incident of physical or domestic violence against their mother or stepmother. These numbers alone suggest that we cannot see violence against children as isolated incidents. Other reports provide additional information about how violence impacts on children and youth. For instance, Halstead (1992, 12) reports that a high number of men who batter their wives had been observers of violence against their mothers by their fathers or had been abused themselves as children, and that one in every hundred Australian children suffers so severely from maltreatment that a protection agency must be called. More recently the Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey (2005) found that violence which occurs between partners is often observed by children who live in the home. And yet these statistics, themselves so significant, almost certainly do not reflect the larger extent of the problem, since abuse is well-understood to be under-reported.

In these recent Australian reports, violence generally encompasses the effects of physical and emotional harm, and little distinction is made between those who have experienced one episode of violence, and those for whom it is a frequent event, nor between the severity of the harm. Mostly, in these reports, violence refers to such things as child abuse and domestic violence, encompassing such examples as physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse (Carrington & Phillips 2006). Though domestic violence is still the term most often used, it is sometimes referred to as ‘family violence’ and often the terms are used together, as on the Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse website (2008).

As Kenway and Fitzclarence (1997 118) explain, our understanding of violence has become increasingly nuanced, and the definition of violence has widened. Defining violence is complicated and the notion that definitions may vary is established in a variety of reports and policy documents. Halstead (1992 1), in a report for the National Youth Affairs Research Scheme, explains the significance of defining violence along a continuum:

The socially acceptable level of violence is a function of culture
and need. In Australian society, for example, spanking of
children for disciplinary purposes is widely accepted
(National Committee on Violence 1990), while assault is
regarded as a crime. A higher level of violence may be accepted
in some contact sports than in normal social contact, while
presentation of violence in the media is a common form of
entertainment. The problem thus is not violence per se, but levels
of violence which are damaging to the individual, group or society.

Within this statement is the recognition that many degrees of violence may impact on a child. Though child abuse is the most commonly discussed form taken up in the literature, there is an overriding understanding within it that violence is not a problem that belongs only to a family or community. Violence is, of course, impacted on by other social indicators such as poverty, and it is generally recognised that a child’s failure in the school system may not only be the consequence of violence in the home, but may also be determined by other related circumstances. In recent years, such writers as Sokoloff and Dupont (2005) and Indermaur (2001) remind us that violence is not a singular phenomenon.

In an even broader sense, it can be claimed that circumstances such as war, genocide, or political persecution are also examples of violence that have effects on children. Children who arrive from war-torn countries, for instance, have often experienced terrible violence in their lives. They have difficulties succeeding in school as well. Additionally, it can be difficult to differentiate between these experiences of violence, which often go hand-in-hand. It is not, for instance, unusual for those who have suffered cultural violence to also find themselves victims of domestic or family violence. Indigenous Australians, for instance, have a long history of cultural violence, which is considered a major factor in their high levels of domestic violence (Atkinson 1996). Trauma leads to trauma. Though clearly there are many kinds of violence, the common result is that unwilling members of any of these groups are likely to find themselves struggling through the school system.

The psychological effects of violence

The majority of what has been written on violence and learning comes from a psycho-medical perspective. These studies generally suggest that the emotional, physiological or psychological effects of violence may make it difficult for students to learn, study, focus or socialise. They often make a link between the experience of violence and ability to learn. Amongst these studies are examples of recent research into how the brain is affected by trauma and violence (Stanley 2003; Oehlberg 2006). Other reports link violence to depression, anxiety and other mental health problems which impact on children’s success in school.

The conclusions drawn by these psychologically-oriented studies generally concur that violence makes learning in school difficult for children in a variety of ways. Halstead (1991 6), for instance, suggests that a young person who has been the victim of violence may have low self-esteem, poor self control and may demonstrate self-abusive behaviour. Her review of the literature provides us with a list of other possible effects of violence on children, including recklessness, anger, unreliability and thoughtlessness. An American organisation, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (2007), adds to this list, reporting that children from violent homes may withdraw from others and isolate themselves or, paradoxically, that they may try to become the perfect child.

Possibly the most comprehensive list of psychological effects of violence is offered by Carrington and Phillips (2006 6), who report, from their own literature review, a full list:

Social and psychological consequences described for victims include anxiety, depression, and other emotional distress, physical stress symptoms, suicide attempts, alcohol and drug abuse, sleep disturbances, reduced coping and problem solving skills, loss of self esteem and confidence, social isolation, fear of starting new relationships, living in fear and other major impacts on quality of life. Immediate impacts often described … include emotional and behavioural problems, lost school time and poor school performance, adjustment problems, stress, reduced social competence, bullying and excessive cruelty to animals, running away from home, and relationship problems.

In general, the research agrees that children from violent homes may demonstrate aggressive behaviour themselves, such as bullying other children. UNICEF (2006 1) reports that these young people are ‘up to three times more likely to be involved in fighting.’ The body of work that informs us on violence as a predictor of future behaviour, referred to as a ‘cycle-of-violence’, has an impact on those of us who work with children, both in that it may help us understand violent episodes that take amongst young people, and that it puts education at the forefront of finding solutions towards breaking that cycle.

These lists of characteristics of children who have experienced violence may be useful as ways to identify at-risk children, but these lists can only generalise, and are sometimes contradictory. These contradictions come out most strongly in the report by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (2007) who also suggest that though some young victims of violence may have problems in school with grades or truancy, others may ‘try to get really good grades’ and become perfectionists. Used as predictors, these lists of behavioural traits are not always useful.

Largely, these studies are concerned with the relationship between violence and the ability of children to learn, to concentrate, to cope with stress, or to engage in social relationships. They are empathetically concerned with solving what is perceived as the child’s problem, assisting in their healing, or addressing cognitive dysfunction caused by the original violence. For educators, the impact of these studies would be to recognise the problems students might be having with their schoolwork, and through this identification to organise extra support for students, including counselling where necessary. A range of programs have been developed to help at-risk students. Nevertheless, Oehlberg (2006) sees schools as places where stress and trauma can be relieved, drawing on strategies offered by the field of psychology such as cognitive retraining.

Kenway and Fitzclarence (1997 125) agree that most approaches to the subject of violence and learning draw their insights from psychology. They claim that

this has meant they have concentrated on the personal and the interpersonal and the small scale. The dominant tendency here has been to individualise and pathologise and indeed infantilise the violence which occurs within schools and/or to blame the peer group, family and/or the media for violence both in schools and beyond. Such approaches have not encouraged schools to see themselves as amongst the many institutions which are complicit in the production of violent behaviour.

The problem with situating the problem with the individual, also noted by Gunn (2002) is that the schools’ responsibility is seen to be to organise personal and academic support for the child, and often to engage in behaviour management, but not to reflect on its own institutional practice in a larger sense.

The social effects of violence

Reports that address the social effects of violence on children and youth generally begin with the understanding that violence is not a singular or individual problem. Violence is known, for instance, to be related to poverty though family violence is not, of course, exclusive to low-income families. For instance, Indermauer (2001 3) reports that ‘young people in households of lower socio-economic status are about one and a half times more likely to be aware of violence towards their mothers or their fathers than those from upper socioeconomic households’. Similarly, the same report makes it clear that gender is a factor: women are not the exclusive victims of violence, but experience violence in relationships more often than men. Indigenous Australians are at the most risk of all.

Another perspective is concerned more with the social affects of violence, and how they play themselves out in schools. For example, one oft-discussed social affect of violence on children and youth is that they may themselves demonstrate aggressive behaviour in the classroom (Halstead 1992), or perpetuate a ‘cycle of violence’ (Indermaur 2001).

The recent well-publicised Little Children are Sacred report (2007) brought public attention to the issues of violence on Aboriginal communities. Despite the earlier research that concluded that over-policing itself becomes a contributing factor in crime on Aboriginal communities (Carrington 1990), an increase in policing was one of the results of the recent report. John Howard’s 2007 emergency intervention plan, which intended to ‘take control’ of over 80 remote Indigenous communities, was a response to this report. After the 2007 election, the plan was called into question for being racist and punitive. The Little Children are Sacred report, more than any other, highlighted the fact that recognising a problem is one thing; knowing how to solve it is quite another. Indeed, it is one of the few reports that identify schools not only as part of the solution, but as part of the problem, implying that poor education may itself lead to family violence (Northern Territory Government 2007 6).

Along with race politics, gender is a significant factor in understanding violence and learning. Jenny Horsman (1990 222), in her interviews with women in adult literacy programs found that ‘when women are assumed to have left school because they were not adequately motivated, their school and home experiences, which contributed to dropping out, are obscured’. This would most certainly be the case, too, for boys who had violence in their lives. The role of this violence in students’ school experiences is often invisible. We do not know the impact of violence on academic success (or failure).

Recent studies are generally in agreement that there is no band-aid solution to violence itself, nor is there an easy recipe that can help child victims and young people succeed in school. Schools are understood to be but one aspect of a child’s life. The list of impact factors is large – education alone is not enough if a family lacks housing, is under or unemployed, is dealing with alcoholism, substance abuse or gambling. These social problems, named in the Little Children are Sacred report (Northern Territory Government 2007 16) illustrate just some of the social and political factors that a psychological perspective may, on its own, fail to take into account. Counselling, for instance, is hardly likely to work on its own, if a family is homeless.

The identification of at-risk-youth clearly recognises the factors, including domestic and family violence, that impact on a child’s success in the school system. Discussions of risk tend to focus on the identification of risk, and strategies of intervention. What they overlook, however, are ‘the ways in which the institutions and policy practices themselves contribute to social problems involving young people’ (White & Wyn 2008 134). These institutional practices, sometimes violent themselves, compound the ways young people sometimes experience violence.

The schools’ responsibility

Education (and by association, schools) is recognised as having a responsibility to break the cycle of violence, and to identify and help children and young people who experience violence in their lives. We may not always know how to provide this help, or what this might look like, but there is general consensus that schools have some role to play. The strongest statement about the responsibility of schools appears in the Little Children are Sacred report (Northern Territory Government 2007 149) which asserts that ‘there is a link between education (or lack of it) and manifestations of a disordered society’.

However, though reports seem to indicate an ever-growing awareness that violence impacts on children’s experiences of schooling in Australia, some critical research has suggested, more despairingly, that schools are often ‘unwilling to address [such] issues [as] child abuse and homophobic violence’ (Walsh and Mills 1998). The exception is in the area of mandatory reporting. Though laws vary from state to state, in general those who work with children have a legal responsibility to report child abuse. However, as Taylor & Lloyd (2001) explain, the legal responsibility to report child abuse does not in itself guarantee that a school community’s attitudes towards victims of violence and their families will be unbiased or constructive, nor that the school will end up being a safe place.

Halstead (1991 6) recognises the role schools play in this discussion when she remind us that ‘at the structural level, violence is induced when society fails to provide basic social necessities for its citizens … or creates confrontationist or excessively stressful situations for its young people’. The ways schools may themselves compound or contribute to the stress of young victims of violence is largely absent from the literature. Often it seems that schools are more hopeful that the ‘problem’ children, with all their characteristics noted above, will go away, or that the problems will be solved once other agencies, or social workers, get involved. In the Little Children are Sacred report (2007 150), some teachers expressed relief at the absenteeism of the more troubled students. The response was ‘that those children would disrupt classes, divert attention from the reliable students and, in any event, would not cope. Catch up resources would be required. If all the eligible students suddenly turned up, the school buildings and professional staff would prove inadequate.’

On a more positive note, schools do sometimes make a difference. Shonkoff & Phillips (2000) provide the reassuring statement that the effects of child abuse or neglect have been found to be less harmful if the child receives emotional support from another important adult in his or her life, such as a teacher. Similarly, the Little Children are Sacred report (Northern Territory Government 2007 149) gives an example of the Docker River Project, where a youth project succeeded in giving positive aspirations to young abused boys. This report strongly advocates that schools make a difference if they give abused children ‘a reason to get up in the morning’.

This idea that violence is often, sometimes unknowingly, institutionally supported is clearly complex, though some say it upfront (Horsman 2008). Where they do take up the discussion, however, discourses around the role of schools to address issues of violence and learning take a variety of positions. Some reports focus on the increasing difficulties schools have in coping with violent students (McCraith 2007). While these acknowledge that behaviours such as bullying may be the result of violence in the perpetrators’ own lives, the immediate problem lies within how violence impacts on the school community, and on the safety of other students and staff within the school. The focus of reports that take this perspective tend towards behaviour management, and strategies of discipline.

A second set of discussions develop or report on anti-violence curriculum and whole-school strategies. These discourses see schools as a place where social change may take place, for instance, in programs designed to disrupt the intergenerational cycle of abuse by targeting children and young people (Working with Children and Young People 2008) or in public education campaigns (Carrington & Phillips 2006). Though it is very difficult for causal relationships to be claimed and there is little empirical data to demonstrate their effectiveness (Molina, et al 2004), the general sense is that anti-violent curriculum may lead to a less violent society.

A third, albeit smaller body of literature discusses schools as violent cultures themselves; institutions implicated in, and contributing to violence, through institutional practice, including raced or gendered practices that lead to a violent culture (Kenway & Fitzclarence 1997; Walsh & Mills 1998).


Though these various discourses recognise a relationship between the experience of violence and children’s experiences at school, they mostly situate the problem with the victim, family or community who, though through no exact fault of their own, are now disadvantaged, incapacitated or unable to learn. As Whatman & Duncan (2005) explain, these discourses understand the problem as being in the individual or community, rather than in the school. Less has been written on the role of schools themselves in meeting the needs of these children, who fall into the category of ‘at-risk’ (Carrington & Phillips 2006). In examining some of the recent Australian reports that explicitly make links between violence and education, and identifies the discourses they employ, the paper offers an overview of how the problem of violence as it relates to learning is perceived in Australia.

Some aspects of the growing antiviolence or peace education movement acknowledge the roles schools may inadvertently play in perpetuating violence (Kenway & Fitzgerald 1997). The programs related to these movements take the long-term perspective that schools are places where peaceful societal change may take place. While it is aspirational to see schools as a place where social change can occur, schools have not always demonstrated that they can make a difference to the levels of violence against children in Australia, or create a less violent culture. Projects that have these goals in mind must be supported, and research should be undertaken to track their success, so that we may all learn from them. Meanwhile, schools can aspire to be safer, more inclusive places for children with violent lives. More conversations need to take place that allow feminists, academics, teachers, and school communities to talk openly and honestly about the schools’ role in working with children from violent contexts. The three ways of talking about the issue outlined above suggest that the biggest gap in the current discourse is in the third area. The literature on how children may be psychologically affected by violence is extensive, and growing. Socio-cultural perspectives on violence and schooling are gaining currency. How schools may understand their own role in the success or failure of these children, and consequently take measures to become truly inclusive places, even for the most traumatised children, is a topic of discussion that merits more attention.


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