The Research Files Episode 77: Coping with violence from students

Hello, I’m Jo Earp and welcome to another Teacher podcast – Episode 77 of The Research Files.

Student violence directed at school educators is a common issue. Sadly, for many of you listening, it will be something you’ve experienced in your career, and for some it may be a regular occurrence.

My guests for this episode of The Research Files are David Stevenson, a provisional psychologist and behaviour support practitioner, and Assistant Professor James Neill, from the Discipline of Psychology, School of Health Sciences and Faculty of Health at the University of Canberra. Along with Kayla Ball, Rebecca Smith and Melena Shores, they’ve just published a new the paper in the Australian Journal of Education, it’s called How do preschool to year 6 educators prevent and cope with occupational violence from students? In the study, educators in the ACT (that’s the Australian Capital Territory for those listening internationally) were asked about the frequency and impact of occupational violence, and the prevention and coping strategies they used and found effective.

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Okay, back to today’s episode – it’s a longer conversation than usual, so let’s get started.

Jo Earp: David and James, welcome to The Research Files. Now there are a few studies out there already, obviously, which include figures for things like verbal abuse and threats, harassment and violence against educators. And I'm thinking, particularly there's the annual Principal Occupational Health Safety and Wellbeing Survey that's been done for several years actually, and we've covered that on Teacher. It’s fair to say that study paints a fairly alarming picture in terms of the rates there being much, much higher for teachers than the general population. Your study did look at frequency of incidents, but it also focuses on something a bit more practical, doesn't it David?

David Stevenson: Yeah, that's right, and as you said it is alarming that the rates are so high – about 9 or 10 times the general population, and I think that that's something that the general population really doesn't understand, what educators are facing in their workplaces.

So, from our respondents, it was reported that an average of about half the day of educators was actually spent managing challenging and complex behaviours, which we found quite alarming that a lot of the day is taken up by managing these students with these high needs.

And while we did look at the frequency and the impact of its occurrence, we wanted to expand on this and really have a solution-focused lens rather than just looking at the prevalence, which there is that growing body of research, and really try to focus on what we do about it and what we do with this information to help support educators.

We, yeah, really wanted to understand the prevention and coping strategies that teachers use and find out what's most effective. So, we did this by using open-ended questions as well – because we really wanted to dive into the expertise that educators have on the ground. They're the ones facing this day-to-day. Rather than sort of telling or prompting them, what we really wanted to find out was what they were doing, what they found was the most effective to prevent and then also to cope afterwards.

We also wanted to provide an anonymity, because I think sometimes when it comes from an internal source people just sort of answer and tick the boxes and could be worried about ramifications of what they're saying going on, so providing that anonymity was very important for us to get as real as possible picture of what's happening on the ground.

We also deidentified and shared [the results] with our co-researchers from the OV [Occupational Violence] and Complex Case Management team in the ACT Education Directorate. So, we had their Director Rebecca Smith and [Clinical] Psychologist Dr Kayla Ball on board, and they were they were a big part of this as well, allowing us to get into the schools and supporting us and sort of endorsing what we were doing there. So, it was a really collaborative approach between University of Canberra and then the Education Directorate there in the ACT.

I think another strength of our research is we noticed that a lot of the focus is on teachers rather than support staff as well. And, being that support staff are the ones that often work one-on-one with the complex students themselves and the challenging behaviours we wanted to sort of gauge what they were doing as well, and expand that to all school staff, as well as the important work that teachers do.

And then I guess, yeah, if we're going to the aims of what our study were, we were looking a little bit at the frequency and then what the impact was. And then moved on to what teachers do on the ground to prevent occupational violence from students, but also what they do to cope and manage afterwards. And then finally we sort of looked at what supports educators were using that they found were the most helpful and most frequently used.

JE: So, as we’ve mentioned, there are a few studies out there that say what the problem is but this one is tapping into, you know, how do educators cope, what are some of those strategies and what they can actually do about it. The other thing to reiterate is, we're talking about violence from students here, rather than from other educators or from parents and so on. And, before we look at the results, I’d just like to give listeners some context about the extent of the problem. Can you give a bit of an overview of what we already know about the prevalence of violence against teachers in the workplace?

DA: Yeah, absolutely. Estimates of the prevalence of teacher-directed violence vary greatly. However, it appears to be escalating around the world, and exactly why this is happening we're not sure, we didn't look into that. But it is interesting that it does seem to be increasing. It happens in all grade levels and tends to occur, as I said, all around the world – it's not just an isolated issue in one of the countries or one culture.

So, looking into some of the other research as well, we found Longobardi and his research partners (2018) conducted a meta-analysis and identified from 24 studies that at least half [of the] respondents experienced at least one form of violence from students in the preceding 2 years. And as you sort of mentioned with the [Philip] Riley study on principals, they found that there was an increase in 2011 from 27% up to 42% in 2018.

And then looking in the ACT, which is sort of where our jurisdiction is and where we were focusing on, Shaddock and his team (2015) identified 5% of teachers reported experiencing extreme violence from students every day (so it’s quite a complex issue, there) and a further 6% experience this at least once a week.

This all implies that this is placing educators at a high risk of being physically or psychologically harmed, which also contributes to burnout, impaired job performance, staff leaving the profession. And despite the concerns regarding the health and safety of our amazing educational workforce this appears to be a factor that's contributing to the shortage of staff that we're finding now, that's becoming evident in Australia.

JE: Yeah, as I say, it's a big concern and anybody who's worked in education, sadly, will likely have been the victim of workplace violence or aggression from students. Okay then, I mentioned in the intro to this podcast that this study looked at the experience of primary teachers – so that’s pre-school up to year 6. David, who exactly was involved and what did you do?

DS: Yeah, so, in regards to the scope of this study, we wanted to look at pre-school to year 6 – partly because that's where I was working in that field, but also I’m a big believer in early intervention and feel that that's highly effective as well. As it gets to high school, it tends to be a little bit different.

So we obtained [responses from] 369 ACT government school staff. We had a response of 86% females, 14% male and no responded as ‘other’, and this sort of pretty closely matched what the gender ratios are in primary schools in the ACT. They had an average of around 14 years of experience as an educator and the job roles included 206 classroom teachers, 48 exec teachers, 43 learning support assistants, 25 principals, 20 deputies, and 8 administrative assistants, and 19 ‘other school staff’ that included roles like youth workers, business managers, specialist teachers, and pastoral care staff. We had 85% worked in mainstream primary school settings, 83 were pre-school staff, 51 worked in learning support units and 25 of our respondents worked in specialist schools.

So, we used a self-report questionnaire and was distributed to teachers’ work emails by their principal – and a copy of the questionnaire is actually available as Appendix C in the supplementary materials of the research, if anyone wants to look at exactly what the questions are that we used.

JE: Yeah, so we've got a good range of respondents there. There should be a good range of views and experiences so, if you're listening and you're working in that P-6 area it's very likely that there's somebody in your kind of role that’s answered this questionnaire. You mentioned there David about your previous role – you worked as an LSA didn't you? (that’s a Learning Support Assistant) and a youth support worker for 7 years, so you've got that experience on the ground. You were an honours student when this study was carried out at the University of Canberra, and you're now a provisional psychologist and behaviour support practitioner. You also gave a mention to the survey questions in the Appendix of the research that’s just been published. I'll put a link to the AJE paper in the transcript of this podcast on, so head over to the AJE to read more – and the paper is free to access until the end of November. One final point is the timeframe, the research was carried out during the pandemic, but respondents were asked to think about experiences prior to 2020.

DS: Yeah, it has been a difficult time, so we should really acknowledge that and really commend all your listeners and teachers for how they sort of had to think outside the box and sort of shift how they delivered education. So, yeah, hats off to you all out there for the incredible work that you've done in this really challenging time.

JE: Oh, absolutely. So, we’ve talked about the aims of the study and what happened. Let’s dive into the results. What were their headline results for the frequency of occupational violence?

DS: Yeah, our measures for the frequency, types and impact of experienced OV were we used the same sort of model that the ACT uses for recording incidents of occupational violence, to maintain consistency with the measures that we're currently used. So, what we were looking at was abusive language, physical aggression, other threatening behaviour, bullying and harassment, and then OV as an overall as an experience from students there. And the timeframes we were really looking at were whether it was occurring daily, a few times a week, once a week, once a month, every 6 months, or if it was never occurring for that particular staff member.

We found about half the sample reported experiencing at least one form of occupational violence from students on at least a weekly basis, which is a huge amount of experience there. So, only 11% of our respondents actually didn't experience OV. And the most frequent form of OV was abusive language, with 60% reporting this occurred at least once a week.

JE: Oh, actually, I just want to cut in there David, sorry. We're talking about abusive language happening at least once a week for 6 in 10 respondents, and this is not in secondary school here, we're talking about P-6.

DS: No, so these are primary school students and we were surprised as well at how high that was occurring … so other threatening behaviour was 43% experienced it at once at least once a week, physical aggression 41% were experiencing that on at least a weekly basis – which is again a huge amount of our respondents that are dealing with that physical aggression and violence from students every week. And then bullying and harassment was experienced by 20% of our respondents at least once a week. So, the figures are quite extensive on how many staff are managing it and trying to deal with this on a weekly, and sometimes even daily, basis.

JE: And in this study you didn't just say ‘is this happening to you?’ but you asked respondents what the impact was of these incidents. What did you find there?

DS: Yeah, so with the impact, again we used the terminology that the Directorate uses in the ACT. So they were, the impact levels were: ‘insignificant’ (so no perceived impact on psychological or physical wellbeing); minor (so, pain inflicted at site but no first aid required and/or some initial psychological distress that decreased over the day); ‘moderate’ (included injury requiring first aid and/or psychological distress that persisted past 24 hours); ‘major’ (was injury, requiring medical assistance and/or psychological distress that persisted more than one week); and then ‘severe’, right up on the top, (was injury, requiring hospital admission and/or psychological distress, resulting in ongoing psychological condition such as anxiety, depression or PTSD).

So, for respondents to experience OV overall, the severity of impact was rated as moderate, major or severe by 43% with 16% rating the impact as major or moderate, and only 15% rated the impact as insignificant. Physical aggression appeared to have the greatest impact, with 47% of those experiencing physical aggression reporting at least moderate impact, 89% reported at least minor impact; followed by other threatening behaviour, which was around 37% reported as at least a moderate impact to them, and then 83% reporting that as minor. Bullying and harassment was around 35% reported, this is at least moderate, and 74% at least minor. Abusive language, which was the most common frequency as we said before, while it was just words rather than necessarily a physical response from the student 25% still reported that at least moderate impact, 73% or more at least minor impact.

So … it's just showing that the impact that our amazing staff have, dealing with this sometimes hostility and the different behaviours of the students when they have these outbursts in our education settings.

JE: Well, yeah, that’s interesting to get more of an insight into the impact of incidents there on not just the physical health, but their mental health as well. I want to move on to the prevention and the coping strategies now. Let's start with the prevention – what were the most common themes and strategies here?

DS: Yeah, so we used open-ended questions to really capture what educators’ thoughts were rather than providing suggestions to what they use from a selection. For prevention, we asked what the individual perceived were the most effective strategies that they used, and then a separate question on what their workplace used effectively – so we wanted to look at the individual level and then at the school-wide level in the prevention response.

At the end, we came up with 114 individual prevention codes and they were organised into the 15 themes. So, the themes that we got from the responses were the staff response, collaboration, the individual student-focused, antecedent control, relationships, rule structure, programs, plans, removal, sensory needs, communication, resourcing, environment, and recording and using data.

So, we used a multiple-response analysis and we found that the most frequently mentioned strategies in order of use by the individual were, the staff member’s response to the student (which was about 66% of our respondents gave those that fit into that theme), 56% focused on the individual student, 55% discussed working collaboratively, 43% antecedent control, and then 40% relationships.

So, they were the most common prevention strategies that the individual was using, and just to define some of them: the staff members response was how educators choose to act, respond, give choices, follow up, and deal with students who have a high risk of violent behaviour; the individual student focus looked at meeting student needs, engagement, the individual differences, rewarding desired behaviour, teaching coping skills and individualised timetabling; working collaboratively involved working with and being supported by colleagues, other directorate staff and services, and adopting a whole-school approach; antecedent control was really about understanding the triggers, identifying the early warning signs, and using those preventive strategies that work on the individual level there; and another big one is the relationships, which was really about maintaining positive relationships with students and their family, where possible, and having familiar staff work with students when a regular teacher or LSA is not available.

We then found a similar pattern of results for the workplace prevention strategies, with the following notable variations. The most common strategy mentioned by over 80% of respondents was collaboration. Other effective workplace prevention themes that were emphasised more often than the individual ones were the school-wide evidence-based programs, educator level plans, increased resourcing, and recording and using OV data.

Is there anything you want to add there James? Sorry, I've just been talking a lot there, but …

James Neill: Oh, no, it's a pleasure. I guess as an academic to have had such an enthusiastic student with runs on the board working with individual students in school settings. So, I've learned a lot from this. But I guess as somebody with a background in educational and positive psychology, that’s why I encouraged David to not just talk about the problem, but I guess start to look for solutions and ideas and things that, you know, if there are some little things that are working then there's the potential to amplify those in school systems.

But, certainly, one of the things for me was, yeah, some jaw-dropping when I saw some of these statistics. Admittedly, this is a convenient sample, so we have I think about 5% of the ACT educators, but there is obviously a risk that some of these incident rates are reflective of people who are motivated to respond and report their individual experiences. Nevertheless, it does paint a pretty concerning picture, which the ACT Directorate was well aware of. And I've got to give credit to them for being very welcoming of our approach and interest, and they did everything possible to allow the study to happen, didn't seek to influence or interfere, and they were very keen to learn about the results because they're on their own trajectory to try and deal with this issue and [they’ve] got a rapidly expanding Occupational Violence team. And they're keen to keep going and learn more.

So, yeah, what David started to talk to, I guess, are some of the insights around the things that work. But I think we need to be careful not to place it all back on teachers, ‘cause as you just went through David, several of these strategies that work are at the school level or the broader system level. Which I know is recognised in the principal’s report that, you know, you can't expect the solutions to all be found at the micro level. There are some cultural issues right from the societal level through to the department level and the messaging that goes out.

You know, one of the things … I was surprised to hear David talk about was that some occupational violence, some of that, what we might think of as ‘minor’ is kind of just accepted as business as usual. Whereas, you know, if I walked into a university and I was verbally abused there would be a zero-tolerance kind of approach to that, but there does seem to be some cultural issues, this sense that you just have to put up with some of this as ‘par for the course’. Which I think is the culture that we're now trying to change and say ‘no, that that deserves some intervention and some sort of response’.

JE: Yep, that’s absolutely a great point that you make there, that teachers and school leaders can't do this alone. We’ve talked about prevention strategies and, again, listeners will be familiar with using these kinds of things – watching for triggers, for example. But when these incidents do happen, we reach the point of coping strategies, and that's the other thing that you asked respondents about. What were some of the main themes there?

DS: We came down to 126 separate responses that were coded, and that was then organised into 14 themes. The themes that came up included: debriefing, self-care, work support, exercise, staff response, time out, mindset, interest/hobbies, emotional regulation, external support, student focus, reflection, indulgent behaviours, professional support.

The most frequently reported personal wellbeing strategies that were used: debriefing at 58% was really, quite an important one that we found from our respondents; followed by mental and physical self-care (was about 51% of our respondents to that question), and then followed by workplace support through colleagues, school staff and the education profession; and then finally 31% actually mentioned physical exercise, so it really is about that work-life balance and proactively looking after yourself as well. Because if we don't look after ourselves it's very hard to then translate that on to support the students.

There's a slight difference in the order when we looked at what they perceived were the most effective, but it didn't differ too much: work support was about 50% of the respondents, self-care was about 37%, debriefing was about 35%. And that sort of highlights that there is a slight discrepancy, but a lot of the staff were using what they did find was effective. Some of them that they believed were a little bit better than what they were using included work support – so, it was slightly better than [the strategy they were] actually using, and that's an important one goes back to that collaborative approach that we keep sort of touching on there. Mindset, as well, it's very hard to get that strong mindset on what's going on. Student focus, as well as reflection, were again … perceived as better than actually used in the field there. Is there anything you wanted to add as there at all James?

JN: Just, although it wasn't used particularly frequently you mentioned indulgent behaviours, which was things like eating chocolate, drinking alcohol and I guess distracting yourself from the problem, but people didn't find them particularly effective. And interestingly, professional support, like all of those strategies, things you either do yourself at school with school colleagues, or you're doing in your personal life when you when you go home, professional support was pretty much the bottom option that people picked. So, most of the support is coming from those more informal sources rather than the formal support mechanisms.

JE: That's an interesting point, James. One of the articles we published this month on Teacher looked at how schools can encourage their staff to make the most of things like employee assistance programs (EAPs), wellbeing supports and so on. And, as you say, the respondents to this survey said these were helpful but they rarely chose it as a strategy.

DS: Yeah, so it's interesting that that you mentioned that, and it does sound like it really important article, and I'd like to actually check it out, but we didn't actually explore why this is underutilised as a source of support, but we did really find that's what those systems are for and designed for, to be that safety net for staff when it's becoming too much.

So, respondents identified workplace colleagues, partners, school leaders, friends, family members, and supervisor line managers as the most frequently used sources of support in coping with OV from students, as James was mentioning there, really those informal supports are where most staff (from our respondents) actually went.

In terms of how helpful support was as well, work colleagues were clearly rated as the most helpful sources of support. And that makes sense, we all have different relationships in the school and we go to those people we trust or admire and they're really our backing when we're collaborating there. So, an average, they were rated as between ‘helpful’ and ‘extremely helpful’ and then followed by partners, school leaders and friends were the next most helpful sources of support. So, taking that stuff home and using those informal support networks that people have, we found our respondents is really where they turn to when they were finding these sort of issues challenging with the occupational violence from students.

And, again, as we said, the most underutilised sources of support – based on the relatively low frequency of use, yet helpfulness was a little bit higher – were psychologists, counsellors and health practitioners. And that goes back to what you're sort of mentioning with this recent article on, why are the EAP services being underutilised? Because that really is what their role and focus is, to help staff get through these challenging times and experiences. I definitely think that's a place where more researche is required to understand what's going on there and how can we remove those barriers so that our amazing educators are again supported when they are facing these challenging situations.

JE: From the results that you found there from your study, for people listening, what can schools and principals (who are in a great position), but educators as well, maybe thinking about themselves and thinking about a colleague, what can they do in practical terms, right now?

DS: Yeah, and that's a really good point, and that's really what we wanted to do is have that solution-focused lens. And, despite the best efforts of school leadership, teachers, school staff, health professionals, directorates, and even the wider community, OV from students towards teachers can be minimised but I don't believe that it'll be fully eradicated. And there's various reasons for that and factors that are sometimes beyond the control and scope of the education system itself.

So, it goes back again, really that collaborative approach that is so important to prevent as well as minimise the impact when OV does occur, and on how educators do their best to actually support each other. They have the best understanding of what's going on, on the ground, and they're the best ones that sort of have the knowledge and experiences to be able to support their colleagues as sort of that collaborative approach.

So, these results actually already informed the ACT Education Directorate through our co-researchers at the OV team, and we appreciate you actually sharing out this research, because that was our idea. We wanted to find what's working and what's not working a little bit and share that, so that people could take that on board in their practice and day-to-day runnings of their school and employment there.

So, as I said, before yeah, it's fundamental that stuff support each other and work collaboratively. And this should go through all the levels of education – so support from directorates, from principals, from senior staff, and even colleagues supporting each other.

In relation to prevention, staff support and training regarding the interaction styles, identifying underlying causes for aggressive behaviour, and teaching alternate behaviours – which I know is done very well in Australia with a lot of the evidenced-based intervention programming that we do. Whenever possible removing antecedents, which is not always possible – we can only do the best to sort of help control and minimise from that angle, but doing the best we can. And that really leads back to the forming of really quality relationships and understandings with our students.

In terms of coping, we've sort of looked at setting up effective formal and informal opportunities for debriefing. Because that was a really big one, just allowing educators to get something off their chest, it doesn't need to be necessarily an action there, just having that support in that space where they can vent what's going on or they can try and look at how could I do something differently that day. But understanding as well that it's a tricky situation and that the educator is doing their very best to minimise these things and sometimes these incidents still occur, despite everything that we sort of throw at that.

And then the other big one, I guess, is really promoting that school cultural self-care and a healthy work-life balance is another big one. As you'd understand, and the listeners as well, educators are doing an incredible amount of things and really focusing on yourselves as well. Because if you're just fixated and stuck always trying to meet deadlines and all of these sort of factors, on top of having OV occur from students, it can become really difficult to manage in an ongoing way.

So going back to it, the really big one is really just in a collaborative approach and to encourage staff to have each other's back. It goes back to a saying that I really like is that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and I think that's very important here, and very important in education. That it really is that collaborative approach between all school staff, the wider community, parents – all of these sort of people – having everybody consistent and clear on the same page there.

Even that collaborative approach as well increases the consistency and predictability of expectations for students themselves, which then decreases and reduces the outbursts that involve violence because they really understand that they can't try something different on with a different staff member, that those expectations and rules are there. But yeah, again it's really that collaborative approach and fostering those really positive cultures in schools and teamwork around how we help manage trickier students to help them learn those skills and learn those alternatives so they can use other behaviours rather than necessarily violence and outbursts.

JE: So, there's an awful lot of information in the journal paper – there's lots of stats, information there on strategies, I definitely would recommend that listeners have a read of that. We've just sort of scratched the surface a little bit today. I'll put a link into that to the transcript to this podcast at – and a reminder the journal paper is free to access until the end of November thanks to our friends at AJE and Sage. Just before we end then, in terms of future research are you looking at maybe extending the survey?

DS: Yeah, firstly, I'd like to thank all the listeners for listening because it really was important that we go out, and again to the AJE for sharing this article and making it free for people to access for a limited time. I might throw this to James, as he's the academic guru that will sort of know where to go next from this.

JN: Yeah, look, I was actually quite shocked when David came to me with this idea. I thought ‘that's not a very original idea, surely we have good information about occupational violence in Australian education settings?’. And, when we searched, I was amazed that (other than the principal survey and you know the odd study here and there) there is a lack of systematic monitoring of exactly what's happening in schools.

And, you know, I think in some other contexts if there was this going on there would be much bigger enquiries and you know serious resourcing thrown at the problem. And it is starting to happen, but you know, I do think whilst we are keen to say extend the study in the ACT to high schools and see what's happening there, we're open to working with other states, or people can use the survey and run it in other states or jurisdictions, because you know ACT is its own area.

But at the very least, yes the ACT Directorate is keen to continue with this and work with Uni of Canberra to see whether we can't probe a bit further into what some of the solutions might be. And we're keen to keen to collaborate, David's keen to continue with this work and hopefully we can get him back and get him doing a PhD in this one day.

JE: He's smiling now at that thought. Well, what whatever happens in the future, best of luck with. For now, though, David Stevenson and James Neill, thanks very much for sharing your expertise with Teacher.

That’s all for this episode – if you want to keep listening, there are almost 250 episodes already in our archive. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify, Apple podcasts, SoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts from, so you can keep up to date with our latest episodes. We’ll be back at the end of this month with the October instalment of our Teacher Staffroom podcast series.


Longobardi, C., Badenes-Ribera, L., Fabris, M. A., Martinez, A., & McMahon, S. D. (2018). Prevalence of student violence against teachers: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Violence, 9(6), 596–610.

Shaddock, A., Packer, S., & Roy, A. (2015). Schools for all children and young people: Report of the expert panel on students with complex needs and challenging behaviour. ACT Education Directorate.

Stevenson, D. J., Neill, J. T., Ball, K., Smith, R., & Shores, M. C. (2022). How do preschool to year 6 educators prevent and cope with occupational violence from students? Australian Journal of Education.

In this episode, David Stevenson shared that 43% of their study’s participants utilised antecedent control as a prevention strategy for incidents of occupational violence, which he defines as understanding the triggers, identifying the early warning signs, and then using preventive strategies.

As a classroom teacher, reflect on a time you were exposed to violence by a student. Were you able to develop an understanding of any triggers or early warning signs that may have contributed to this incident? How could you use this knowledge to attempt to prevent a similar incident occurring in the future?