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Help for teachers on frontlines against family violence

“The playground is a microcosm of the world,” Wiradjuri Preschool Child Care Centre director Carmel Richardson said. “So, if we’ve got boys marginalising girls in the playground … [and] we don’t do anything to challenge it, we’re reinforcing the notion that it’s an OK thing to do.”

Richardson offered this advice in the ‘respectful relations’ module of Start Early, an Early Childhood Australia program for preschool teachers that has NSW Government support. It aims to help prevent family violence.

Starting early, as the program’s name suggests, is a priority. As the Institute for Safe Families domestic violence training manual for early-childhood educators has stated, the brain is mostly plastic until age 3. This means early experiences, including being exposed to violence, shape a person’s biology, influencing their behaviour, learning ability and thoughts in later life.

It’s also important because family violence is rampant in Australia. Emily Maguire, chief executive of Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria, said 1 in 3 Australian women have been physically abused, 1 in 5 have been sexually abused, and 1 in 4 have been emotionally abused. Maguire said that while people can comprehend physical violence, they “have a lesser understanding of other forms of family violence, which is any sort of behaviour intended to cause [a person to] fear for their safety or wellbeing or the wellbeing of another – threatening a child, for example”.

Even if a child isn’t directly threatened, if they hear or see violence or witness a parent crying, Maguire contended, they are also experiencing violence. The 2012 ABS Personal Safety Survey found that children bore witness to about half the incidents of intimate partner violence in Australia. Applying Maguire’s extended definition of family violence to this, more than a third of Australian children have experienced family violence.

So children are victims of family violence and it affects their brain chemistry. Yet the strategies in place to deal with this are inadequate. The 2014 Australian Institute of Family Studies report Children Affected by Domestic and Family Violence found that the efficacy of current so-called ‘early intervention’ programs – those aimed at children aged zero to 8 – is yet to be proven. And service providers, such as preschools, were found to be incapable of properly identifying and responding to children in their care whom family violence had affected.

Now, however, a new suite of initiatives has cropped up to tackle both prevention and responses to family violence. Prevention-wise, Maguire suggested early-childhood educators take an active role in non-gender stereotypical play and non-violence. “Don’t say things such as, ‘He’s only pulling your hair because he likes you,’ ” she counselled. “Because [educators have] got this captive audience of young people they see every day, that’s likely to have a good long-term impact.”

Start Early also provides guidance for teaching violence prevention to kids. A key principle encourages mirroring of positive behavioural traits. In other words, be warm and respectful to others, adults and children alike, and children will implicitly learn to do this, too.

Janet Robertson, a teacher at Mia Mia Child and Family Study Centre, had a suggestion for what to do if positive mirroring has failed and conflict has arisen: “You have to engage in what Glenda MacNaughton calls transformative curriculum – actively engage when something goes wrong.”

This means when Bobby picks on Ava, or Ava picks on Bobby, on the playground, you don’t just silently spectate. Robertson advocated listening to what both sides have to say, thereby “making them agents in their own respectfulness towards each other”. Once the wrongdoing has been identified, Robertson suggested, educators should help kids rectify it, by saying things like “we can do this together” or “I can help you”. This helps them learn from their mistake in a supportive way.

Sometimes, though, despite educators’ best preventative efforts, children are victims of violence. To help educators identify such instances, Caregivers Helping to Affect and Nurture Children Early (CHANCE) has provided a list of common symptoms victimised kids exhibit. These include attachment disruptions, increased separation anxiety, regressive behaviours, sleep disturbances, psychosomatic complaints, and changes in eating and toileting patterns. The list’s authors, Ann Adalist-Estrin and Kathleen Pullan Watkins, noted that children’s reactions to violence can vary according to their temperament and experience.

Maguire takes a less scientific approach to determining violence in children or their parents. “It’s very hard to know what’s going on,” she advised. “Trust your gut.” Nonetheless, like CHANCE, she lists characteristic family violence signs to be aware of: if a mother seems furtive or is reluctant to pay for expenses, such as excursions, or if there are cues in a child’s behaviour like anxiety or persistent stomach aches. Even if you’re unsure whether violence is present, Maguire said, “saying something is better than saying nothing”. She suggested educators ‘check in’ with mums they suspect are violence victims. “You can ask things like, ‘I’m a bit worried, is there anything happening at home?’ ” she offered.

She recommended asking these types of questions only when the person’s partner isn’t in the room, and ensuring the child doesn’t overhear the conversation.

When it comes to addressing little ones about family violence, Maguire advocated going for it. “People are really worried about talking to kids about this … but there are ways to do it in safe, developmentally appropriate ways,” she said. “A lot of educators are doing this anyways, in terms of stuff around gender.”

She called early-childhood educators to action: “We’ve all got a role to play in changing the culture and changing the story around violence against women.”

Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria and Community Child Care Association are holding a conference for early-childhood educators. Responding to and Preventing Family Violence takes place on Wednesday, July 13, in Melbourne. 

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