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Surprisingly little attention has been paid to a growing problem in education: threats and actual violence against teachers.

A 2011 survey by the APA Task Force on Violence Directed Against Teachers is among the latest to document the problem. The anonymous Web-based survey of 2,998 K–12 teachers found that 80 percent of teachers reported at least one victimization experience in the current or past year. Of those who experienced an offense, 94 percent reported being victimized by students (McMahon et al., in press).

The survey also found that 72.5 percent of teachers had been harassed at least once and more than 50 percent had experienced property offenses such as theft or damage. Forty-four percent said they were physically attacked (McMahon et al., in press).

This article seeks to raise awareness of the problem and recommends strategies and resources psychologists can use and share with educators to help prevent violence against teachers.

Predictors of violence

It's important to identify the factors that allow violence toward teachers to occur in the first place. Several studies indicate that teachers' classroom management skills — or lack of them — may be linked to student violence against teachers.

Clues regarding the antecedents of students' violent behavior were identified in a study by Gottfredson et al. (2005), the only comprehensive examination of predictors of victimization among U.S. teachers. This study of a nationally representative sample of teachers and students from 254 middle and high schools assessed a wide range of potential influences on teacher victimization, including student bonding and neighborhood characteristics.

The study found that teachers were less likely to be victimized when students perceived there was consistent discipline management (i.e., fairness and clarity of rules). Teachers who saw their schools as having positive psychosocial climates — with good organizational focus, morale, administrative leadership and planning — were also less likely to be victims. Results of multivariate analyses indicated that schools with more impoverished students, African-American students and African-American teachers reported less positive psychosocial climates. Those, in turn, were associated with more teacher victimization.

These results indicate that teacher victimization is predictable and that students are more likely to act out against their teachers in schools that have an overall climate of victimization. The study results also suggest that schools in densely crowded communities are more likely to have self-reported teacher victimization. Because African-American children are often overrepresented in high-poverty urban areas, they may be vulnerable to exposure to suboptimal school discipline, which might increase the likelihood of teacher–student conflicts (Arum & Velez, 2012).

Recommendations for practice

Because of the complex factors that lead to violence against teachers, a multi-systems approach is best suited for attaining a comprehensive understanding. To this end, we offer a set of research-based recommendations for practitioners.

Student level

Students can participate in proven interventions that reduce or eliminate individual youth aggressive behavior patterns directed toward teachers and other school personnel. Walker and Shinn (2002) offer a three-pronged approach:

  • Primary prevention strategies, such as skills training that focuses on the 80 percent of students in a school population who do not have serious behavior problems.
  • Secondary intervention strategies, such as mentoring programs, that target the 5 percent to 15 percent of students who are at risk for behavior problems because they are starting to display behavioral or academic problems.
  • Tertiary strategies, or wraparound services, directed at the 1 percent to 7 percent of students who have intense and chronic behavioral and/or academic problems. One tertiary intervention that has been effective in decreasing undesirable student behaviors is functional assessment-based interventions (Conroy et al., 2005; Kern et al., 2004; Lane et al., 2010). These highly individualized interventions target the reasons why problem behaviors occur. Rather than focusing on reductive procedures that stop behavior problems from occurring, teachers determine what is motivating a student to behave in an unsafe or undesirable manner.

In brief, behavior serves one of two main functions: to obtain (positive reinforcement) or to avoid (negative reinforcement) attention, activities or tasks, or tangible or sensory conditions. The APA Task Force on Classroom Violence Directed Against Teachers (2011) recommended functional assessment-based interventions as a promising practice for addressing behaviors that may lead to aggression against educators.

Teacher level

Of course, teachers themselves play pivotal roles in reducing school violence through their classroom practices. Research suggests that teachers should engage in deliberate evidence-based practices to reduce the likelihood of aggression or violence in their classrooms (Lane et al., 2010). For example, clearly stating classroom and school rules and being consistent in modeling and rewarding positive behaviors are strategies that can improve student behavior.

Teachers can also improve classroom management by being more flexible and communicating clearly with students to reduce their uncertainties about assignments or other class work. Also, teachers can build on student strengths — such as ethnic identity — rather than focusing exclusively on weaknesses or using punitive methods (e.g., McMahon & Watts, 2002).

Although there are evidence-based practices for proactive threat responses, there is little guidance for intervening after an incident. Depending upon the level of violence, the top priority should be reporting the incident, then seeking professional treatment as determined by a school's policy.

One excellent source of post-trauma guidelines for teachers and administrators is the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) website.

Another rich source of information is Preventing and Addressing Violent Behavior: Taking Proactive Steps for School Safety (NEA & NEA Health Information Network, 2009). This resource describes prevention approaches for making working and learning environments safe for all educators and students. To this end, as with any workplace incident of violence, teachers must resist the fear of stigma associated with victimization and earnestly seek adequate debriefing and counseling.

Educators should be prepared to identify early warning signs of aggressive and violent threats and react from an effective response repertoire.

Classroom level

Implementing effective classroom instructional and management strategies allows the teacher to have direct control at the teacher level and also puts the teacher in a position to control the classroom. Teachers may implement social/behavioral programs (such as violence prevention, anti-bullying, conflict resolution and classroom management programs) to provide students with clear expectations and appropriate social and behavioral skills to manage anger, resolve conflict and improve classroom norms and environment (Henry et al., 2000). Research suggests that the more students know about violence prevention, the less likely they are to be aggressive over time (McMahon, Todd, et al., 2013). Programs that facilitate effective classroom management, as well as social and emotional learning, can enhance academic engagement and achievement (e.g., Weissberg & O'Brien, 2004) and reduce violence and aggression in the classroom (Wilson & Lipsey, 2007).

Students' academic engagement can serve as a protective factor against engagement in risky behaviors (O'Farrell & Morrison, 2003). Teachers are encouraged to consistently review literature on student motivation and implement strategies that lead to improved behavior since students who are motivated and engaged with academic tasks may be less likely to become distracted and act out in aggressive ways (Anderman & Patrick, 2012; Kaplan & Maehr, 1999).

In general, structure (i.e., clear rules and consequences), involvement (i.e., showing care and interest in students on a professional level without being too informal) and autonomy support (i.e., giving students choices) contribute to student engagement in education (Connell, 1991). Professional development that focuses on pedagogy and how instruction can be designed to engage all students may lead all students to become more engaged with academics and to be less likely to engage in violent behaviors (Scott, Nelson, & Liaupsin, 2001).

In addition, there is a need to help students feel accepted and included and to encourage them to be active in their schools, as these students are more likely to be engaged in learning (Anderman & Freeman, 2004; Osterman, 2000). Classroom-level strategies for enhancing academic motivation (see Vannest, Stroud, & Reynolds, 2011) may help reduce violence among students as well.

There are many evidence-based resources that can help teachers with classroom instruction and management, violence prevention, development of tools and strategies, and selection of effective programs. For example:

  • APA offers "APA Classroom Management Modules," a free online resource for teachers to illustrate schoolwide and individual classroom management skills and interventions for classroom disruption.
  • The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) provides indicators of program design, social and emotional instructional practices, program effectiveness, implementation supports and safe learning environments.
  • The Iris Center offers podcasts and helpful modules to assess, address, and enhance positive behavior and learning, as well as case studies that offer strategies to establish norms and expectations, foster accountability and work with students with disabilities.
  • The What Works Clearinghouse of the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences provides helpful information regarding academics, character education and dropout prevention. Prevention strategies at the classroom level may not always be enough to reduce violence.
School level

Ideally, the policies and practices that are implemented at the classroom level are also supported by parallel policies at the school level (Maehr & Midgley, 1991, 1996). In terms of schoolwide primary prevention efforts, we recommend that schools design comprehensive, integrated, multitiered service delivery models of prevention that promote academic and social success through clear expectations for behavior (Lane et al., 2010). A recent meta-analysis of more than 200 research studies (Wilson & Lipsey, 2007) found that school violence prevention programs are generally effective at reducing the more common types of aggressive behavior seen in schools, including fighting, name calling, intimidation, and other negative interpersonal behaviors, especially among higher risk students. However, none of these programs directly addresses violence directed toward teachers.

Prevention efforts

Primary prevention of violence against teachers calls for faculty and staff to expect their students to show respect, responsibility and their best effort throughout schools, whether it's in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias or playgrounds (Sugai & Horner, 2002). Ideally, these expectations would be developed with parents' input, with a goal of establishing culturally responsive expectations that are clearly understood by all parties. Expectations are then taught to all students and staff, and students are given opportunities to practice and reinforce them.

Primary prevention efforts also need to focus on improving school norms, school environments and positive student connections with school. Research suggests that violence prevention programs are more effective in changing aggressive behavior when there is a focus on changing the classroom and school environments (Espelage & De La Rue, 2011; Howard, Flora, & Griffin, 1999). School belonging has been linked with positive academic and behavioral outcomes (e.g., Anderman, 2002; Anderman & Freeman, 2004) and fewer negative psychological symptoms among students with and without disabilities (e.g., McMahon, Parnes, Keys, & Viola, 2008).

In addition, schools that more frequently include best practices, work to lower aggression, and foster school belonging had better academic achievement (McMahon, Keys, Berardi, & Crouch, 2011). Thus, creating a positive school culture will likely reduce teacher and student victimization, as well as improve overall student experiences and achievement in school.

Schools also need to have clear plans for responding to students who show signs of behavior issues (secondary) as well as a plan for students who have violated behavioral expectations (tertiary). Specifically, faculty and staff need to establish and implement consequences for students who demonstrate major and minor rule infractions.

The consequences should be reasonable with respect to the students' peculiarities, feasible with respect to the intent to deter recidivism, and proportional with respect to the infraction level. Teachers need to deliver the consequences easily, without unnecessary interruption of instructional activities (Lane et al., 2010). Minor and major infractions need to be delineated and operationally defined so that all parties are clear as to what constitutes each type of infraction. Then, the faculty and staff should specify the procedures for responding to the various violations and ensure that consequences are allocated uniformly (Walker, Ramsey, & Gresham, 2004).

However, unduly rigid policies, such as the oft-touted "zero tolerance" approach to discipline in the schools, have not only proven to be counterproductive but most often result in racial and gender discrimination, especially with African-American males, and denigrate the overall school environment (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008).

School leadership

Overarching and undergirding each of the levels of efforts is the particularly important, yet often overlooked, school leadership factor. Principals, assistant principals, superintendents, school board members and other leaders should, first of all, institute a thorough investigation into the facts surrounding the allegations of violence directed toward educators. School leaders should take all necessary steps to respond privately and publicly in a supportive fashion to the affected teachers and should address larger school and community needs when violence is perpetrated against educators.

These steps are pivotal in preventive efforts and far-reaching with respect to teacher recruitment and retention. Research clearly indicates that teachers' perceptions of support from their school administrators are strong predictors of whether teachers choose to stay in their present school or seek to move to another site (Boyd et al., 2011). Given the high rates of both teacher and administrator turnover in urban and low-performing schools (Battle & Gruber, 2010; Guin, 2004), both small and large-scale changes in the ways in which individual schools prevent and react to incidences of violence against teachers are likely to be less stable and less effective when there is greater administrative mobility. Indeed, data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicated that in the 2008–09 academic year, 12 percent of public and 16 percent of private school principals left their jobs in schools where student acts of disrespect or violence against teachers occurred at least once per month (Battle & Gruber, 2010). Therefore, deliberate efforts must be taken to consistently stabilize, review and reteach district policies and procedures on violence against educators.

To ensure stabilized policies and procedures, school leaders must provide adequate ongoing district-wide professional development designed to prevent violence against educators. Such training should focus on the design, implementation and evaluation of evidence-based models that suit the particular demographic features and specific needs of the district. As part of their professional development activities, it is important for researchers to help schools tailor and implement models that draw accurate conclusions regarding relevant processes and outcomes (Lane & Beebe-Frankenberger, 2004).

Researchers should also collaborate closely with school leaders to identify and implement models that address the three essential attributes of effective models: a) treatment integrity measures to gauge the extent to which the intervention was implemented as intended (Gresham, 2004); (b) social validity measures to assess the social significance of the goals, acceptability of the procedures, and importance of the outcomes (Kazdin, 1977; Wolf, 1978) from multiple perspectives (faculty, staff, parents, students and administrators); and (c) reliable outcome and screening measures (e.g., the BASC-2™ Behavior and Emotional Screening System [BESS], Kamphaus & Reynolds, 2007; the Student Risk Screening Scale [SRSS], Drummond, 1994).

Finally, there has been much concern over schools that consistently fail to demonstrate gains in student achievement. School leaders, psychologists and researchers are in a unique position to help shape school academic policy. In addition, the recent movements to create "turnaround schools" have opened up opportunities for collaborations that will produce evidence-based school safety policies (Murphy, 2006). School leaders are responsible for the outcome of such reform efforts (Murphy, 2006). Therefore, collaborative efforts that systematically link academic and behavioral achievement would be theoretically and pragmatically ideal.

School personnel preparation/training

Using a developmental approach, violence prevention and intervention strategies should be infused throughout the curriculum for in-service and pre-service programs for K–12 teachers — taking into account both student- and teacher-directed violence.

However, teacher candidates should not be frightened into thinking they will experience violence but should understand that violence in schools emerges most likely from a combination of individual, school and community risk factors. Teachers need to, for example, understand the research on racism, hate and bias within schools and communities and be able to identify how their own race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity and class/socioeconomic status influence their perceptions and behaviors in the classroom.

Teachers also benefit from training on specific prevention efforts that minimize the probability of violence. Such teacher preparation programs should offer: (a) child and adolescent development courses in behavioral, neural and development principles; (b) classroom management strategies to support instruction and engagement; (c) material on integrated, three-tiered models of prevention (primary, secondary and tertiary levels); (d) self-reflection opportunities to explore how their own ways of interacting with others might promote aggressive reactions; and (e) community psychology theory and research that illustrate ecology, person-environment fit, empowerment and effective strategies at multiple levels.

Through professional development and in-service programming, teachers could learn strategies to diffuse conflicts in order to prevent escalation, such as techniques for interrupting the acting out cycle (Colvin, 2004).

Community level

Violence prevention also requires community leaders and organizers to engage youth in positive activities. When youth are respected as contributors to their own neighborhood cultures, practices and belief systems, their sense of personal value and self-worth may be enhanced. Adolescents who are involved in local problem solving and decision making tend to take a healthier perception of responsibility, which may make them less likely to engage in violent behavior.

Because most school district policymakers are elected or appointed from the local community, they are strategically situated to receive firsthand input from the local community that helps shape school policy according to the particular needs of local youth. School board members, as well as other community leaders and organizers, should use their influence to engage youth in positive activities. Further, community leaders should build coalitions and institute social networks that address structural disadvantages — such as poverty, unemployment and homelessness — through community-supported initiatives that strengthen the social organization of the community and improve neighborhood and family environments (Bennett & Fraser, 2000). More generally, community economic development, employment programs and parent training may strengthen communities and reduce violence among youth.

Psychologists and other researchers play important roles in collaborating and consulting with community youth-focused organizations, including the YMCA, YWCA, and Boys and Girls Clubs of America, to provide youth with positive experiences after school. They can facilitate capacity-building within organizations through education, training and assistance with grant writing, evaluation and use of evidence-based best practices. Establishing partnerships among community-based organizations may also benefit victimized teachers by creating social support networks, alliances and a collaborative mission to promote positive youth development.

Further, psychologists can promote effective collaborations between community-based organizations (such as after-school programs, social services, neighborhood associations, faith-based organizations) and schools that have the potential to facilitate an integrative continuum of behavioral and mental health care (e.g., Huang et al., 2005). Partnerships can yield more integrated efforts that provide prevention, early identification, intervention and treatment of a wide range of behavioral and academic problems among youth. The forging of effective partnerships can also have positive effects on reshaping behaviors of troubled youth and the overall school climate (e.g., Massey, Boroughs, & Armstrong, 2007).

Once school-based violence has occurred, stakeholders at multiple levels may be involved in addressing the problems. Speedy, effective intervention may prevent further problems. For example, first responders such as school staff, security, police, ambulance workers and firefighters need training in developmental considerations for youth, behavioral principles and school policies. They should be invited and encouraged to participate with educators in school-sponsored professional development. Appropriate responses can increase school safety and reduce the likelihood of further violent incidents.

Unfortunately, there is little empirical research available regarding the effectiveness of crisis intervention in schools. Morrison (2007) examined school-based crisis intervention and found positive changes from teacher and staff perspectives regarding service delivery components, but not from the students' perspective. This area of research warrants further investigation.

Journal article

This article is based on "Understanding and preventing violence directed against teachers: Recommendations for a national research, practice, and policy agenda," by Dorothy Espelage, PhD, Eric M. Anderman, PhD, Veda Evanell Brown, PhD, Abraham Jones, PhD, Kathleen Lynne Lane, PhD, Susan D. McMahon, PhD, Linda A. Reddy, PhD, and Cecil R. Reynolds, PhD, which appeared in the February-March 2013 issue of American Psychologist. Read the full journal article, which includes all citations and recommendations for research and policy. 

The APA Task Force presents more detailed survey results in "Violence directed against teachers: Results from a national survey," by Susan D. McMahon, PhD, Andrew Martinez, PhD, Dorothy Espelage, PhD, Linda A. Reddy, PhD, Chad Rose, PhD, Kathleen Lane, PhD, Eric Anderman, PhD, Cecil R. Reynolds, PhD, and Veda Evanell Brown, PhD. This study is currently in press in Psychology in the Schools

The APA Task Force also presents a review of the research on violence against teachers and case studies from the national survey in an article titled "Violence against teachers: Case studies from the APA Task Force" by Linda A. Reddy, PhD, Dorothy Espelage, PhD, Susan D. McMahon, PhD, Kathleen Lane, PhD, Eric Anderman, PhD, Cecil R. Reynolds, PhD, Veda Brown, PhD, Abraham Jones, PhD, and Jaclyn Kanrich, PhD. This paper is in press in International Journal of School and Educational Psychology.