Teachers want action as student assault rates on staff escalate


Primary school students do not receive adequate mental health support, teachers say.

Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images

Primary school students do not receive adequate mental health support, teachers say.

Teachers being hit, kicked and bitten, chairs thrown and windows smashed – these are some of the scene that play-out in Kiwi classrooms as the number of physical assaults on staff has almost doubled in five years.

In 2014, 714 children were stood-down or suspended for violence. By 2018 that had risen to 1360.

Canterbury had the highest number of stand-downs and suspensions for physical assaults on staff in 2018 with 263 cases, followed by 222 in Auckland.

A lack of mental health support for primary pupils is to blame for violent behaviour in the classroom, teachers say.

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Stuff spoke to two primary teachers and a teacher aide at a special school and agreed not to name them.

One Christchurch teacher said mental health issues were the main cause of violent behaviour in schools and more funding was needed to for wrap-around services.

“We have children who come to school with issues but there is no funding or support for those issues,” she said.

“They act-out violently. They kick, hit and bite and it sometimes takes four or five weeks to get help, that’s half a term.”

She wrote to the Education Minister’s office, which she said replied to say “millions of dollars” had been invested in mental health.

“We have no idea where that is, we don’t see that. There’s no service to turn to, to say we need help with this.”

Students who act violently often suffer with mental health problems, such as anxiety, says one teacher.

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Students who act violently often suffer with mental health problems, such as anxiety, says one teacher.

The most common mental health condition students had was anxiety, the teacher said. In Canterbury, post-quake issues were contributing factors, she believed.

A Wellington primary teacher said at one school she worked at it was common to see children fighting in the classroom.

“A lot of it comes from an overflow of emotion,” she said.

“A lot of children don’t have the self-regulation skills needed, so when they do get upset and frustrated it just escalates until they boil over.”

She agreed that a lack of mental health support services contributed to the problem.

A special school teacher aide said she was hit, kicked, scratched and bitten on a daily basis.

“I get chairs thrown at me, I’ve seen windows kicked out.

“A colleague was slammed into the pavement and had their head [cut] open … and to this day they are not back at work full-time.”

A large part of the problem was classes consisting of students with learning needs, mental health difficulties and behavioural problems, she said.

The Government needs to continue to invest in a wellbeing approach, says NZEI’s Liam Rutherford.

David Unwin/Stuff

The Government needs to continue to invest in a wellbeing approach, says NZEI’s Liam Rutherford.

“You are trying to balance those dynamics in the classroom. One student triggers-off the other and you get a really violent situation.

“Students come at us with all sorts of things, toys and pencils become weapons. Everything that is not nailed down will be pulled down or thrown.”

A survey of staff at 350 medium primary and intermediate schools found the number of teachers who feel unsafe in the classroom has doubled, from 12 per cent in 2016, to 24 per cent.

Liam Rutherford, president of teaching union NZEI Te Riu Roa, said having one in four primary teachers feel unsafe in the classroom was “completely unacceptable”.

“This shows just how urgent increased investment in specialist learning support is,” he said.

ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that mental health staff will be placed in schools throughout east Christchurch and Hornby this year (Video first published in February 2018).

Ministry of Education spokeswoman Katrina Casey said the Ministry of Health was the lead agency for the funding and delivery of mental health services and parents could seek support directly from their local district health board through their GP.

Her ministry provided a number of specialist services that worked alongside schools and kura to support student health and wellbeing, she said. They worked alongside multiple agencies “to ensure students and their families get the right support”.

Casey said funding was provided for guidance counsellor staffing to all schools with year 9-13 students, while Oranga Tamariki funded social workers and youth workers in schools and the Ministry of Health funded in-school public health nurses to address mental health.

A $50 million dollar response fund will also be allocated to regions to support schools and early learning services to get children and young people back on track after the Covid-19 lockdown.