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How Domestic Violence in One Home Affects Every Child in a Class

At the beginning of each school day at Morris Elementary School, Gretchen Lewis stands outside her office door as students file in. “The first thing I’m looking for is the face,” says Welch, the school counselor. She is searching for hints of fear, pain or anger.  “Maybe there was a domestic incident at home,” she says. “That’s reality for many of our kids.”   

Researchers estimate that between ten and twenty percent of children are exposed to Domestic Violence (D.V.) each year. Teachers know that while DV occurs outside of school, its repercussions resonate in the classroom. Not only is that child hurt, but also their classmates. It is evident in lower test scores, dropping out before graduation and in lower earnings in adulthood.   

Economists at the University of California found that reporting domestic violence when it occurs can improve the situation “not only for that family, but for all that child’s classmates.” Gretchen Lewis observed that kids who act out at school often come from tough home situations. “Instead of asking for help, they will be disruptive,” she explains.  “They will ask to go the restroom for the fifteenth time. And when they can’t, they will raise their voices. It can lead to the level of throwing a chair – but that is rare.” 

Children who witness domestic violence are more likely to get in trouble at school and have behavioral problems, including being aggressive behavior and bullying classmates. The guidance counselor, Ms. Lewis, understands why school is “where they can feel powerful because they are completely powerless at home.” 

Ms. Lewis works with them in one-on-one or in small groups. That way, they can have at least one relationship where “they feel listened to, and they feel respected and know that someone cares. That can change everything for them.”  She feels that the first ten minutes after a student arrives at school is a critical window. If she can catch them and make them feel heard, “it can completely change their day” – and that of their classmates. Disruptive behavior “takes the teacher’s attention, it interrupts learning and the flow of the day.”   

University of California economists conducted a study for two decades. They looked at siblings from the same family attending the same school, but one sibling had a classmate struggling with DV and the other does not. The study indicated that your classmates, whether they come from a home with DV or not, influence how well you do in school and beyond. The study looked at wages when students reached adulthood.  The study indicated that: ‘exposure to a disruptive peer throughout elementary school leads to a three to four percent reduction in wages at age 24 to 28. It adds up quickly. In a class of twenty-five kids, that’s a three or four percent drop in wages for each person. In a classroom with multiple children from troubled homes, tests scores get lower and lower, and wages drop increases with each additional disruptive child.   

Families struggling with DV need our help so that our children will be better off. The study found that parents reporting DV really helps, and that after reporting, things get better if the violence stops, or an adult makes some positive changes in the child’s life and people get involved. If the child’s home life improves, things will get better at school. Schools become involved after reporting and school counselors work with the child. Ms. Lewis talks to students about finding safe places in their homes. She works on anger management and help kids improve their emotional vocabulary. Teachers observe that the child returns to class relaxed and at peace. That way, the entire class can focus, translating into higher test scores and better graduation rates for all. 

All over the United States, there aren’t enough counselors serving our schools. Counselors, especially in rural areas like ours, often serve several schools and have large caseloads. They may only be at a certain school twice a week. But we know the signs. Teachers can help by reporting disruptive children to the school’s counselor. Our teachers know the signs.   

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