Who teaches children about human relationships? The answer is everyone they have contact with, be they young or old, male or female, loving or cruel. Children learn about relationships through social osmosis. They see the patterns around them and internalize those behaviors as the blueprints for what to expect from their own lives. If it is our sincere goal to reduce the sheer magnitude of family violence in America, we have to begin with the environment we have already entrusted with the responsibility of shaping children’s lives outside the home. We have to start with schools.
At the end of every school day, millions of American children return to violent households. To make life endurable, they integrate that violence into their understanding of reality. They learn that both carrying out violence and suffering it are part of life. Without sufficient models of an alternative, they have no choice but to cope in whatever ways they discover on their own. While some children may in fact have healthy coping mechanisms, too many will withdraw into their pain or act out against others. Whenever one child is wounded, he or she brings that anguish into the classroom, regardless of how conscious of that his classmates and teachers are.
Domestic violence is only beginning to emerge from the cloud of taboo that surrounds it in our culture. Although it is a stubbornly entrenched feature of our society, with one in three women and one in four men experiencing violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, open discussion is rare. From time to time, the topic bursts into headlines with the scandal of a public figure, but all too soon it fades from view. The national discourse moves on.
For children who live in a violent home, however, the horror doesn’t fade. It is a daily reality, with daily costs. Exposure to family violence affects children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and academic development. It hurts their ability to have trust in the world and robs them of the notion that adulthood is a desirable state to reach.
To avoid this trajectory, we need caring adults in the school environment to take the lead on two fronts. First, children already exposed to family violence need to be equipped with the language and encouragement to name and receive support for what’s going on. Second, all children need to hear content from teachers that promotes the self-worth, respect for others, and knowledge of the psychological roots of violent behavior that can prevent them from becoming either abusers or victims.
In the last generation, social-science research has moved toward a consensus that dynamics of power and control lie at the root of family violence. Abusers seek to assert and maintain control and power over the people in their lives at the cost of the well-being, wholeness, and independence of their victims.
To name it in a classroom is to bring it into the light, where children and adults can examine it together in a supportive climate.”
This is a reality that can and should be talked about with children. Doing so in classrooms communicates that this is not something that happens to some imagined community different from our own. Craving power and acting cruelly to hold on to it is something we are all capable of. To name it in a classroom is to bring it into the light, where children and adults can examine it together in a supportive climate.
Models for this work do exist, and they should be expanded. In New York City, one standout is the Healthy Relationships Academy, a peer-led series of workshops that teaches students about the roots of abuse and ways to prevent it, and connects them to social services should they disclose that violence is already a feature of their lives.
Yet this program serves only schools that acknowledge their need and are ready to be proactive in addressing the problem. The sad reality is that every school has pupils in its care who are impacted by domestic violence. To move toward a day when preventive, health-augmenting discourse reaches all our children, we need policy change. We need content that addresses how power and control affect human relationships and behaviors as standard curricula throughout a child’s journey in school. In the words of Elizabeth Falcone, the director of the Healthy Relationship Academy: “We teach everything in school and think that people will just figure out how to be in a relationship.” To stem the tide of family violence, we need to close that gap. It’s high time to openly teach our children the art of healthy relationships.
A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2015 edition of Education Week as Necessary Lessons Schools’ Critical Role in Reducing Family Violence