What every classroom educator needs to know about family and domestic violence

What every classroom educator needs to know about family and domestic violence

by Dr Lyra L’Estrange, A/Prof Judith Howard, Dr Meegan Brown

Young children readily bring their stories to early childhood centres and schools. Their stories are usually interesting and sometimes funny and entertaining.  However, some stories are heartbreaking and reveal the harm suffered by children who experience family and domestic violence, either directly, or by their being present when it happens. This heartbreak is heightened by the knowledge that one in four Australian women are victims of family and domestic violence.

Why do educators need to know about family and domestic violence?

Rising levels of anxiety in families has unfortunately led to increased levels of harm.

The COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with the onset or increase in frequency and severity of intimate partner and family violence (Boxall, et al., 2020). Social restrictions, lockdowns, and school closures left victims isolated with their abusers and separated from vital social services such as courts, therapy, and crisis aid.

Ongoing uncertainty and the exacerbation of these effects through economic challenges, mental health concerns and recent natural disasters has heightened the risk of adverse experiences and outcomes for children and young people living in unsafe home environments (Teo & Griffiths, 2020).

It is now more vital than ever for educators to be aware, and to know how to recognise and respond to trauma resulting from violence in the home.

Children can spend much of their waking hours at an early childhood setting or school, and for some, these places become their safe havens. When they feel safe in these places, children can often trust their teachers with their stories. However, sometimes these stories have words, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes a call for help can be disguised by a child’s behaviour.

What to look out for

Children living with domestic and family violence can display a range of emotional, relational and behavioural concerns. These can include aggression, acting out, and bullying behaviours, including attempts to intimidate or control other students or educators. Some children may withdraw socially, struggle to concentrate, or show signs of constant tiredness, depression, or anxiety. Some children may even exhibit symptoms of psychological withdrawal or dissociation or may regress in their behaviour by acting developmentally younger, (e.g. bed wetting, increased crying, tantrums, etc).

Students living in unsafe homes may spend extended hours at school or friends’ homes, avoiding returning to their homes. They may have physical injuries or exhibit somatic symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches. In some cases, they may hold stereotyped beliefs, that are expressed through harmful sexist or gendered comments. Other signs for educators to look out for include low or erratic attendance, bullying (both as victim and perpetrator), difficulty forming relationships with peers, and learning difficulties (Campo, 2015).

The behaviours of older children might become more risky or rebellious and they may themselves, start demonstrating violence towards family members (Meyer et al., 2021).

In short, extreme fluctuations in mood and unpredictable or exaggerated reactions or behaviours can be warning signs that something is wrong. Sometimes anti-social behaviour is the only way children know how to tell their story or ask for help.

How can educators help?

Research has shown that just one warm, trusted, and safe adult in a child’s life is critical to building resilience and healing from trauma (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004). When educators recognise and respond effectively in trauma-informed ways, they play a vital role in protecting children and young people from harm, and helping to address the impacts of any harm on their education and their lives.

Three things educators can do:

  1. Learn more about domestic and family violence and ways to recognise and respond to the symptoms of trauma
  2. Be alert to changes in learning, emotions or behaviour and be willing to listen
  3. Know the resources available and where to refer children and families for professional help

Although this article focuses on children, of course adolescent students can also be victims of family and domestic violence – so all educators and all education settings could benefit by becoming trauma-informed.

We should never underestimate the impact of domestic and family violence on children.

Together, we can listen. We can change the stories.


Learn more at the upcoming Trauma Aware Schooling Conference in Brisbane, 10-11th September 2022. Or participate in one of our Trauma-Informed professional development and learning opportunities.


Boxall, H., Morgan, A. & Brown, R. (2020). The prevalence of domestic violence among women during the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistical Bulletin no. 28. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. https://www.aic.gov.au/publications/sb/sb28

Campo, M. (2015). Children’s exposure to domestic and family violence. Key issues and responses. Child family Community Australia. Australian Institute of Family Studies. https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/childrens-exposure-domestic-and-family-violence

Meyer, S., Reeves, E.,& Fitz-Gibbon, K. (2021). The intergenerational transmission of family violence: Mothers’ perceptions of children’s experiences and use of violence in the home. Child & Family Social Work, 26, 476-484. https://doi.org/10.1111/cfs.12830

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2004). Young children develop in an environment of relationships. Working Paper No. 1. http://www.developingchild.net

Teo, S., & Griffiths, G. (2020). Child protection in the time of COVID‐19. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 56(6), 838-840.

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