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Students prepare to start another day at the Louis Nettelhorst Elementary School in Lakeview. 

Violence in school can start at home

by Brooke Bowen and Alison Fox
Oct 21, 2009

Experts say that many children who witness domestic violence at home lack coping mechanisms leading to violence in schools.

October is Domestic Violence Month, highlighting an issue that often results in children with violent streaks and an inability to resolve conflicts, experts say.

“With teenagers, you’re going to have more aggressive behaviors,” said Catherine Malatt, the manager of coordinated school health/crisis intervention with Chicago Public Schools. “They’re getting into fights with their peers, they’re getting into fights with children they may call their friends, because they are traumatized at home.”

Kelly Jordan-Paube, family trauma therapist at Humbolt Park Outreach Program, has seen the effects on children who witness domestic violence. She works with 2-year-olds who are overly aggressive as well as elementary students whose troublesome behavior includes lashing out at peers in the schoolyard. These children act out, she said, due to trauma experienced at home.

“The propensity for violence depends on the child and how long they’ve been exposed to the violence rather than their age,” said Jordan-Paube. “Ongoing exposure makes the odds of displaying symptoms greater.”

Children in violent households learn how to hit without learning how to resolve conflict, she said. If they’re not getting along with someone in school, they don’t have the tools to work it out.

Barbara Shaw, the director of Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, said positive examples from parents are the best medicine. “If children learn that physical and emotional abuse are acceptable family dynamics, ways of getting what you want and asserting control over others,” she said, “they may be more likely to engage in physical violence themselves.”

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study is an ongoing collaboration between the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente. It analyzes the relationship between multiple categories of childhood trauma and their impact on health and behavior later in life. Domestic violence is related to many of the factors that affect childhood development, said Gene Griffin, assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and clinical director of the Illinois Childhood Trauma Coalition.

Children need to be taught alternative ways to respond to negative situations, Griffin said.

“Not just stop the negative, but add in positive strengths, which will make them more resilient for future adverse experiences,” Griffin said. He mentioned the importance of what he called The Four S’s: safety, support, self-regulation and strength.

CPS has been responding to the rising awareness of youth violence by creating more after school programs. It is also training all staff members to look for non-verbal clues that indicate children in distress, Malatt said.

“What is very critical in all of this,” she said, “is if they have a mentor or support system. That is key.”