A stable place in a time of turmoil

Schools can be the only stable and predictable environment in the lives of children affected by the tragedy of fatal domestic violence – but they need resourcing

Dr John Frederick, University of Melbourne

Dr John Frederick

Published 26 November 2023

“I had some lovely teachers. And I think school actually was a place where I could forget about everything else.”

Following the tragedy of domestic homicide, with mothers the predominant victims, the children left behind face complex losses.

As well as parental loss, the children frequently lose their home, their school, their friends and may move to a new caregiver’s home.

Schools can give support for children who might not be able to access these services. Picture: Thu Huong Nguyen (Abigail)

When this happens, schools can help provide much-needed support through stability, continuity and trusted people children can rely on. In this extremely challenging life situation, children’s capacity to learn and their connections with other children and adults can be deeply affected.

While it may seem like a big ask for teachers to know exactly how to support these children, they already provide key supportive qualities.

Teachers and connection

What many children affected by trauma have emphasised is how important teachers are as caring adults, showing awareness of them and reaching out with a willingness to connect.

Schools can supply everyday support, as well as facilitate additional help from community agencies and professionals, for children who might not otherwise be able to access these services.

Studies of children affected by fatal domestic violence find multiple mental and physical health, behavioural and learning challenges that will affect them at school.

Traumatic events, including domestic homicides, are a time when teachers can be of considerable support to children, through their presence, monitoring and connecting children with further assistance.

In turn, school support staff, like social workers and psychologists, may provide specific interventions, and can support teachers in managing issues that may arise in daily school life.

Teachers can help monitor and regulate constructive interactions with other children. Picture: Thu Huong Nguyen (Abigail)

For teachers dealing with this kind of trauma in the classroom, providing this help can be demanding, both practically and emotionally.

Schools can help support their teachers through professional development (like recognising and responding to the effects of trauma) as well as by ongoing communication and collaboration with mental health professionals.

The use of reflective practice approaches, where dedicated time is taken to look back, can also help teachers in dealing with this complex and taxing work.

School as a safe space

To understand the role of schools in the aftermath of parental death as a result of fatal domestic violence, our team is undertaking a study together with colleagues at the University of Edinburgh.

We have conducted interviews in Australia, the UK and Ireland with young people and adults with lived experience, along with care givers and professionals.

When looking at school-based support, we identified some key themes from the interviews.

First of all, schools can indeed provide safety, stability and consistency. They do this by helping to develop a supportive environment with trusted adults maintaining a stable, secure connection with a child despite all their difficulties.

There remain concerns over the availability of school counselling and access to specialised support. Picture: Thu Huong Nguyen (Abigail)

Teachers can also help monitor and regulate constructive interactions with other children.

One social worker who worked with a family of children whose mother was killed said: “School has been the one thing that has remained safe, stable and secure.”

Like the interviewee who was quoted at the beginning of this article, several participants who had lost a parent due to domestic homicide shared their experiences of supportive relationships with teachers at their schools.

“… I had a really great coordinator who really understood … She was patient … kind of really went out of her way to make sure that … I was being supported … she would really look out for me.”

These kinds of supportive relationships were vital for children contending with multiple losses and uncertainties related to their family, their living arrangements and their social life. When everything else is upended – school can be that safe haven.

Limitations of school support

There were, however, some contrasting experiences.

Several participants described limitations in the support they received – particularly counselling support at school:

“School did not offer or … did not mention counselling”, and another commenting, “It [counselling] was never offered because it wasn’t really available.”

When everything else is upended – school can be a safe haven. Picture: Thu Huong Nguyen (Abigail)

These limitations were also an area of concern for professionals. They encountered delays and inconsistent availability of support options:

“There was sort of the initial response … you know, people coming out to the school to try and help with the kids, and sort of addressing how they were feeling. But then it did take a long time … to click into place after that. It was a long process … Just the amount of time to get the different supports in place.”

“I think there’s very little tailored expert support that focuses around that specifically. You know, so it’s the luck of the draw as to what might be available for you locally.”

Resourcing schools

While schools can be a supportive and stable environment for children following fatal domestic violence (and other experiences of trauma or grief), and many teachers are helpful and supportive, there remain concerns over the availability of school counselling, as well as difficulties in accessing specialised support.

Schools should be recognised as central supportive environments for children bereaved by domestic homicide and similar experiences, then resourced appropriately to provide ongoing assistance.

Teachers have a wide range of responsibilities and increasingly complex demands to effectively educate and support students with diverse emotional and learning needs.

Their role in providing daily connection and support for children in the aftermath of traumatic events is essential and should be trauma-informed, but it cannot be expected to extend to the specific mental health support provided by school counsellors, social workers or psychologists.

Schools should be recognised as supportive environments for children bereaved by domestic homicide. Picture: Thu Huong Nguyen (Abigail)

In turn, school support staff should have access to trauma and grief specialists with expertise in areas like domestic homicide and appropriate, evidence-based therapies. Schools do not need to house these specialists, but every school should have access to them.

Training teachers in general trauma-informed practice, having school support staff who are knowledgeable in child trauma, and specialists available to provide consultation, supervision and support will go a long way in addressing the limitations in accessing skilled and experienced practitioners.

When done well, all schools can be safe havens, but only if they are resourced properly to provide consistent and reliable support for children.

This article is part of a series on the impact of domestic homicide on children and young people. While there are usually one or two authors mentioned, the whole research team and several people with lived experience have contributed. The illustrations have been hand drawn by Thu Huong Nguyen (Abigail). The research report contains further information.

Are you looking for support? In Australia, good places to start are Kids Helpline, Life Line, Beyond Blue and 1800 Respect. These are all free of charge. You can also contact your doctor (GP) to discuss a subsidised Mental Health Treatment Plan, and you may be able to access counselling through your employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or your TAFE/university’s counselling services. You may also be eligible for support, counselling or financial assistance through your state or territory Victims of Crime service.

Are you keen to connect with peers? If you have lost a parent due to fatal family violence, we can connect you with peers with lived experience. Please send an email.

Banner: Thu Huong Nguyen (Abigail)

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