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Help wanted to address ‘hitting and biting’ in B.C. kindergarten classrooms

Teacher pleads for more educational assistants to give classrooms the support they need

Scratching, hitting and biting are common occurrences in Greater Victoria classrooms, according to Amy Read, a kindergarten teacher at Quadra Elementary School.

Dealing with violence in classrooms can be stressful and challenging, where kids cry, pull their hair and throw scissors. It is an unmanageable situation, said Read.

“It feels like the system is crumbling around us. And no one really cares,” she said.

Read had approached the Greater Victoria School District about this in a presentation to the board on April 4. Not a lot has changed, according to Read.

It was not Read’s initial vision when she started to teach. Still, since she began teaching at Quadra Elementary, her determination to try to fix the problem of violence in classrooms has strengthened.

“I feel the disparity so strongly that it just makes me frustrated that some kids are not getting their educational needs met or their mental health needs met.”

A lot of these teachers who have to deal with violence in their kindergarten classes are ready to look for work in other industries, Read said.

It will also make the current education assistant shortage and teacher shortage a much bigger problem than it already is, she said.

“People only care about the education system when they have kids. And so teachers are stretched so thin and very ready to leave.”

This is not a problem that is exclusive to Quadra Elementary. It is happening across B.C., said Read.

When describing how her teaching day unfolds, the description is not one of tranquillity and calm. Instead, it sounds closer to the duties a police officer might have to carry out.

“There are times where I am blocking students from attacking each other, putting my body in between them, so then I might get hurt or pushed down.”

“A lot of our kids are ripping down our bulletin boards in our hallways, throwing chairs, throwing scissors, throwing books.”

When first dealing with the issue of safety in her classroom, Read said to her students, “You are safe. You’re OK.”

But the reality is that they are not safe and not OK, she said. “I started to tell them that the teachers are keeping you safe, but that is not entirely possible.”

As many of us know, it is in these early fragile years when a child’s life will almost be predetermined by what happens to them during this time, she said. Witness violence or be subjected to violence. The child has a much higher chance of becoming violent as they grow older.

“When I drive down Pandora Avenue, all I think about are the kids in our school because I know it starts now. This is when we can reach the families. This is when we can give them the support they need.”

If these children do not have their needs met while at school, they have less of a chance of making it in the adult world, she said.

The solution would be for more education assistants to be available at the start of the school year, as it is the shortage of these essential classroom helpers that can make all the difference.

“I had children bolting from the property and attacking each other. And every time I said it was unsafe, the answer was, we don’t have any other adults,” Read said.

There are hardly any education assistants available, Read said, and a school cannot just decide not to open that day because there is insufficient staff.

The levels of violence that can be seen at kindergarten can be the most extreme, Read said, as these young children don’t have the skills or capacity to regulate their emotions.

Read said that she loves her students and that walking away from them is not an option, so raising awareness about what happens in kindergarten classes is crucial.

The Greater Victoria School District website does outline what happens when a child is being violent or experiencing violence. It states that a student violence threat risk assessment needs to be initiated.

At the April 4 meeting, Superintendent Deb Whitten said principals and vice-principals reach out to parents to discuss what needs students entering the school systems might have.

“All of this is meant to create a supportive system from the beginning,” said Whitten.

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“We suggest support is put in early, as classes form and as teachers get to know their students. Proactive and preventive is the aim.”

Read said that this is not a parenting problem, as when she approaches a parent about what is happening in her classroom, the parent often wants to try and help fix the situation.

“Parents are also so overwhelmed that we’ve reached a point where everyone struggles in all realms of their life.”

“The parents are sad. And they’re sorry, like I’ve had so many parents say, ‘I’m so sorry.’”

It is not their fault, she said.

“It is because the education system is not supporting their child. And it breaks my heart.”