ISEC 2005

Inclusive and Supportive Education Congress
International Special Education Conference
Inclusion: Celebrating Diversity?

1st - 4th August 2005. Glasgow, Scotland

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The impact of domestic violence on students:
Implications for inclusionary practices

 

Prof. Lucia C.A. Williams
Universidade Federal de São Carlos, São Carlos, Brazil
williams@power.ufscar.br

Lucia C.A.Williams, Daniela A. Maldonado &   Patricia G. Brancalhone
Universidade Federal de São Carlos
LAPREV
Brazil

                                                                                 

        This paper intends to describe some research projects that address the relationship between family violence and academic performance, as well as behaviour difficulties in school. The work to be described was done at LAPREV (Laboratory of Violence Analysis and Prevention), affiliated to the Graduate Program in Special Education at the Universidade Federal de São Carlos (Federal University of São Carlos), Brazil.

        The topic of violence is intrinsically connected to Special Education, as people with disabilities (in particular women and children) have higher risks of being victimised (Williams, 2003, National Clearing House on Family Violence, 2000). In addition, in some specific circumstances, the person with a disability may also have a higher risk of offending, as in the case of abuse and neglect by parents with mental retardation. (Williams, 2003, Feldman, 1997). The vulnerability to maltreatment of children with disabilities or risk of violence of persons with global developmental delay will not be the present paper’s focus (for   this topic, see for example, Prevention Publications, 2003, Sobsey, Well, Lucardie & Mansell, 1995).

       Another way to study the interconnection between violence and Special Education is to study the impact of domestic violence on school children, and this will be the focus of the present work.

Aggression in school children and family violence

        Domestic violence has dramatic consequences for the entire community. Although the term usually involves violence between two cohabiting adults, this terminology may also include child abuse, and for this reason some researchers prefer the term partner violence (Jasinsky & Williams, 1998) or family violence (Straus, 1998). (The terms marital violence or conjugal violence are inadequate as they both imply an unnecessary legality of the two cohabiting adults). As the phenomenon of partner violence is primarily directed to the female component of the adult dyad, the expression violence against women is also commonly used).

        Although aggression has been a common symptom described in children exposed to partner violence (Wolak & Finkelhor, 1998), many of the studies reporting such findings came from clinical observations, and not from systematic research. With this literature gap in mind, Daniela Maldonado (2003) attempted to find out in her Master's thesis if children's aggressive behaviours in school could be an indicator of partner violence. The literature point-outs behavioural differences of exposure to violence according to gender, (Holden, Geffner & Jouriles, 1998; Fantuzzo & Lindquist, 1989). Girls tend to internalize their problems and boys to externalize them (as in the case of aggression), thus Maldonado (2003) chose to study boys.

        The study compared 14 aggressive boys (Group A) with   14 of their non-aggressive peers (Group B), from the same classroom (grades 1 and 2), of   three public schools in a mid-size city of South-western Brazil. To make the decision as to which group the boys belonged, teachers were asked to complete a Brazilian instrument: the Teacher'sPerception of Children's Aggressive Behaviour in School Scale (Lisboa & Koller, 2001). Thus, boys who scored higher in the Scale took part of Group A and the boys who had the lowest scores took part of Group B.

        Afterwards, Maldonado interviewed all 28 mothers in their home-settings and the mothers completed a Portuguese version of the Revised Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS-2, Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy & Sugarman, 1996), a world-wide utilised scale to measure family violence.

What did both group of children's family have in common?

        The results indicated that children from both groups had the same family income and age, and only differed in aggression levels, which was expected for comparison reasons. 78% of the children had a family income within the UN definition of poverty line (UNDP, 1997). Interestingly, parental consequences to inadequate children behaviours were found to be similar in both groups. 21.4% of mothers from both groups reported using an object (such as a belt) to punish their children, and did not identify this as maltreatment. Although Brazilian laws do not permit corporal punishment, this is a fairly used cultural practice in the country, particularly with impoverished families.

What was different about both groups?

         Health problems were found in both groups, such as alcohol, drug abuse and depression, but they were more expressive on Group A (37.7% of mothers and 42. 8% o fathers from Group A reported having health problems whereas for Group B the results were 21.4% of mothers and 28.5% of the fathers). As a matter of fact, two of the Group A mother's were found to be under the influence of alcohol during the researcher's home visit. It is a well know fact that depression and alcohol abuse are considered serious risk events to child development (see for example Webster-Stratton, 1997).

       Interestingly, when the CTS-2 results were analysed, both Groups presented equivalent frequency of violence (12 families in Group A, 11 in Group B). Why would this be? Here are some hypotheses: the participating families had a number of violence risk factors, such as extreme poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, low educational status and limited social support from the community. However, it is important to notice that the CTS-2 encompasses a wide definition of violence. One may even argue that it is possible that most families would score in some mild form of psychological violence.

        To assess the level or intensity of violence for both Groups, a further type of analysis was done. The results showed that severe forms of physical violence, psychological violence and sexual violence were significantly higher for Group A. In other words, all families acknowledged a considerate amount of violence exposure, however boys who presented aggressive behaviours in school, when compared to their non-aggressive peers, had families who experienced violence with severe intensity, as opposed to their counterparts.

        Maldonado' study showed that there is, in general, a higher incidence of severity in exposure of domestic violence for boys who present aggressive behaviours in school, when compared to non-aggressive boys.

        Educators sometimes interpret aggressive behaviour by school children as "a cry from help on the part of the child". The implications of the results from Maldonado (2003), is that student aggression may signalise that an entire family system is in need of support. In addition, when any particular family faces intense levels of violence the whole community is at stake.

Exposure to domestic violence and academic performance

In a study examining battered women’s concerns about their children, Hilton (1992) found that 55% of the women reported that their children had witnessed the physical and psychological aggression suffered by them. Other researchers verified that in 85% of domestic assault cases, children directly watched their mother’s aggression (Brookoff, O’Brien, Cook, Thompson & Williams,   1997).

The child does not need to observe the aggression in order to be affected by it (Jouriles, McDonald, Norwood, & Ezell, 2001). According to Holden (1998), a child who watched their parents assault each other, overheard an incident of aggression, saw its result (bruises), or that experienced its aftermath when interacting with his or her parents, is a child exposed to violence.    

Although violent families constitute a serious risk factor for good developmental outcomes in children (Jaffe, Wolfe & Wilson, 1990), research results do not imply that all children exposed to partner violence will experience problems, as many are capable of facing these stressful events adequately (Wolak & Finkelhor, 1998). In fact, about 37% of the children exposed to violence showed outcomes similar or better than the non-exposed child (Kitzmann et al., 2003). One cannot forget the existence of protective mechanisms that modify, improve or alter the person’s response to some environmental threat (Rutter, 1987).

            Assessment of school performance in students exposed to partner violence is vital, since being a good student is a strong protective mechanism (Rae-Grant, Thomas, Offord & Boyle, 1989).

            The second study to be described is based in Brancalhone's M.A. thesis (Brancalhone, 2003, Brancalhone, Fogo & Williams, 2004). Brancalhone’s (2003) literature review found few investigations regarding the intellectual or academic performance of children exposed to marital violence. In addition, curiously, almost all of the studies that assessed the academic performance of children exposed to partner violence were conducted by   professionals outside the psycho-educational area, such as physicians and nurses.

                Thus, Brancalhone (2003) attempted to investigate if children who were exposed to partner aggression had their academic performance hindered, when compared to children who were not exposed to partner violence.

The study involved a total of 30 children. The exposed group (A) consisted of 15 children, age 7 to 11 of both sexes, who were attending Elementary School. Each participant’s mother had reported partner violence in the Women’s Police Station, a particular Police Station in operation in Brazil, since 1985, ran mostly by female officers to handle complaints by female victims or children (Williams, 2001). In order to be selected as participants, children needed to have a father figure at home (biological or not). Children who were found to be direct victims of violence were excluded from the recruitment procedure, as the study was interested in indirect exposure, as in the case of witnessing the mother being hit by father.

The non-exposed group (B) included 15 children matched with children in Group on variables, such as, classroom, sex, age, economic level and family configuration (presence of the father).

The researcher attended the São Carlos Women’s Police Station for the study’s duration and, individually, approached women who had pressed aggression charges. Another strategy employed was the examination of Police records, and subsequent request for permission and Consent signature, when women attended their court hearing.

Group B children (“non-exposed”) were, randomly, chosen in the same classroom as their pairs, and once criteria were met, mothers signed Informed Consent.   No Group B child had to be excluded for being exposed to violence, and all Group B mothers contacted agreed to participate. Teacher participation was determined by children participation, and teachers also gave written consent. The researcher made every effort to keep the anonymity of the child exposed to violence by not informing teachers of the identity of the child exposed to partner violence. The school principal also consented to conducting research in the particular school. Group B mothers were contacted by telephone, and interviewed by the researcher in the school or home.

 

What was the data collection procedure?

Mother's in both groups answered a Questionnaire to obtain information about the occurrence of violence, which was particularly relevant for Group B mothers, as they could be experiencing violence n spite of charges being absent.

Group A mothers answered a summarized version of the Revised Conflict TacticsScale (CTS-2, Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy & Sugarman, 1996), translated and adapted by the Brazilian Bureau of Statistics (IBGE, 1999), to characterize the diverse modalities of

violence (physical, psychological and sexual) that occurred in that family.

Teachers provided the two last report cards from the participating children (Math and Portuguese grades), and answered a translated version by the authors of the Academic Performance Rating Scale - APRS (DuPaul, Rapport & Perriello, 1991), that discriminates children with or without academic problems in the classroom.

Additionally, Brancalhone (2003), individually, assessed each child in the Teste do Desempenho Escolar - TDE (School Performance Test), a psychometric instrument developed by Stein (1994), in Brazil, that offers an objective evaluation of basic school performance skills, indicating which areas of school learning are at or below grade level.

To asses academic performance, the study employed both standardized measures (TDE), and non-standardized ones (report card). APRS data analysis involved particular care, as the instrument is not validated in Brazil. Thus, only the overall results were used and not the classification based in North-American norms.

What results were obtained?

The following results trace a profile of families for groups A (exposed children) and B (non-exposed children). The children attended the following grades, equally distributed in groups A and B:   eight children attended grade 1, two attended grade 2, ten attended grade 3 and ten attended grade 4. There was a concentration of children in grades 3 and 4. No child indicated grade retention, as their ages adequately matched their respective grades. In the great majority of cases, mothers were married, either in Group A as in Group B (percentages of married mothers was 60% and 73%, respectively). In cases where mothers had indicated to have separated, the separation had occurred for less than six months, and parents interacted with their children (either by living in the same house, or visiting on a daily or weekly basis).  

Average per capita monthly income was of US$ 44.66 for Group A and US$ 49.00 for Group B. Comparison of income for the two groups done with Student’s t test resulted in no significant differences (gl=28; p=.59), which was again an expected result.

According to Group A mothers’ interview reports, 14% of them were experiencing exclusively physical violence from partner and 86% were victims of physical and psychological violence. Physical violence included beatings in the head (47% of the cases), fractures (14% of the cases) and attempts to strangle (27%); while psychological violence was characterized by insults and threats (i.e.: to give 100 knife stabs). Reports indicated that 93% of Group A children had witnessed the domestic violence towards mothers (only one child included in this group did not witness the aggression episodes). In 80% of cases, the batterer was the biological father of the exposed child. In 20% of cases, mother’s current partner, but not the child’s father, committed the aggression.

The greatest concentration of cases (47%) reported experiencing partner violence for more than 1 year or more than 3 year. The percentage of mothers who had been victims of violence for more than 10 years was considerable (40% of cases).

Results of the APRS, indicated that Group A average punctuation was 52.9 points, and Group B’s was 67.8 points, resulting in a difference of 14.9 points. Results of the t- test indicated a significant difference between the groups in relation to APRS results (gl=28; p=0.03).   Group B performed 28% better than Group A.

School report cards results based on the Chi Square test indicated that there was not a significant difference between Portuguese grades for the two groups. The same results were observed for Math as can be seem in Table 1.

In relation to school difficulties reported by mothers, both groups’ mothers did not report difficulties, in the majority of cases, for their children. For Group A, 53% of the mothers stated that their children presented some type of school difficulty, while only

40% of Group B mothers indicated school problems. According to independence tests results, no evidence of significant differences between the groups was noticed in relation to overall school grades. The majority of Group B mothers (73%) noted that the children had good or excellent grades, while in Group A, few mothers described their children as having excellent grades ( 47% were Satisfactory and 30% Inferior). These results can seem in the Table 2.

Table 1. Statistic test to Portuguese and Math grades by group.

Test

gl

Test value

p

Portuguese

c 2

2

2.786

0.248

Math

c 2

2

2.433

0.296

TDE results indicated no difference between Groups (Spelling, Arithmetic, Reading and Total Score) for the two groups (gl=28; p=.22). Results of the TDE subtests were also compared, individually, with the multivariate T2 Hotteling test. Results indicated no significant differences between the two groups for any subtests (p=.46; gl=3 and 26; F=.89).  

Table 2. Statistic test about the school difficulties and overall school grades according mother’s evaluation.

Test

gl

Test value

p

School difficulties

c 2

6

7.393

0.286

Overall grades

c 2

5

3.267

0.659

Correlation tests were conducted between the APRS and the TDE, to assess the degree by which the two instruments were measuring the same factors. Analysis of the association between the APRS and TDE results was made using the coefficient of linear correlation and later adjustment of the regression’s straight line. Results indicated a correlation coefficient superior to 0.6 (with exception of the TDE subtest for Arithmetic), indicating an average to strong correlation. Thus, it can be concluded that a child with a low TDE score will likely present a low score on the APRS, suggesting a relation between these two measures.

What are the study's conclusions?

Brancalhone (2003) collected   data from three different sources:   information supplied by mothers (children’s difficulties in the school and grades), teachers (APRS, report cards) and the researcher (TDE). Significant differences between the groups were found only in the results gathered by the teachers (APRS), indicating thus, that the academic performance of the children exposed to partner violence was found to be hindered when compared to the not exposed children, according to teacher’s opinions.   

The findings that the TDE and APRS are correlated add complexity to the discussion of the discrepancy of teacher results (worse performance for the group exposed to violence), in relation to the researcher results (same performance for both groups).

The researcher was careful enough not to inform the teachers about which of the two students was the child who had been exposed to violence. However, it may have been the case that teachers had previous knowledge about this fact, as it is not uncommon for them to obtain such information either by reports by the children, mothers or even by the community.

Teachers are generally considered good evaluators (although with some biases) in terms of indicating academic problems in their students (Massola & Silvares, 1997). The question which follows is: what impact does being informed of the study’s goals and knowing the family history of the students influences the teachers and alters the APRS results by attributing an inferior performance to the Group A children?

In terms of the TDE data, the differences found between the groups were not significant and did not confirm the study’s hypotheses. The TDE offered, apparently, a more accurate and objective measure concerning the student’s performance, as it involved activities that were measured against criterion. In addition, a convincing argument, is the fact that the TDE is an instrument developed in Brazil, while the APRS is a North-American rating scale specifically translated for this study.

                 In short, there are two ways of interpreting the conflicting results of the present study:   a) to accept that no academic differences were found between the group of children exposed and the non-exposed children with basis on data supplied by mothers, the school’s report cards and by the researcher’s assessment, or b) to accept that there are differences in the two groups, confirming the initial hypothesis, on basis of teachers’ data only, and discarding the mothers’ data and the researcher’s. It seems more parsimonious to accept the first position and present speculations to this preference.  

In situations involving violent behavior it is important to consider the resiliency phenomenon, characterized by “good outcomes in spite of serious threats to adaptation or development” (Masten, 2001, p. 228). Resilient children present good developmental outcomes in a context of risk or adversity and, thus, the resiliency construct may help to clarify present results that children exposed to violence may have similar academic performance to their non-exposed to violence pairs, as their adaptation was mediated by protective factors (Graham-Bermann, 1998; Masten et al., 1988; Wolak & Finkelhor, 1998; Wolfe et al., 2003). This implies that there is still much to be learned in terms of how children are resilient and the role of protective factors in adverse life events (Kolbo et al., 1996).

Similarly, there is ample literature (Weinstein, 2002), warning us about the risk of teachers' self-fulfilling prophecy, and the harms of adopting low expectations from students. Negative expectations create and perpetuate unequal opportunities for learning (Weinstein, 2002).

In summary, Brancalhone (2003) did not find differences in the academic performance of children exposed to violence, when compared to their peers from non-violent families. This lack of difference was observed in mother’s reports, report cards and TDE results gathered by the first author. Brancalhone (2003) did find, however, differences between the two groups of children when assessed by teachers in the APRS scale, and it is hypothesized that such evaluation may have been influenced by previous knowledge regarding the child’s family history.

The fact that children exposed to partner violence did not have worse academic performance than their non-exposed to violence peer does not mean that the former do not have non-academic problems, such as depression, low self-esteem, fear and aggressiveness, as extensively shown in the literature (Holden, 1998; 1990; Kitzmann et al., 2003; Wolfe et al., 2003).

Brancalhone (2003), showed that 93% of Group A children had witnessed the domestic violence incidents towards mothers, confirming research findings that indicate that children, frequently, observe aggressive episodes (Brookoff et al., 1997; Flitcraft, 1997; Hilton, 1992). Some children were exposed to partner violence for their entire lives (only 3 children were older than 11 years of age), what is very worrisome.

The difficulties in conducting research in the area of children exposed to partner violence, given the complexity of the issues involved (Fantuzzo & Lindquist, 1989; Kitzmann et al., 2003; Wolak & Finkelhor, 1998; Wolfe et al., 2003), certainly allow for a cautionary attitude in the interpretation of the present results. The discrepant results and measurement difficulties suggest that one should continue to investigate the present research question.

In fact, in the current state of the literature it is misleading to link any impact on learning with violence exposure (Wolfe et al., 2003), in part because this question have been studied less extensively. Wolfe et al. (2003), did a recent meta-analysis of the effects of children's exposure to domestic violence. The authors' initial goal was to include educational and cognitive outcomes in their meta-analysis, but there were not enough studies to facilitate this inclusion. Nevertheless, in another meta-analytic review by Kitzmann et al. (2003 ), the effect sizes for academic problems were of similar magnitude as those found for internalizing and externalizing problems.

Although more rigor was attempted in the present study, there is a need for further studies that strive for methodological improvement, such as the use of larger samples than the present one.

In spite of the limitations and difficulties in subject selection, this is a pioneering study in an area where there has been little research and researchers have limited their evaluation to children residing in women’s shelters.   The fact that children used in this study were not living in shelters adds to the study’s importance, and opens new research possibilities.

As a final cautionary note, educators should never underestimate the academic achievement of children exposed to partner violence.

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