Heading off violence


25 January 2019

Creative approaches to a recently introduced Respectful Relationships program are already achieving positive results for schools in Victoria and Queensland.

The result of a key recommendation from the 2015 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, the program is an early prevention method aimed at eradicating domestic violence in the next generation of Australian adults.

In Victoria, more than 1,000 schools have elected to participate following a pilot program at eight schools in Victoria and 10 in Queensland.

At Eltham High School in Melbourne, the program is regarded as an extension of a long-term focus on building positive relationships and an additional way to embed
the school’s values in its culture.

Eltham High has approached its Respectful Relationships rollout in a number of ways after surveying staff about the options, says assistant principal Fran Mullins. It started with developing a presentation for students about the power of language.

The school’s Respectful Relationships in Our School Community policy incorporates guidelines for creating a culture of respect, responding to high rates of family violence, recognition and restorative practices, and learning and support.

It carried out a curriculum audit of all year levels, and staff completed ‘four R’ (resilience, rights and respectful relationships) curriculum training through the Department of Education and Training Victoria.

“We’re delivering through a tutorial program across years 10 to 12, an Involve program across years 7 to 9 and through health classes,” says Mullins.

Poster power

As part of Eltham High’s whole school approach, it created a policy for recognising and celebrating the student voice. Students took part in the creation and exhibition of 11 large-format posters produced by 20-student focus groups. The groups were asked to discuss how respect related to each of the school’s values: individuality, respect for diversity, integrity, creativity, the pursuit of excellence, and social and environmental responsibility.

“We distilled that down into key messages we wanted to communicate to our school community,” says Mullins.

Each poster has a photo of students and a quote that arose from the discussions.

Talking about the subject with students from different years and social groups was eye-opening, says year 9 student Lachlan.

“It was interesting to get a different perspective on not only what they think respect means, but also how they would act upon it.”

The conversations continued when the posters were displayed, says Hayley, another year 9 student. “I was surprised by how many people wanted to talk about respect as a topic.”

Targeting communication

At Colac Primary School, 150km west of Melbourne, principal Shelby Papadopoulos says its program has been rolled out after a perceived increase in exposure to domestic violence among its 260 students.

“We were certainly seeing the effects of that in the way students were presenting at school and the challenge that was providing,” she says.

The school’s 10 generalist teachers and 10 specialist and support staff had already been trained in trauma informed practice.

“But we hadn’t changed the way we were educating children on their rights and resilience.”

Adults in the caring professions, police, hospitals and the school community were making decisions on behalf of children without necessarily consulting them, so the school’s implementation team initially targeted language and communication, says Papadopoulos.

“One of the impacts we’ve seen is that students are able to articulate, using very clear language, what their concerns and worries are. That’s leading to a much quicker response to potential mental health issues or issues in the family home that are impacting their ability to learn at school.”

She says that results from student surveys and a rapid decline in the number of student incident reports indicate the children are “more skilled in conflict resolution and appropriate vocabulary to work through what is going on for them”.

The program’s curriculum and resources have been important to its success, says Papadopoulos. She suggests that when other schools implement the program, their teachers be given time to visit and talk to teachers at schools that have already rolled it out. Having an enthusiastic and dedicated implementation team at school level is also crucial.

Spotlight on gender stereotyping

Gender stereotype issues among year 6 students initially prompted Capalaba State College near Brisbane to get involved in the Respectful Relationships program.

Junior campus principal Lachlan Thatcher says that when he found out the program began
with year 1, the school still decided to go ahead with it.

“It’s such an important message for everyone,” he says.

“Our Year 1 teachers worked with the deputy principal at the time to do the training, and develop and review the resources,” he says.

The team also shared with the 25 staff some startling research on 18- to 25-year-olds’ attitudes to male and female roles.

“We were quite horrified by that, and we decided to take a journey among ourselves to call each other out on our own behaviour.”

In short

  • Schools are working on ways to help eliminate domestic violence.
  • The Respectful Relationships program is rolling out in Victorian and Queensland schools.
  • Early results point to improvements in conflict resolution and communication.

Christine Long

This article originally appeared in the Australian Educator, Summer 2018.