Winter 2020

Violence in schools: What can we learn from critical incidents?

Aggressive and oppositional behaviours have garnered a lot of attention recently in Canadian schools. This has been highlighted in recent reports from teachers indicating an increase in violent behaviour in classes (ETFO, 2017). A recent report from the University of Ottawa documented that, of more than 1,600 teachers who responded to a study, 54 per cent had experienced physical violence such as punching, kicking or biting, in the previous year (Santor, Bruckert, & McBride, 2019).The authors note that this suggests an almost seven-fold increase in the experience of violence against educators in the past 12 years.

Parallel to these reports, our research team is finding that many of the French and English language school principals who are participating in our national studies of school leadership and inclusion of students with special education needs are reporting that they are dealing with violent incidents in their schools. Violent incidents may affect a principal whether they are targeted in the incident, intervening to protect the safety of staff and students, responding with disciplinary action, or working to rebuild the class and school climate after a violent incident has occurred. Clearly, a “hot topic” in Canadian education is the issue of violence in schools.

What we know about violence in schools

In addition to the University of Ottawa study cited above, there have been numerous other recent studies exploring violence in schools. In the fall, 2019 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported on a national poll of 4,000 Canadian youth that painted a highly troubling picture of violence in Canadian schools (CBC, 2019). Recent reports from the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO, 2017) have documented teachers’ perceptions of violent incidents in their classes. The ETFO report indicates that 79% of ETFO members report that the number of violent incidents has increased, 75% say that the severity of these incidents has increased, and more than one out of every three teachers (36%) have participated in a class evacuation due to a violent incident.

All of these reports, and others, indicate a troubling overview of violence in Canadian schools.

Violent incidents from the perspectives of principals

Over the past five years, our research team has conducted multiple studies examining the experiences of more than 300 Canadian principals in supporting students with special education needs in inclusive schools (e.g., Sider, Maich, & Morvan, 2017). Here we present three examples of the types of violent incidents that principals discuss specific to students with special education needs.

First, our studies indicate that school principals are seeing violent behaviour as early as the first days and years of schooling. One principal provides an example of the type of behaviour that is seen at very early ages:

This young man, he came to us in kindergarten and he was very violent…hitting, slapping, pinching, drawing blood, that kind of thing within days of being there. So we put in special support and then, the kids were still safe, but he would continue on, he just would not stop.

Second, staff are calling upon principals for additional assistance in supporting safe and inclusive classrooms before and following a violent incident. A principal describes responding to a teacher’s need for help:

So I went up to the classroom, and I walked in, and he (student with problematic behaviour) was in the classroom, and essentially, he was trashing the classroom. He ripped things off the wall; he had dumped things. It was quite a mess. And I remember walking in and just being shocked.

Finally, school teams are not always able to predict the behaviour of a student with special needs despite working together over time towards inclusion. One principal noted:

We have had one student in particular with whom we experienced a lot of problem behaviours. This child did put us in a very precarious situation when he grabbed a teacher by the hair, he was physically large as well, and put her down to the floor and kept her there while another teacher was trying to pry his hands from her hair. At that instance, the lesson for me was that this child, as many meetings we had had, and as many situations that we had for problem solving and offering support, that ultimately the issue for this child was a desperate need for medical intervention.

Although these are only three examples having emerged from our studies, they are vignettes representing a concerning snapshot of the types of challenging behaviours to which principals are responding.  

What can we learn from critical incidents?

In our studies, a critical incident is framed as a positive or a negative experience that has significantly influenced a principal’s leadership (Yamamoto et al., 2014). Their reflections on this experience (Dewey, 1933) helps us to better understand the ways in which principals support students with special education needs. So what can principals learn and do in the midst of this worrying trend of increasing violence in schools?

First, it is important to remember that behaviour is a form of communication. These types of critical incidents can help us better understand the students we work with. The ways in which school principals respond to student behaviours, and build healthy school climates that mitigate against violent incidents, will send a clear message to our students, staff, and family members of what we value in schools and in the broader society.

Second, we can learn from these incidents. Critical incidents provide opportunities to consider how we respond and how we might be proactive to alleviate potential similar events from occurring in the future. Case studies can certainly help in this learning process. We have developed a number of case studies involving critical incidents which are available in English and French. In partnership with the Ontario Principals’ Council, our research team has also developed a number of web-based, “choose your own adventure” case studies to support the professional learning of principals. These resources are freely available on our research team’s website:

Third, system leaders need to support school principals who wish to develop preventative strategies to decrease the likelihood of violent incidents from occurring. Provincial governments and school boards/districts need to implement measures that track these types of incidents and transparently report on them. Developing accurate baseline data is important for developing a better understanding of the underlying issues involved. It is also important that resources be allocated to support principals and their school teams. Fostering inclusion in schools requires that resources be appropriately channeled to staff and programs, and that school principals have a say in how these resources are allocated given their in-depth knowledge of the local community. Although violent incidents are on the rise in Canadian schools, these incidents cannot dissuade us from developing inclusive and equitable schools. Instead, these incidents should cause us to re-assess how we best support each student in inclusive schools.

CBC (2019). ‘I thought he was dead’: CBC survey reveals 4 in 10 boys are physically assaulted at school. Retrieved from
Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think: A Restatement of Reflective Thinking in the Educative Process. Boston: D. C. Heath. (original work published in 1910).
ETFO (2017). ETFO All-member Workplace Survey Results. Retrieved from
Santor, D. A., Bruckert, C. & McBride, K. (2019). Facing the Facts: The Escalating Crisis of Violence Against Elementary School Educators in Ontario. Ottawa ON: University of Ottawa. Retrieved from
Sider, S., Maich, K., & Morvan, J. (2017). School principals and students with special education needs: Leading inclusive schools. Canadian Journal of Education, 40(2). Retrieved from
Yamamoto, J. K., Gardiner, M. E., & Tenuto, P. L. (2014). Emotion in leadership: Secondary school administrators’ perceptions of critical incidents. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 42(2), 165-183.

Steve Sider is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. Prior to completing his PhD, he was a school administrator.

Mélissa Villella is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. She was previously a French-Language school administrator.

AdBlocker Message

Our website is made possible by displaying online advertisements to our visitors. Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker.