Many sectors have reported a rise in workplace violence and aggression since the start of the pandemic. In fact some sectors such as retail and hospitality are providing special training to support managers and employees who are faced with abuse. Unfortunately, for many ECEC professionals, these confronting situations are not new.
Would you know what to do if you were confronted with violent or threatening behaviour from a parent or carer? What if a community member came onto the grounds of your service and threatened children? CELA’s member support team have received a number of phone calls asking for advice around this topic.
Jennifer Moglia, CELA early education specialist and advisor says that the thing that worries her most is hearing stories of educators and services being threatened with violence or intimidated by a parent or carer, where team members are not sure of how to proceed, or are reluctant to involve higher authorities.
Calling the police and making a report often doesn’t cross people’s minds in our sector as they are dealing with families of the children they care for. But threats and physical violence simply must be officially recorded and reported to the police.
In some cases, we’ve had calls from services where aggression or violence has not occurred yet, but members have a ‘gut feeling’ that aggression or violence could occur. It’s vital that services have a plan on how to tackle these situations so that all staff feel well equipped to deal with things when and if they actually happen.
Lisa James of the Independent Education Union (IEU) agrees that these situations are not new. The IEU regularly receives calls about workplace aggression directed at educators from families and children which have included parents verbally abusing staff, including making threats to their personal safety.
What causes aggressive and violent behaviour?
Aggression is often triggered by particular circumstances that have led the person to feel threatened or frustrated.
The following signs may indicate that a parent or other individual could become aggressive:
- Restless, agitated, pacing, hostile facial expressions with sustained eye contact.
- Appears angry, irritable, tense, stressed or is having difficulty controlling their emotions.
In these instances we have to understand that neurologically, the person we're encountering is not using the rational, problem solving part of their brain, so trying to rationalise with the person to de-escalate the behaviour may not be possible, and harm may occur before the threat can be diffused.
What constitutes workplace violence or aggression?
Workplace violence and aggression covers a broad range of actions and behaviours that
create a risk to health and safety, for example:
- physical assault such as biting, scratching, hitting, kicking, pushing, grabbing, throwing objects
- intentionally coughing or spitting on someone
- sexual assault or any other form of indecent physical contact
- harassment or aggressive behaviour that creates a fear of violence, such as stalking, sexual harassment, verbal threats and abuse, yelling and swearing
- hazing or initiation practices for new or young workers, and
- violence from a family or domestic relationship when this occurs at the workplace, including if the person’s workplace is their home.
(Source: Safe Work Australia)
Ensuring a safe working environment for your staff is the law
How your team should react in these situations needs to be addressed in your policies. All team members need to know their rights and who they can call on should someone behave abusively or aggressively towards them.
The model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws require the Approved Provider of a service to:
Take care of the health, safety and welfare of your workers, including yourself and other staff, contractors and volunteers, and others (clients, customers, visitors) at your workplace.
(Source: Safe Work Australia)
In education and care services, the employer is often referred to as the Approved Provider. Just as an employer would assess other risks in the workplace, they must also assess risks to the health and safety of employees relating to violence and aggression.
Approved Providers should use risk assessments to determine the level of risk relating to workplace violence and aggression — this will enable control measures to be implemented to ensure the health and safety of educators. These systems, processes, and procedures can minimise the frequency of workplace aggression and violence, and can also enable educators and other employees to manage incidents as they arise and know what needs to be done afterward.
Do you have a policy in place?
If a parent/carer is abusive or puts staff and children at risk, employers need to have a policy and framework in place so that staff know what to do next, and families know what the service’s policy is.
Approved Providers should review their policies to ensure they cover such situations.
Members can download CELA’s new Optional Policy on Workplace Violence and Aggression - you will need to be logged in to view it.
Download sample policy
Ensure that all staff are up to date with the government’s latest COVID related rules for early education and care via https://www.dese.gov.au/covid-19/childcare and Work Safe’s ECEC specific information page on work related violence at https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/covid-19-information-workplaces/industry-information/early-childhood-education.
What should I do if a parent or carer puts staff and/or children at risk?
During an incident, CELA recommends taking the following steps, which are outlined in our Sample Workplace Violence Policy for members:
- If you, your staff or the children in your service are in immediate danger call 000.
- The person identifying the behaviour should inform the person/s committing the behaviour that they are in breach of acceptable behaviour and that this behaviour is to cease as they feel unsafe/intimidated/threatened and will leave if the behaviour continues.
- Make an attempt to use calm verbal and non-verbal communication, de-escalation and distraction techniques.
- Seek support from other workers.
- Ask the aggressor to leave the premises or disconnect the aggressor from the phone call.
- Consider if the situation/incident presents an identified risk and undertake an emergency risk assessment if necessary. Emergency/evacuation procedures may be implemented based on identified risk.
- A ‘code black’ may be initiated, and/or duress alarm may be activated, if staff require assistance to safely manage the situation.
If an employer does not take satisfactory action to resolve safety issues that have been reported we recommend that members contact SafeWork NSW 13 10 50.
The IEU also recommends that employers develop a Code of Conduct for caregivers, which must be signed by all families including a statement to the effect that if they do not abide by the code of conduct their child’s enrolment may be withdrawn.
How to communicate expectations of parent/ carer behaviour
We are concerned that many services have developed very detailed codes of conduct/ ethics for teachers and educators whilst completely neglecting to document expectations of behaviour of families utilising the service. A code of conduct for families should be included in any handbook provided to prospective and current families, shares Lisa James.
CELA has produced a Parent Code of conduct available in the member resource area of the CELA website. You will need to log in to download it:
Download parent code of conduct
We recommend you ensure that parents and carers have been made aware of and clearly understand the Parent Code of Conduct.
Is the pandemic making people more aggressive?
Sometimes it can be hard to believe that someone can get so angry, or even physically violent, over a request to wear a mask, use a QR code to check in, or stand in a socially distanced line.
Researchers at Murdoch University believe that the Frustration Anger Hypothesis theory offers the best insight.
According to this theory, frustration is the emotion that ignites aggression, but the level of aggression that follows is dependent upon the individual person and their circumstances.
There are four steps to ignite aggression in this hypothesis:
- Blocking a goal (such as getting into a supermarket quickly) leads to the person feeling frustrated
- Frustration leads to anger
- Anger pre-disposes aggression
- Aggressive acts are dependent upon interpretations, values and repertoires of the individual (thoughts) and stimuli
A person’s ability to control impulsive behaviour will often have an impact on the level of aggression that results from their frustration and anger.
We are here to support our members through challenging times
We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to our members and the wider sector for everything they are doing to support families and communities during this challenging time across Australia. You play a vital role as essential services and we want you to know that we recognise how challenging it is to operate in the current environment, and how much you are truly appreciated.
"Please don’t hesitate to call us to talk through any questions or concerns you may have," says CELA CEO MIchele Carnegie. "We are here to support you with advice, practical resources and a friendly ear to lighten the load. We are meeting regularly with government to advocate for you and share your challenges."
Should you have any matters that you would like to discuss in relation to your service’s specific circumstances or information relating to COVID-19, please contact us on 1800 157 818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CELA member resources referred to in this article:
Safe Work Australia
If you are a member of a union, you can also contact your union for WH&S advice and support.
State/territory Ombudsman resources
Mental health and employee support resources
Further reading from Amplify: