The Malta Independent 18 February 2020, Tuesday

Aggression against teachers the tip of the iceberg, with many hidden factors behind it

Giulia Magri Sunday, 20 January 2019, 09:00 Last update: about 2 years ago

The Malta Union of Teachers’ survey highlighting that 87 per cent of educators have reported acts of aggression has developed into a discussion regarding the security and protection of educators. MEPs and the media have focused on the need for security officers in schools and proper security measures to protect educators. Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr Nigel Camilleri, speaks to Giulia Magri about tackling aggression and behavioural issues among children and how discussing mental health can benefit both children and educators.

Numerous factors behind aggressive behaviour

“It is important to identify what triggers such aggressive behaviour in children so that we can find a way to treat the underlying causes,” Dr Camilleri said. 

Today, one in 10 children suffer from mental health disorders, with most cases going undiagnosed. He said that aggression did not always have to result from a mental issue, but could also be a reaction to the child’s environment. Therefore, if a child comes from a background where parents are arguing, or if they are being bullied at school or online, the child might act out, in certain cases aggressively.


If a child comes from a stressful family environment, then the whole family needs help and support, while if the reason is due to bullying/cyber bullying, then the school must be addressed. The learning environment can also have an impact on the behaviour of the child, as some children might not be able to sit down for long periods of time, or might find the class itself to easy or too difficult. “I would rather we addressed all the factors at play than just focusing on aggression.”


Psycho-social services for educators and children

One of the new services launched by the MUT is a psychotherapeutic support service by qualified personnel, which Dr Camilleri agrees is a step in the right direction. 

“There are psychiatrists/psychologists available in the private sector or within the education sector that would be best suited to support teachers and educators.”

He highlighted that once a teacher feels empowered at the workplace, they automatically feel more comfortable and in control of their classroom.

He also said that such services and support help lift the stigma surrounding mental health, and that more parents are approaching child psychiatrists. Sometimes, he says, talk therapy alone is enough to shed light on any issues the parent or child is facing. The concept of having groups of psychiatrists working in schools and colleges would also benefit students and educators.

“In regards to aggression educators face from parents, there must be a proper structure of zero tolerance to violence in schools, and if parents do act out, then it becomes a legal matter and the police should be involved.” He stressed the importance of children being made aware that they should not act violently towards parents or educators. “If a child is not corrected at an early age, they develop this idea that they can act however they wish, and they carry on that behaviour later in life.”

“Learning from a young age that aggression is unacceptable will reduce delinquency in the future.”

Dr Camilleri highlights that there are a number of parenting courses provided both privately and at Mater Dei Hospital, which focus on positive behaviour, encouragement and problem solving. He said that by focusing on the positive, rather than the negative, the child is more prone to respond in a more effective manner. If a child does act out violently, then there should be immediate, short-term consequences. “I don’t believe in harsh punishments; instead, they should be immediate, short-term and timed. So if a toddler decides to hit a teacher, this should be followed with a time out, where the child sits quietly on their own, following which would be an ideal time to explain to them what they did wrong.” He said that it is moments when an educator does not speak out that the problem is worsened, indirectly telling the child that it is okay to act that way towards them or their peers.

“I believe that it would also be beneficial for educators to take part in such courses, to understand the manner in which adults can recognise the risks of mental issues and how to address this properly.” Dr Camilleri stresses that investment in child mental health will not only benefit the child, but also educators in recognising the importance of mental health and managing it as a whole.

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