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Psychology professor, doctoral students research violence against educators

Trio found that anxiety, stress about violence prompts educators to leave profession

Kailyn Bare, Taylor Swenski & Susan McMahon
DePaul community psychology professor Susan McMahon (right) and doctoral students Kailyn Bare (left) and Taylor Swenski research violence and aggression against educators. (Alex Soares/DePaul University)
Rates of violence and aggression against educators are high — and in many cases have risen from pre-COVID-19 levels — leading many to suffer mental health consequences and consider quitting the profession. A new study led by DePaul’s Susan McMahon, chair of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Violence Against Educators and School Personnel, reveals the extent of the problem across our nation’s schools as well as recommendations for the field. DePaul psychology doctoral students Kailyn Bare and Taylor Swenski are key collaborators and co-authors on this study.

McMahon, Bare, Swenski and researchers from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Violence Against Educators and School Personnel surveyed nearly 15,000 educators in pre-K through 12th-grade schools before and during COVID-19 restrictions and then nearly 12,000 after COVID-19 restrictions ended. The study is published in American Psychologist​, APA’s leading journal.

The findings span all 50 states and Puerto Rico and feature responses from teachers, school psychologists, social workers, counselors, staff members and administrators. Researchers found violence and aggression directed against educators by students, parents, colleagues and administrators were substantial before COVID-19, lower during pandemic restrictions and returned to pre-pandemic levels or, in many cases, rose higher after the restrictions lifted.

“Violence is a major public health issue in the U.S. and around the world. We need to take a holistic approach in understanding different types of violence, the context and experiences of our teachers and other staff and the effects of violence to raise awareness and develop effective interventions,” says McMahon, a Vincent de Paul Professor of Psychology in the College of Science and Health.

Finding solutions to a complex problem

Researchers recommend systemic approaches to address aggression and violence from multiple perspectives. In March 2022, task force members presented some initial findings of this study to congressional members in Washington, D.C. with the goal to support the passage of legislation that funds educator training and school-based mental health programs.

“We need to take a comprehensive whole school approach to building positive and safe schools. There is a clear need for educators to be well-trained in addressing the psychological, social and emotional needs of students. Yet, pre-service and in-service training often provide insufficient coverage of socioemotional learning, trauma-informed practices, de-escalation and other strategies to effectively prevent and address violence,” McMahon says.

Instead, researchers recommend district and school leaders engage educators and school personnel in ongoing discussions regarding school practices, discipline, placement, staffing and school climate.

“Policymakers also need to build school capacity, especially in high-need school districts, to ensure schools have the resources and qualified staffing to meet the learning, socioemotional and mental health needs of students,” researchers said.

Swenski emphasizes the need to act on the crisis of educators leaving the field after experiencing violence and related stress. This exodus leads to negative consequences for students and school systems.

“Violence in the school harms everyone,” says Swenski, a third-year student in the community psychology MA/PhD program. “When teachers and other staff struggle with violence and aggression, they are more likely to leave their jobs. Such turnover has immense downstream consequences on students. Educator wellbeing absolutely has strong connections to student outcomes.”

Experiential learning opportunities for students

McMahon, Bare and Swenski have traveled the globe presenting related research together, including an upcoming trip in September to Montevideo, Uruguay for the International Community Psychology Conference. They’ve also presented at the Society for Community Research and Action Conference in Atlanta and the Midwestern Psychological Association Conference in Chicago, while McMahon and Bare presented at the International Conference of Community Psychology in Naples, Italy in 2022, and the American Psychological Association Conference in Washington D.C. in 2023.​

The highlight for both Bare and Swenski, however, is the ability to work on research that can make a difference.

“Our research focuses quite a bit on understanding the broad range of factors that contribute to violence so that we can provide evidence-based recommendations to address these issues comprehensively. Educators are a crucial part of our workforce and our society. Their well-being is critical, and when educators are thriving, students, families and communities are better off as well,” says Bare, a fourth-year student in the clinical-community psychology doctoral program.

Swenski agrees.

“One aspect I really love about the work I do in Dr. McMahon’s lab is how focused we are on shaping and shifting policy,” says Swenski. “Many researchers conduct great work but leave their findings only in academic journals. While Dr. McMahon’s lab publishes consistently, we also take efforts to turn our knowledge into tangible action that will — and already has — structurally improve the lives of educators.”

Read more about the findings of the study on DePaul Newsroom and the APA press room.

Additional research publications, practice recommendations and policy reform based on findings from the APA Task Force on Violence Against Educators and School Personnel can be found on the APA website.

Russell Dorn is a senior manager of media relations in University Communications.