Feb 08

POW! Addressing Violence in Children’s Writing

Posted by Valentine Burr in Fair Is Not Equal on Feb 08, 2013

He saw a wood nymph. The wood nymph said, "Hah, your ears are floppy." "Hey, that's mean. I will punch you." Ba Boom. Well, that's the end of that.

This page is the last in a 4-page book written recently by my 7-year old son. He's proud of his first steps into composition. The story begins with a picnic on a beach and ends in a fist fight…

What are teachers to do, if anything, about violence in children’s writing? My son’s story is far from alarming (at least to me!). However, with the increased media attention on violence in schools and knowledge that children often express thoughts in writing that they may not feel safe to say aloud, there is pressure on teachers to think critically about their students’ writing and what their responses should be. Teachers often, understandably, feel confused or conflicted about whether or not (or how) to step in and set limits.

On one hand

It is developmentally typical for children to be interested in violence and fighting. Families who ban toys guns from their homes will soon tell you that just about anything can be fashioned into a pretend weapon, including and especially fingers and arms, which are always at the ready!

Play, writing and drawings that focus on violent themes are often vehicles for children to work out ideas about power, conflict, weakness, bonding, fear and bravery. If you read original fairy and folk tales, violence is a running theme throughout. I read my son’s story in part as a reflection on teasing.

We also live in a world soaked with images of violence, so kids may be trying to make sense of what they have seen through replication and repetition. And of course, some children live with violence in their homes or communities, so these are real rather than abstract themes.

Outright bans on writing that has violent themes both pushes underground natural curiosities and fears, but can also serve to stifle creativity and voice. Writing is hard and risky for some kids and a natural “way in” is to allow kids to write about ideas that feel authentically important.

On the other hand

Creating a safe and open space for expression does not mean that, “anything goes.” There are times that violence in students’ writing should cause concern. It is also okay to set boundaries both around the content of students’ writing as well as around the sharing process.

For example, you might decide that some stories are okay for private composition, but not for public shares. A way to explain this might be, “I know that you are comfortable with this story, but I also know that it might be scary for other kids in our class, so I am going to ask you to choose a different piece of work to share.”

Deciding when and how to intervene at the writing stage is trickier, in large part because each situation is child and context dependent.

Here are some questions and frames of thinking that may be useful to keep in mind:

  • Does every piece of writing contain a violent theme? Just as you would want to a child to extend beyond always writing about basketball, you might want to find ways to support and scaffold other topics.
  • Is the type of violence described detailed and extreme? That might be a time to reach out for consultation with colleagues. 
  • Is the violence general or specific? If the writing has a threatening or specific tone, for example if other children and adults in the classroom or home setting are specifically portrayed, then again, further conversation with the child and others might be warranted.
  • In the case that the child seems to make direct threats against others or indicates any level of self-harm, you should always and immediately share with other adults in your setting. A punitive response however, is not productive. The first response should always be: What is going on and in what way can we better help this child?
  • Does this style of writing fit in with the general interests of the child or does it represent a significant change? Writing that seems to change suddenly during the year can be a sign of other issues, so always good to be on the look out for.
  • Is the writing accompanied by aggressive behaviors in the classroom? If so, you again might want to find ways to set some boundaries around the writing and more directly scaffold and support a student’s engagement in other themes and topics.
  • Some of your response will come down to a gut feeling. Always err on the side of seeking consultation with others when you have concerns.

We’d love to know about your thoughts and experiences with violence in student writing. Write in and let us know.

tagged strategies, teachers, violence, writing
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