Violence makes kids do worse at school

Violent environments take their toll on children in several ways.
Violent environments take their toll on children in several ways.

Violence is a persistent problem in South Africa. Statistics recorded between April and December 2016 paint a dire picture: a total of 14 333 reported murders.

What stood out from these statistics was the number of murders related to gang violence: 31 people killed over 31 days.

Gang-related violence and a generally violent environment have a negative effect on children's lives, according to research.

Kids in violent neighbourhoods often do worse at school. Now, a new study helps explain why.

Higher cortisol levels

US researchers found that exposure to violent crime changed kids' sleep patterns, which increased their levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

"Both sleep and cortisol are connected to the ability to learn and perform academic tasks," said study lead author Jenni Heissel, of Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy in Evanston, Illinois. "Our study identifies a pathway by which violent crime may get under the skin to affect academic performance."

Previous research found a link between violent crimes and performance on tests, but it wasn't clear why crime affects academic achievement, Heissel said in a university news release.

For the study, she and her colleagues tracked the sleep patterns and stress hormones of 82 students, ages 11 to 18, who attended different public schools in a large Midwestern city in the US.

The researchers found that the day after a violent crime in their neighbourhood, the children's cortisol levels rose.

'Mental' performance affected

Study co-author Emma Adam, a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern, said the research results have several implications for policy makers.

"They provide a link between violent crime and several mechanisms known to affect [mental] performance," Adam said. "They also may help explain why some low-income youth living in high-risk neighbourhoods sleep less than higher-income youth."

The results don't mean that inner-city children can't succeed in school. But Adam said schools could provide students with methods for coping with stressful events. The study was published online recently in the journal Child Development.

Violence in South African schools

The sad thing is that children cannot even escape violence when going to school. In South Africa, 12.2% of children have been threatened with violence while at school, while 6.3% have been physically assaulted at school, according to research on school violence.

This research has also shown that violence at school will unfortunately not only have an effect on performance at school, but violence may have far-reaching effects later in a child’s life: Not only does the child suffer from embarrassment, fear and anxiety, but violence at school and in the neighbourhood can also influence how a child thinks about violence, spurring him or her to get involved in violent activities too.

Images supplied by iStock.

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