Did you know April is Child Abuse Awareness Month? I didn’t until recently, and am so thankful such an important topic is being given news and media coverage! Personally, I wish everyday was Child Abuse Awareness Day…it’s truly that prevalent! In honor of this important month, I wanted to share some important information for teachers about identifying victims, supporting them, and some general information about “the system.”
I wanted to share a quick bit about why I felt so inspired to do this post, as well as what my experience has been. Unfortunately, every year I have had students in my room that I was concerned about. I had to make the dreaded phone call to social services almost every year…at first it was so scary, but it did get less intimidating. It didn’t get less emotional though. As a team lead, and as someone who has spent a lot of time researching and volunteering, my teammates often came to me with their situations. So even the years I didn’t have to report anything, I did support my colleagues as they did. Last year I was able to volunteer weekly at a local children’s home. You can read all about my tips for working with students in foster care here. Some of these little ones were permanently removed and available for adoption…others would (hopefully) one day be reunited with their families. Most of these children couldn’t be placed in a typical foster home setting because of their special needs, family circumstances, or intense trauma. I’ve also worked with children who were currently in foster care or had been adopted. Because of all of these things, I felt like I absolutely had to write this post. I hope I can share some important information, as well as give valuable resources for those who want to learn more.
Most school districts require teachers to complete child abuse training. However, it’s usually done at the start of the year when teachers are overwhelmed, eager to get back to their classroom, and just distracted. I know that I have spent time texting my friends, writing to do lists, or just completely “zoning out” during these presentations. It’s also super easy to think “I would know if a child was being abused” or “That doesn’t happen at my school.” So a lot of this might be information you’ve heard before, but I hope you see it with new and fresh eyes…and can read it when you can truly process it. 🙂
What qualifies as abuse? When we discuss child abuse, we’re talking about a child who is in extreme emotional or physical danger. There are 4 main types of child abuse: sexual, physical, psychological/emotional, and neglect. A lot of sources have more specific types, but I’ve found that most situations can be categorized under these. From my experience, neglect was the easiest to identify as a teacher. However, I’ve had students experience all four types and did see some signs.
Before we get into the signs of abuse, I wanted to talk a bit about classroom relationships. If you’ve read my blog at all, you know that I believe relationships are paramount. James Comer said, “No significant learning can occur without significant relationship.” If I had to choose one quote for my classroom that would be it. Classroom relationships allow students to take risks and engage in learning. They also open the door for students to trust teachers. Most students who are abused are highly skilled at hiding things and building walls. They are able to skate by without their teacher seeing their pain…because they’ve gotten that good at it. But strong classroom relationships make it more challenging for our students to hide. As students develop trust, they are more likely to share their hurt. Even if they never feel safe enough to come out and say, “my parents are hurting me,” they will hopefully feel safe enough to drop little hints or give us signs that we can act on. If you have a student you are worried about, please please please take time to build that relationship. Do whatever it takes to spend a few minutes talking with them every single day. Even if you feel like there is not time…make the time. These relationships can truly make all the difference for a child in need…and ultimately even save their life.
As a teacher, we don’t have to decide what qualifies as abuse. There are people much more trained than us that specialize in it. 🙂 Our job is to notice the signs, and if we are concerned at all, bring it to the attention of administrators/counselors and possibly the authorities.
I have certainly had students whose parents chose to do things the opposite of how I would, and that’s not abuse. Abuse means the child is truly in danger emotionally or physically. Here are some of the most common examples of abuse, but this list does not include everything. Just because something isn’t included on my list or another website, doesn’t mean it should be ignore. Listen to you gut if something seems off!
Examples of Physical Abuse:
- Hitting With Objects (rope, belts)
I wanted to share some differences in punishments and abuse. Many parents choose to spank, and many don’t. Abuse, though, is often unpredictable and almost always out of anger. The purpose of it is to terrify the child and HURT them. It almost always leaves a mark on the child’s body like bruises, burns, cuts, or scratches. If a child is spanked on their bottom, it might be red for a few minutes. However is a child’s bottom is bruised or bleeding, that is abuse.
Examples of Sexual Abuse:
- Showing Pornography
- Taking Photographs
- Being Allowed/Made to Watch Sexual Activity
Please know that children CAN sexually abuse others. I believe that children who abuse others need intense help and my heart breaks for them. In almost all cases, if a child is abusing another, they were also abused. BUT it doesn’t matter…if one of our students is being abused, the other child must be held accountable so they can get the help that they need. If it’s peers of the same age, I would speak with your counselor about what to do and absolutely contact parents. If it’s someone who is older, more socially adept, etc. I would consider that abuse and would work with my counselor and contact authorities.
Examples of Emotional/Physiological Abuse:
- Obvious and Intentional Favoritism
- Putting the Child in a Dangerous Situation
- Domestic Violence in the Home
- Ignoring the Child
- Threatening (I’m going to kick you out of this house…, Mommy will leave you on the side of the road….)
Examples of Neglect (can be intentional OR unintentional)
- Withholding Food
- Withholding Sleep
- Withholding Water
- Withholding Medication
- Lack of Hygiene
- Lack of Supervision
- Lack of a Safe Sleeping Area (making them sleep in a closet)
Unfortunately, many parents that neglect their children are unable to provide for their needs because of financial hardship, mental illness, or an addiction. Ideally, in these situations, services would be provided and the family would be supported so that the parents ARE able to provide for their children. However, after multiple attempts to support the family it may end up being considered intentional neglect.
Ideally, you’ll never have a student experiencing any of this! But if you do, they most likely won’t come right out and tell you what’s happening. Our job as teachers is to stay alert and notice the signs of abuse. My first year of teaching, I examined each and every little thing my students said and did in case one of them was being abused. But through the years, I learned to trust my gut. As a teacher, and someone who loves their students, usually your instincts will tell you something is off…even before you notice any signs or symptoms of abuse. I wanted to share a few statistics before I went over warning signs. Most of the statistics I could find were 2-3 years old, and history tells us it increases each year. That means that these numbers are probably too low now.
- Each year about 1,700 children die from abuse or neglect.
- “The United States has one of the worst records among industrialized nations” -US Dept. of Health and Human Services.
- Boys and girls are abused at close to the same rate…girls are abused at a slightly higher rate.
- Children of every race are abused.
- Children at every socio-economic level are abused.
- 3.3 million children witness domestic violence in their home each year.
- About 3 million reports of child abuse are made each year.
- For every 1 case reported, 2 are NOT.
Sources: National Children’s Alliance, American Society for the Positive Care of Children, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Child Welfare.gov
There are countless signs of abuse, and like I said before, your gut is typically the most powerful. However some students are VERY adept at hiding their abuse and hurt. I’ve listed some of the most common signs of abuse, but these are certainly not the only ones. They also don’t mean abuse is necessarily happening. Some of these things happen due to family or academic stresses, or they could have an entirely different explanation. But they are definitely things to be aware of. Even if you believe they have a totally “normal” explanation, these are still important to take note of and bring up at parent conferences or in meetings with the school counselor.
Signs of Abuse:
- Withdrawal from friends or favorite activities
- Frequent absences
- Changes in behavior
- Changes in school performance
- Doesn’t want to go home
- Tries to run away
- Defiant Behavior
- Refusal to eat
- Unexplained bruises
- Unexplained injuries (fractures, burns)
- Seems to be in pain (rubbing, holding an area)
- Sensitivity to being touched (like on their back because it is in pain)
- Uncomfortable walking or sitting
- Non age-appropriate knowledge of drugs, alcohol, or sex
- Frequent stomachaches or headaches
- Hair loss
- Complete “meltdown” at having parents contacted about anything
- Long-sleeves or pants even when it’s super warm
Signs of Neglect: (though neglect is a type of abuse, often the signs are different)
- Poor growth
- Stealing food or money
- Poor hygiene (doesn’t smell fresh, smells like they haven’t showered)
- Poor dental health (rotting teeth, bad breath)
- Hiding food or stashing it for later
- Eating a LOT at one time (like at lunch or during class parties)
- Frequently sick and not receiving medical attention, medication etc.
- Always asking for food
- Non-weather appropriate clothes (no coat, etc)
In my experience, there are little clues students share in their writing or when chatting with me in private (like in a small group setting or at recess while other’s play.) The closer we are with them and the more time we spend having discussions, the more likely they are to divulge things.
Though I didn’t have this child personally, one of my best friends did and I worked with him often. He often wrote about taking his brother to get toys, watching his brother do fun things, and never attended after school events but his brother almost always did. On their own these might not seem TOO shocking, but they were enough for her to be on guard. As he withdrew more and more, she knew something was wrong and she ended up making a report to the authorities. He was, in fact, being extremely neglected and abused at home. Because she paid attention and had that strong relationship, she was able to recognize the signs and get him the help he needed.
Realizing one of your students might be being abused is a terrible feeling. It’s not always easy to know exactly how to proceed, but I wanted to share a few clear steps.
If a child discloses to you that they were abused, it’s a very easy decision. You are legally bound to report it to the authorities. I have only had that happen once, and it was a domestic violence situation. during after-school tutoring, my student let me know things he had observed in his home . I had no choice but to report it after they left. You might think, “What if they’re lying?” or, “Kids exaggerate. I’m sure that’s not exactly what happened.” It truly doesn’t matter though. As teachers, we are legally bound to report child abuse when/if we know about it. The same is true of school nurses, counselors, doctors, daycare workers, and several others. Typically, the person that heard the disclosure is responsible. You can absolutely ask an admin or counselor to sit with you and make sure you fill out the online form correctly, or call with them, but you must be the one to make the actual report.
Most of the time, though, you won’t know for sure if a child is being abused. It’s a lot murkier, and there is no black/white. From what I understand, even a suspicion is enough to make a report. But if you’re not sure, I suggest doing one of these two things:
- Seek advice from your administrator, counselor or other colleagues.
- Call the non-emergency police online and ask what they recommend.
I try to remember, “it’s not my be job to be a detective.” It’s truly not the teachers’ role to get more information, and a lot of times students might not give you any. But if you are unsure about a situation, you can ask the child a few questions. These questions would be used in a situation where the child is showing certain signs of abuse, but they could have other explanations. If you feel uncomfortable, ask the counselor to come in and sit with you.
Some questions you might ask are:
- Can you tell me more about what happened?
- Has this happened before? Does it happen a lot?
- How did it make you feel when that happened?
- Is anyone making you do something that makes you feel uncomfortable? (I like to say “feel icky” inside to younger students because they might not understand what uncomfortable means).
- What happens when you get in trouble at home?
- Can you tell me about why you don’t want to go home?
- You seem really hungry lately…what food do you have at home? What did you eat for dinner last night?
- You’ve been absent a lot lately…can you tell me why that is?
The MOST important thing when asking these questions is that they’re done casual conversations and NOT accusatory. If you have suspicions about a child being abused, I’d recommend calling them over and doing an activity with them. Morning work time was typically the time I set aside to talk to the kiddos I was worried about (academically, behaviorally, etc.) and I would do it then. Do something engaging with them (like a center, game, or coloring page) and ask the questions casually. “Hey buddy, that bruise on your arm looks really painful. Can you tell me what happened?” Based on how students answer, you hopefully will have a bit more information. Please, please, please do not pry though. As teachers, we are not social workers or certified counselors. Prying or forcing the child to answer your questions could impact your relationship. If they’re not willing to answer, chat with your counselor and see if you have enough info.
Here’s an example to help clarify:
Abigail has been coming to school tardy a lot lately. She seems a bit withdrawn, and often plays by herself. Earlier in the year, she was very social and always wanted to be around her friends. Lately I’ve noticed she’s been wearing long-sleeved shirts even though it’s May and very warm in Texas. I haven’t seen any bruises on her, but something just doesn’t seem right. Yesterday I caught her stabbing herself with a pencil at her desk, and she cried when I told her we would have to tell her parents.
In this circumstance, I would ask Abby a few questions. I don’t know for sure she’s being abused, and there could be many explanations to what is going on. However, I am definitely concerned. It would be totally appropriate to call the Child Abuse hotline and ask if you should report it. It would also be appropriate to go to your administrator or counselor and ask their opinion.
Please don’t ever think, “Well I’ve met her parents and they seemed so normal” or, “My son plays soccer with her older brother. Their parents would never abuse her.” The reality is, we never really know and should assume it can happen to any child. Proceed just like you would, no matter what you think you know about the parents. Also it might not be her parents…which is why it’s so important not to brush the signs off. Children can be abused by older siblings, grandparents, neighbors, or unfortunately…even other teachers. Busy parents might not be trained or be too busy to notice what’s going on with their child.
If you’ve decided you need to report abuse, there is a different reporting system for each state. Most states offer an online and phone version. I recommend the phone version…it has a much faster response time, and they can answer questions you might have.
You can also call your non-emergency police and ask them for the number. Your school counselor, principal, or secretary should also have information.
If you suspect a child is in immediate danger, call 911! If a child said, “my dad said he has a gun and he’s really mad at my mom” I would call 911 instead of the traditional hotline.
As tempting as it can be, don’t spend too much time asking the child questions about their visit with the social worker. It can be really painful or embarrassing for them, and they may be scared of getting their parent in trouble. If they want to share with you, they will. 🙂
As long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve heard people talk about how backwards “the system” is. I’ve worked with social workers, seen children removed and seen children remain in the home. I’ve also reported things and absolutely nothing was done. Just like teachers, social workers are overworked and underpaid. Just as teachers have to prioritize what’s most important to teach, social workers have to prioritize which families to see and work with. Ideally, there would be enough social workers to work with every family in need and get them the support they need, but that’s not the reality. So they are faced with tough choices every single day.
Here’s what I typically see happen:
- Teacher makes a report to Child Protective Services.
- Social workers call teacher and discusses the situation.
- Social workers come to the school and interview the child.
- Nothing ever comes of it and you never hear anything again.
Does it mean that abuse isn’t happening? Not necessarily. It just means the abuse isn’t severe enough yet to take action. Most likely, they gave the parents information about family services, counseling, food banks, etc.
They do track everything that is reported though. If you report a family for abuse and nothing is done…you did your job. If you suspect it again, report it again. Hopefully a daycare worker or next year’s teacher will notice the same thing and make a report as well. After several reports, social workers absolutely will investigate.
If the abuse is severe enough to be removed, the child will likely be removed after the interview or after a bit more investigation. They go to a temporary foster family while the courts and family services decide how to proceed. Usually in these circumstances, the social worker DOES contact the teacher. You might even work together to find the best place for the child to go. In a lot of cases, they even ask the teacher if they’d be willing to foster the child or attend court with them. Once they are in foster care, they will be appointed a CASA. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) are community volunteers that offer to walk along side the child and be an advocate for them. They attend any court hearings and are expected to speak for the child in front of the judge.
Typically, if a child is being sexually abused in the home, they are removed immediately. Other instances of immediate removal include with-holding food (as punishment NOT because of poverty), multiple instances of severe physical abuse, or domestic violence situations where weapons are involved. I’m sure there are lots of other examples, but these are the ones I know.
We truly don’t know what will happen when we make a report. But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. We have to do our part to protect the child.
The hardest question you might ask yourself is, “Wouldn’t it be better for them to stay with their siblings then be put in the system?” or “I’m sure with help this mom could make it work.” Ultimately, we can’t ever answer that and we have to trust that the court system works the way it should. Choosing NOT to report child abuse for this reason is dangerous though…you never know how quickly things can escalate. And even if nothing happens, hopefully the child sees that someone cares enough about them to want to protect them.
I don’t have any research to back this up, but in my experience, most of the time when I suspected a child was being abused or neglected, it was due to a lack of education or resources. NOT that either of those excuse any form of child abuse…but most parents I have worked with genuinely love their child. They are just in a rough spot and need support and help. Hopefully after a report is made, the parents are able (and willing) to find the resources they need to adequately care for their child. Social services have far more things to offer families than we do…and are much more equipped.
This post was SO heavy and I didn’t want to leave you with negatives! There are SO many things teachers can do to support abused children…in our classroom and in our community. Please know that no matter what your students’ circumstances, YOU are the perfect teacher for them. You are in their life for a reason, and they need you!
To support children in our classroom, here are some practical things you can do to help any child being abused. These things are helpful to almost all children, but especially children in trauma.
- Provide healthy snacks for them to eat at the appropriate time. (I had a few students I knew were truly hungry; they had a little box of granola bars that they could discretely take at any time and eat behind my desk. It didn’t disrupt the class and made sure they had the energy they needed to engage in my class.)
- Provide toothbrushes for students to use.
- Ask your school nurse or counselor to start a clothing closet of used clothes for children/parents to use.
- Work with your admin or counselor to offer parent education classes on Safe and Positive Discipline (many parents don’t know HOW to discipline their children without hitting).
- ALWAYS make time to listen…if a child needs to talk, make the time. You will never regret taking time out of your day to listen to a child in need…but you might regret not doing it!
- Ask your counselor to speak with specific children on “safe touches” and what is appropriate/not appropriate.
- SMILE! For some abused children, you are truly the only person that they feel safe with. Smile at them! Hug them! Love on them!
- Have a “Secrets for the Teacher” box. Somewhere in your room, just have a little box that students can write you notes. Some students aren’t comfortable talking about things but they would write it down or draw a picture. Check it a few times a week and check in with students.
- Remain emotionally steady. Some students are so used to adults being explosive and abusive, they never feel safe. Show students how to safely handle frustration and never raise your voice. If you catch yourself losing your temper, ask your teacher neighbor for a break.
- Inform parents about community resources. (Attach a note so parents don’t feel targeted. “I wanted to make sure all of my parents had this information! These are great resources if you are ever in need.”)
To support children in your community who are being abused:
- Donate to your local Children’s Advocacy Center. Children often stay here for hours (or overnight) until they can find a foster home. They often go here for supervised parent visits.
- Become an Emergency Placement Foster Home. Becoming a foster parent is a HUGE responsibility, and it’s not the right fit for every family. Some families prefer to be long-term placements and even foster to adopt. However every community is desperately in need of emergency placements where children can stay for a few nights while their families are investigated and they can find a more suitable long-term home.
- Become a CASA Volunteer. Being a CASA is demanding and takes many hours during the work day. Most teachers who work full-time wouldn’t be able to attend all of the court hearings (which are mandatory) but local chapters are always looking for volunteers to do other things as well!
If you suspect a child is being abused, please consider the types of communication you are sending home. Though I’m not a fan of sending much negative information home anyway, if a child is truly terrified of their parents I would choose to handle discipline in the classroom. Personally, I think classroom discipline should happen in the classroom…home discipline should happen at home. I would be so annoyed if a mom said, “Judah was really naughty yesterday. Do you mind giving him a consequence at school?” It’s an entirely personal decision, but that has been my philosophy. HOWEVER…no matter what your philosophy, if you suspect a child is being abused…don’t send them home with “red cards” or “think sheets” or anything that might get them in more trouble.
I’ve compiled all of this information into a helpful handout that you could keep by your desk or use as a reminder! 🙂 You can grab that below! I TRULY hope this post gave you a bit more information about how to notice child abuse, advocate for your students, and ultimately support them. Though it’s not a fun topic to talk about, it’s so important, and I hope the information was helpful to you! Never question your role in a child’s life and never doubt your ability to change their life!
If you EVER want more information about this topic, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You have one of the most important roles in an abused child’s life, and I will do whatever I can to support you!