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Recognizing Signs of Abuse in Students and How You Can Help

There are many forms of abuse, and each can have long-term effects on a child. Teachers and school administrators have a unique position as caretakers for children. It is important to recognize signs of abuse in students and learn how you can help. 

If you suspect a child is being abused, reporting it can help them. Many states have mandatory reporting laws requiring teachers and school administrators to report suspected abuse. This makes reporting abuse a legal responsibility, not just a moral obligation.

Signs of Abuse

Recognizing signs of abuse—no matter the type—is crucial for being able to help these students and prevent further abuse. While the primary purpose of school is to provide an academic education, if children don’t feel safe, their education will suffer.

Physical Signs

  • Unexplained injuries that don’t match the child’s explanation or the child provides changing explanations
  • Burns
  • Bruises
  • Poor hygiene or lack of hygiene supplies
  • Poorly dressed
  • Issues with eating
  • Lack of growth
  • Unhealthy weight gain or weight loss

Behavioral Signs

Many symptoms of abuse are related to changes in behavior. Some children will act up, and others will become quiet. It is important to consider normal behavior for a specific child and what is a change in their behavior.

  • Withdrawal from people and activities or a lack of interest in activities
  • Increased abuse or aggression toward others
  • Hyperactivity, anger, or destructive behaviors
  • Changes in typical behavior or school performance
  • Rebellious or defiant behaviors
  • Depression or anxiety
  • New or unusual fears
  • Loss of confidence or self-esteem
  • Stealing or hiding food
  • Regression in behavior or loss of previous skills
  • Inappropriate sexual knowledge for their age or sexual contact with other children
  • Attempts to run away, unwillingness to go home, or avoidance of particular situations
  • Self-harm or suicide attempts
  • Desperate for attention
  • Frequent absences

Abuse can lead to many different emotions in children, including confusion, shame, guilt, and fear. These feelings contribute to the child’s inability to tell others what is happening or understand that they are not the problem.

How You Can Help

It is important to remember that signs of abuse don’t guarantee abuse is present, but they can be warnings of potentially abusive situations. If you suspect a child is being abused, there are many ways you can help them. Two of the biggest things you can do are listen to them and report the suspected abuse.

Reporting Child Abuse

All schools should have policies on handling suspected abuse and how to report it. Teachers are typically required to inform the school administration of suspected abuse and are sometimes the first to report the symptoms to local officials.

It can be helpful for teachers to keep a record of the signs they see. This can help keep details straight and can be beneficial to authorities if anything needs to be reported. As you see questionable signs, it can also be helpful to talk with other faculty who work with the child and learn what they have observed while ensuring proper confidentiality.

Other Ways To Help Children

Talk with children and listen to them. Through your words and actions, let the child know that you are a safe person to be around. Helping children feel safe and comfortable around you is the first step and should occur before any signs of trouble. If you recognize signs of abuse, it is essential to continue building on this foundation.

Specific things to help a child feel safe include:

  • Using casual and non-threatening tones when speaking
  • Using vocabulary, the child can understand
  • Giving the child opportunities to open up and speak
  • Avoiding judgment and blame
  • Showing the child, you trust them and believe what they say
  • Providing places for the child to feel like they belong
  • Identifying the child’s strengths

These things can help the child feel respected and valued when they may not feel that way. 

If there is a skill they are struggling with, such as problem-solving or conflict resolution, consider using activities to help teach this skill. This can benefit all students in learning and those being abused.

You Are An Advocate

Reporting signs of abuse can be scary or intimidating. Know that reporting signs of abuse is a form of care and is not the same as an accusation. By reporting signs of abuse, you are giving other authorities the chance to make sure a child is safe.

Written by Lina Filkins
Education World Contributor
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