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October 1, 1997
Vol. 55
No. 2

Becoming Heroes: Teachers Can Help Abused Children

In the face of discouraging and overwhelming facts about child abuse and neglect, teachers should not only report cases of child abuse, but also help children become resilient.

Can schools provide a safe haven for children who are hurt and neglected at home? Can teachers make a substantial difference in such children's lives? Because I know we can, I teach a course in child abuse issues, for teachers renewing or seeking certification. Agreeing to such an assignment meant grappling with my own history and giving back to other teachers what a progression of good teachers gave me. It meant asking already overburdened teachers to share my conviction that confronting the enormous waste and havoc of abusive relationships, and in particular their effects on the children we teach, is the right thing to do. It is also within our power.

Discouraging Facts and Figures

Teachers come to my class already discouraged about the topic of child abuse. They don't need to be told that of every six cases of abuse reported to authorities, only one will receive more than passing attention. They can already guess that, for every six cases reported, 18 go unreported.
Some of my students say they are expecting to gain nothing from the course but a deepened sense of helplessness. Most have tried at least once to intercede on behalf of an abused child, only to be stonewalled or taken lightly. Recent studies (see National Child Rights Alliance 1997) suggest that two-thirds of teacher-initiated reports may still go no farther than the principal's desk.
What can I teach people who already believe there is not much point in trying? First, we look at statistics and case histories that demonstrate the enormity and breadth of a devastating social problem that crosses socioeconomic and cultural groups. Then we learn what to look for, what to say to the disclosing child, when and how to report to the authorities. And then I have to tell the teachers that more than two-thirds of the children who desperately need help are masquerading as normal so convincingly that their abuse will go completely undetected (see Myers 1994; Rush 1980).
We share stories about agonizingly slow responses from overwhelmed social service agencies. We hold up to the light some shameful skeletons in public education's own closet: A coach has an affair with a girl in his charge. A principal administers whacks with a paddle. A sarcastic teacher undermines a student's already fragile sense of self. We note that these things still happen with appalling regularity.
After a couple of hours of this, most students wish they were home in front of the fire, or playing with their own kids.
What keeps me offering the class is a hope that I can engender some optimism and new resolve. It's not that I believe that teachers, even teachers united together, can solve the problem, or that reporting suspected child abuse always leads to an improved situation for the child, or that it's possible to intervene in every case.
But teachers can make a huge difference. Teachers can provide an effective counterbalance to the effects of an abusive home. It does not require special heroism. My challenge is to help teachers persevere, to keep their hope alive, by focusing on children's capacity for resilience and how we can promote it.

Attitudinal Barriers

  1. Fear of liability. This attitude is encouraged by the media. The proliferation of child-abuse docudramas on TV has heightened both awareness and paranoia. It has played to our fears of legal repercussions: If I help, I'll end up having to be a witness, or the target of retaliation, or the catalyst that brings more abuse down on the child's head. It's really not my business, anyway.Disturbing numbers of teachers tell me they have resolved not to touch, hug, or be alone in a room with a child, for fear of accusations of sexual abuse. So, as a class, we discuss what it means to touch appropriately and the importance of touch to children's emotional health.Concern about touch is legitimate. We must establish clear policies that protect our ability to be emotionally responsive to students, while protecting our right and theirs to be safe. In class, we identify strategies to use to avoid being compromised and to neutralize potential accusations. For example, one principal in the Evergreen School District in Washington State has this schoolwide hugging policy: Hug regularly. Hug everyone who likes to be hugged. Hug in plain sight. And if anyone questions your doing it, I'll back you 100 percent.
  2. Personal concerns around parenting and teaching. Another source of resistance is defensiveness about discipline—especially for teachers who are also parents. Parenting education is not a regular feature in U.S. schools, nor does our society provide the natural school of extended families and closely knit communities typical of some other cultures. We are left to muddle through the most important of all human occupations.So some students grow understandably defensive when their own parenting practices show up on the lists of abusive behaviors that we develop together in class. They may defend spanking and other forms of corporal punishment, because they were both spanked and loved, or because they have a child who seems to respond to nothing else, or because they were taught that God wills it. They reflect a "spare the rod, spoil the child" mentality that prevails among parents in many cultures (Miller 1983).A few students insist that teaching children to protect themselves, to practice refusal skills, to know bad touch from good touch and reasonable consequences from cruel penalties will cause them to be insubordinate to parents. For them, any threat to the parent's authority is a threat against the child.Most days I believe that no one really intends to hurt a child. Parenting—and teaching—are hard work. We get tired, we want quick results, and we learn that coercion works—at least in the short term. Every teacher, like every parent, must grapple with that paradox.
  3. Wanting not to know. Some class members discount disclosures by children and the memories of adult survivors. Some teachers persist in believing that unwitting men can be duped and seduced by precocious little girls, or that adult survivors' reports are based on false memory, or that children make up tales about sexual exploitation to get revenge or at the urging of a third party like a divorcing parent. Some want to believe that unscrupulous attorneys and overzealous therapists frequently put words in children's mouths. Others insist that the statistics exaggerate the extent of the problem, or that it isn't getting worse—we're just reporting it more.I fear these attitudes will retard our progress toward greater awareness and resolve. Perhaps teachers are expressing the wish we all share, that this ugliness might be exaggerated, might turn out to be limited and manageable. Rebecca Coffey (in press) writes: When actual survivors of the kinds of horror stories we love to hate insist on speaking their unspeakable truths—truths like, "I am forever changed, diminished"; "I did not deserve this," we desperately try to tune them out. We silently accuse the tellers of refusing to heal or of exaggerating for effect. We decide that trauma was somehow earned. Trauma stories are inherently unbelievable. We listeners bring to the listening a desperate hope that what we are about to hear didn't really happen.As teachers, we must brace ourselves to listen and to believe.
  4. Political or religious affiliation. Other teachers in my class argue that emotional and interpersonal family problems are not the province of government or school. They resist the use of public funds to purchase child abuse prevention program materials or parenting education materials for unwed mothers. One student declared: "We are perpetuating the problem with the message that it's OK to have sex and make babies out of wedlock."This attitude, in particular, gets in the way of programs that children need. It punishes children for the errors of their parents. But even this attitude has fear at its base and, like most fear, has a positive origin: a concern that, without rigorous discipline, children will fall prey to influences that can destroy their chances for successful lives. We must help one another with these defensive attitudes if we are to help kids.

Systemic Barriers

The public school system itself generates barriers to addressing the problem of child abuse. Our preoccupation with high standards, measures, and accountability is a case in point. Raising the academic performance bar without also addressing students' affective needs does nothing to build children's capacities to aim high. Children who are victims of abuse need encouragement and a high level of support in school to be creative, to be problem solvers, decision makers, communicators, and team members—in short, to become full participants in a democratic society.
We must not make higher standards a new stumbling block for children preoccupied with personal hurts—the downshifted kids Renate Nummela Caine describes (Pool 1997), too threatened by circumstances at home to respond to schooling in healthy ways. Knowing we will teach what we decide to measure, we must ask ourselves, Who is measuring affective survival skills? Where in the curriculum is resilience training? Children who come to school from extreme turmoil—and an estimated one-third of all children do—especially need to learn social skills. When we teach these things, we affirm for these children that there are alternatives to rage, violence, and despair.
Asked for her solution to teen pregnancy, drug use, and crime, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund once answered with a single word: Hope. Hope is a minimum prerequisite to academic and career success. When our curriculum includes communication and conflict management strategies, we inspire abused children to break the cycle.

What Teachers Can Do

  • They pay attention to children's basic needs for warmth and security.
  • They worry about snacks and providing a place where a neglected child might take a shower.
  • They conduct clothing drives so that no student need be cold or ragged.
  • They prepare students to become citizens of the village, offering opportunities for community service projects, peer mediation, cross-age tutoring, drug abuse resistance and refusal skills training, and mentoring programs.
The same teachers also demand rigor and achievement, understanding how greatly academic success contributes to resilience. They are aware that both their teaching and their personal influence can save lives. They offer students help in making wise choices. They offer content-related topics relevant to students' developmental levels, cultural backgrounds, and the world of work. They encourage students to learn to work together.
These teachers understand that, for many —alized students, programs in art and music, auto mechanics, Future Farmers of America, athletics, clubs, and encounters with nature like Outdoor School are life-altering experiences. And when such programs are threatened by shifts in funding priorities, these teachers sound the alarm.
As a survivor of child abuse, I can personally report that certain teachers made me feel safe and welcome. They captured my imagination, fired my curiosity, motivated me to rigor, provided avenues of self-expression, let me be competent, gave me hope for the future, and (I have no doubt whatever) saved my life.
Tracy Kidder watched such a teacher for a year in an inner-city school and concluded: Good teachers usually have no way of knowing that they have made a difference in a child's life, even when they have made a dramatic one. But for children who are used to thinking of themselves as stupid or not worth talking to or deserving of rape and beatings, a good teacher can provide an astonishing revelation. A good teacher can give a child at least a chance to feel, "She thinks I'm worth something. Maybe I am." Good teachers . . . redirect hundreds of lives. Many people find it easy to imagine unseen webs of malevolent conspiracy in the world, and they are not always wrong. But there is also an innocence that conspires to hold humanity together, and it is made of people who can never fully know the good that they have done (1989, pp. 312-313).

Coffey, R. (in press). Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings. Lutherville, Md.: SIDRAN Foundation. (http://www.access.digex.net/~sidran/).

Kidder, T. (1989). Among Schoolchildren. New York: Avon Books.

Miller, A. (1983). For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, translated by Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Myers, J.E.B., ed. (1994). The Backlash: Child Protection Under Fire. London: Sage Publications.

National Child Rights Alliance. (1997). (http://linux.hartford.edu/~jerry/ ncra.html).

Pool, C.R. (March 1997). "Maximizing Learning: A Conversation with Renate Nummela Caine." Educational Leadership 54, 6: 11-15.

Rush, F. (1980). The Best Kept Secret. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sharon Bancroft has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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