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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 4

Supporting Victims of Child Abuse

Classroom teachers have a unique opportunity to identify abused children and to start the healing process that will restore safety to their lives.

Instructional Strategies
Our varied roles as therapist, educator, school psychologist, school bus driver, student, and administrator have provided us with the experience and education on which this article is based. This is a new field, an area in which all of us are searching for facts, understanding, and ways to help those who have been and continue to be abused. The combined perspectives we share from personal, professional, and academic experiences have added to our knowledge in ways that have been valuable to us as people who care a great deal about children.
Probably no adult is more trusted by children who have been abused than a beloved and caring teacher. Teachers have an opportunity afforded few adults to identify abused children and to start a process that will restore safety in the child's world. However, many teachers have not been adequately prepared to deal with the complex social issues that have so strongly affected abused children. We want to give teachers a knowledge base about child abuse, describe possible interventions, and communicate an understanding of the emotional issues involved.

Survivors' Voices

Before I started kindergarten, I knew that I could not believe what people said. My father would say, “I know you like this,” as he touched me in sexual ways that I did not like or that caused great physical pain. My early years were a real struggle. Because I could not trust what I heard, it was hard to learn sound-letter associations, memorize isolated facts, or learn anything I had heard and not seen.

The messages I received from my perpetrators were intended to prevent my telling what they were doing to me. To keep the horrible secret I learned to be silent, and the silence became my prison. I felt that I was the only child who had ever experienced such bad things. I thought I was so bad that I should separate myself from everyone. It was lonely.

Since I felt I could not talk, I did all kinds of quiet acting out in the hope that someone would notice that something was terribly wrong in my life. My behaviors were either ignored or I was told to behave, to be a good girl. During 3rd and 4th grade, I repeatedly sawed on or cut my wrist with a little knife. I wore bizarre clothing, laughed excessively, and withdrew from others.

Today I am a school psychologist. I have overcome the academic hurdles, but I continue to experience some of the emotional pain of abuse.

—Sherry Schenk

The messages about my abuse were also intended to keep me quiet, to protect my perpetrators. I was quiet and shy, but I would also do daring things with little regard for my physical safety. They called me “accident prone.” I was told I was crazy and that if I ever told, “someone” would take me away and I would never see anyone in my family again ... or I would be killed. These were terrifying threats to me.

I was a very good student, usually at the top of my class. Looking back now, I was afraid to be anything but perfect. I was afraid of what would happen at home. School became a safe haven, and I worked hard to keep it that way by staying silent about my abuse. I remember more than once trying to get teachers to take me home with them.

I am currently a school bus driver and enjoy daily contact with children in a less-structured environment. When I see symptoms of child abuse, I report what I hear and observe. I would always rather err on the side of the child. I would rather make the report than to ignore what I know.

—Lisa Buckner

In 1987, when I was asked to facilitate groups for survivors of abuse at a University Counseling Center, I knew little about the incidence or results of abuse. The frequency of women who had been abused as children was much greater than we had thought. We soon had 4 groups and more than 50 names on a waiting list. I learned about the tremendous cost of keeping the family secret. I learned of the emotional pain that can result from feeling different. As an educator I was appalled at my previous lack of awareness of the consequences of abuse. I vowed to somehow assist in giving a voice to those survivors who can teach us what it was to live with abuse and how to help today's children.

—Thelma Bear

The Incidence of Child Abuse

Although the statistics are overwhelming, professionals in the mental health field generally accept that the incidence of child abuse is much greater than that reported.
In 1979, Geiser advised that 200,000 children were sexually abused each year with victims as young as two months. “Nightline's” Forrest Sawyer (1989) stated that 2 million cases of child abuse are reported in the United States every year. In its newsletter, the National Organization for Victims' Assistance (1989) indicated that 2.2 million children are reported physically or sexually abused each year. Many cases are closed after a cursory investigation; many cases remain unreported.
  • 35 percent of all reported child sex abuse cases in 1988 were of girls under 6.
  • Dr. Michael Durfee of the Los Angeles Department of Health Services reported in 1984 that more sexual abuse was reported on 2-year-olds than any other age group; 3- and 4-year-olds were next.
  • More than 2 million cases of child abuse were reported in 1986, compared with 669,000 in 1976.
  • More than 1,200 children die each year through child abuse and neglect.
  • Parents who were abused as children were six times more likely to abuse their own children.
  • 5 to 20 percent of psychiatric outpatients were women who had experienced incest.
  • 4 out of 10 mothers of children who died of physical abuse were incest victims.
  • One-half to three-fourths of adult male sexual offenders had been sexually abused.
  • Sexual abuse was one of three reasons children ran away from home.
  • In a questionnaire sent to 1,800 college students, one-third indicated that they had been sexually abused.
Research on child abuse is a fairly recent development. Only in the last two decades has the subject appeared in professional journals. It is urgent that all personnel in public schools become educated and make every effort to break the continuing cycle of abuse.

Types of Abuse

  1. Physical abuse: nonaccidental physical injury to a child. Examples include slapping, shaking, hitting, kicking, burning, pushing, smothering, restraining (physical or chemical), and torture (may be related to ritualistic abuse and/or satanic worship). A few forms of abuse may be attributed to lack of knowledge on the part of the parent—for instance, neurological damage can result from shaking a child. Physical abuse should be suspected if the following are present: bruises, burns, broken bones, and/or internal injuries. Further, a child who appears fearful or who startles easily may be the victim of abuse.
  2. Emotional maltreatment: the constant belittling and rejecting of a child, the absence of a positive emotional atmosphere. Examples include verbal abuse, inadequate or inappropriate parenting, and neglect. Any of these can destroy a child's self-esteem and weaken self-concept. The “failure to thrive” syndrome is an example of the results of emotional maltreatment. Delays in emotional development and immature behavior may indicate emotional neglect.
  3. Physical neglect: failure on the part of the child's caretaker to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or supervision. The extreme form of neglect is abandonment of a child with no regard or concern for his or her welfare.
  4. Sexual abuse: sexual exploitation, molestation, or prostitution of a child (p. 1). Sgroi, Porter, and Blick (1982) define child sexual abuse as a sexual act imposed on a child who lacks the emotional, maturational, and cognitive development to understand what is happening and to protect him- or herself. Sexual abuse may be overt or covert. Examples of overt abuse include unwanted touching of any part of the body, such as hugs or kisses presented as innocent signs of affection. More obvious examples include any penetration of the body with objects or body parts. Unexplained infections or diseases and external or internal injuries are symptoms that require investigation for the possibility of sexual abuse.
Covert sexual abuse is more difficult to recognize. Since this type of abuse does not include physical contact, the perpetrator may rationalize the behavior as innocent. Examples may include voyeurism, asking the child to watch inappropriate sexual behaviors, invading the child's privacy, and/or behaving in a seductive manner toward the child.
Most adults who have not been abused would rather not accept the reality of the number of children who have been abused. Many prefer to think of physical injury, terrorizing, and psychological torture as atrocities that only happen to hostages imprisoned in foreign countries. They do not want to accept that these abominations occur to nearly 2.7 million children in this country (“Study Finds ...” 1992). Figure 1 lists physical and behavioral indicators of these four types of abuse.

Figure 1

Supporting Victims of Child Abuse - table

Physical Indicators

Behavioral Indicators

Physical Abuseunexplained bruises (in various stages of healing), welts, human bite marks, bald spotsself-destructive
unexplained burns, especially cigarette burns or immersion-burns (glove-like)withdrawn and aggressive—behavioral extremes
unexplained fractures, lacerations, or abrasionsuncomfortable with physical contact
arrives at school early or stays late as if afraid
chronic runaway (adolescents)
complains of soreness or moves uncomfortably
wears clothing inappropriate to weather, to cover body
Physical Neglectabandonmentregularly displays fatigue or listlessness, falls asleep in class
unattended medical needssteals food, begs from classmates
consistent lack of supervisionreports that no caretaker is at home
consistent hunger, inappropriate dress, poor hygienefrequently absent or tardy
lice, distended stomach, emaciatedself-destructive
school dropout (adolescents)
Sexual Abusetorn, stained, or bloodied underclothingwithdrawn, chronic depression
pain or itching in genital areaexcessive seductiveness
difficulty walking or sittingrole reversal, overly concerned for siblings
bruises or bleeding in external genitaliapoor self-esteem, self-devaluation, lack of confidence
venereal diseasepeer problems, lack of involvement
frequent urinary or yeast infectionsmassive weight change
suicide attempts (especially adolescents)
hysteria, lack of emotional control
sudden school difficulties
inappropriate sex play or premature understanding of sex
threatened by physical contact, closeness
Emotional Maltreatmentspeech disordershabit disorders (sucking, rocking)
delayed physical developmentantisocial, destructive
substance abuseneurotic traits (sleep disorders, inhibition of play)
ulcers, asthma, severe allergiespassive and aggressive—behavioral extremes
delinquent behavior (especially adolescents)
developmentally delayed
Adapted in part from: D. D. Broadhurst, M. Edmunds, and R. A. MacDicken. (1979). Early Childhood Programs and the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect. The User Manual Series. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

A Safe Classroom Environment

There is no escape for children caught in a world where silence often seems the only way to survive. And there is no escape from confronting the issues for those who work with children. Teachers who educate themselves about abuse will find many opportunities to support children who have neither the experience nor the maturity to unravel the turmoil they face.
Although the academic environment is structured for learning, the ability to learn is dependent on a child's arriving at school with basic needs met. Children who have been abused have had the basic requirements for healthy development withheld and violated. Getting physiological needs met, as well as those for safety, belonging, trust, and love, maximizes the child's development as a learner. The classroom teacher has the opportunity to provide an environment where the child can begin to succeed and recognize that he or she is capable and valued.
The most important ingredient in a safe classroom is the teacher's attitude toward students. The most crucial belief a teacher must have is that the child is not to blame. There is nothing that a child can do to prevent or stop the abuse. The discrepancy between the power of a child and that of an adult is too great. However, it is important to remember that these children are strong. They have developed coping mechanisms that have helped them to survive traumatic experiences. An accepting, caring attitude by the teacher will allow the child to trust enough to make the first steps toward developing a saner life.
Each of us needs a personal space into which others do not intrude without permission (Blume 1990). Victimized children have not learned that it is okay to say no, nor do they know how it feels to have personal and physical space honored. The teacher should help an abused child to set healthy boundaries and to know that he or she will be respected. Before the child can believe in his or her ability to set personal boundaries, he or she may need to be taught to trust personal judgments, feelings, and perceptions (Blume 1990).
Part of establishing healthy boundaries is understanding that confidentiality within the school is honored by staff and students. If a student confides in classmates and teachers, the information must be handled with great care in order to protect the vulnerability of the child. At times, the disclosure of information about the abuse may be unintentional. Some of the ways the secret may accidentally be disclosed are observations by the teacher or others, physical injuries or conditions discovered in a doctor's examination, and/or inappropriate sexual behaviors by the child (Sgroi et al. 1982).
To offer support, the teacher must, first, be approachable. If an abused child begins to tell what is happening, positive body language will encourage the child to continue. The teacher must also watch for cues about how to respond. The child may either want to be comforted physically or may not want to be touched. At this point, it is more important to actively listen than to comment or ask questions. Listening to those who will talk is important; however, some students will be unable to share verbally what is happening. In these instances, the teacher must be observant. The indicators listed in Figure 1 may help teachers in attempting to decide if abuse should be suspected.
Drawings, too, may provide clues to students who have been sexually abused. Hillman and Solek-Tefft (1988) list five themes to ask a child about if they are drawn repeatedly: stark sexual images, phallic symbols, general symbols (broken hearts, rain, black skies), self-image distortions, and general confusion (p. 107).
Girls and boys who have been abused attempt both to keep the secret of what is happening and to control the emotional turmoil they feel inside. As a result, the child may act out, or he or she may become the epitome of the “good” child. Both of these behaviors may disguise the problem. A child who behaves as a perfect student may be seen as having no problems, while acting out may cover the real issues, making the child appear to be the problem. Teachers should listen to their gut response to a child, particularly if that feeling is based on a suspicion that something is wrong.
Occasionally a child will spontaneously disclose an episode of abuse. Although a teacher may doubt the story, it is vitally important to believe the child (Besharov 1990). The child is taking a significant step in trusting the teacher enough to tell what is happening. To betray that trust would repeat the betrayal experienced when an adult abused the child and failed to serve as a protector. Even though the explanation may be fragmented, teachers should listen supportively and ask open-ended questions to fill in gaps. Sometimes after telling the secret, the child may recant the story due to fear, threats, or acceleration of the abuse (Sgroi et al. 1982). Most experts agree that children do not have the ability or knowledge to make up complex lies, especially lies related to adult sexual behavior (Besharov 1990, Conerly 1986, Crewdson 1988).

How to Support an Abused Child

  1. Expectations. Teachers can honor the strength and courage of these children by having high expectations for them. Emotionality may interfere with thinking; therefore, it is important to set reasonable goals and to provide the support needed for the child to feel confident in his or her abilities. School can be a place where children rebuild their self-esteem, assert themselves, and see themselves as successful.
  2. Structure. Abused children may feel powerless to control much in their environment. To cope, they may: (a) refuse to even try to control what happens around them; (b) strive to manipulate everything they can by bossing peers and controlling belongings; and (c) express disproportionate feelings whenever they feel threatened. When these children fly off the handle with little provocation, they may be doing so to try to establish control. To help the child feel a sense of control in a positive manner, teachers should give accurate information and build trust. Allowing expression of feelings when appropriate through art, music, drama, and/or creative writing will also help the child to feel less controlled by pent-up emotion.
  3. Identity. Children who have been abused in ways that met an adult's needs and denied the child's needs have little sense of personal identity. Teachers can help by pointing out the child's strengths. Statements such as “You are a hard worker,” “You are a good friend when you help a classmate with a problem,” and “People in this classroom like you because you are fun to be with” will help the child understand how others perceive him or her. Teachers can also help abused children gain a sense of personal identity by asking questions that help them formulate a position on issues, administering interest inventories, and teaching decision-making and problem-solving skills. These skills will assist in interpersonal relationships as well as in self-understanding.
  4. Self-esteem. Abused children have little self-esteem. Teachers can help them learn that they are valued, accepted, and capable by fostering an environment that honors each child's uniqueness. Valuing differences will enable children to begin to see themselves as having something to contribute that others appreciate. With each successful completion of a classroom task, the child's sense of competency will be fostered.
  5. Sense of belonging. Abused children think they did something wrong and that they are bad. Because they have kept a secret from everyone, they assume there is a reason for them to be isolated from others. To facilitate a sense of belonging, the teacher may provide designated places for possessions, display work in the classroom, and make a conscious attempt to include these children in classroom activities. Support through teaching social skills individually, in small group settings, and through cooperative learning will also help abused children practice interacting in a nonthreatening atmosphere.
  6. Social skills. Because abused children have not learned to listen to their inner selves, they may focus on pleasing and meeting the needs of others while neglecting their own needs. Having been introduced to the adult world through an abusive relationship, the child may have learned inappropriate behaviors and language. The child may feel unworthy to interact on an equal basis with others and may fear rejection. A classroom climate that fosters caring, appreciation for differences, consistent rules and boundaries, and recognition for small successes will nurture a child who has been discounted at home.
  7. Tolerance of differences. Because each child will respond in a unique way to abuse, classroom behaviors may be variable. Some of the feelings an abused child may experience are anxiety, guilt, embarrassment, depression, anger, and resolution (Hillman and Solek-Tefft 1988). The checklist (fig. 1) may help teachers identify emotions and behaviors that might be explained by abuse. Consultation with a school psychologist, social worker, counselor, or nurse may also help teachers understand unexplainable behaviors and emotions of their students.
  8. Consistency. Teachers can support a child's need for structure by maintaining a consistent daily schedule, by having clear expectations for performance in both behavioral and affective areas, and by allowing the child to provide structure in his or her own way. A child's need for structure can restrict the depth of his or her encounter with the world. Teachers may respond to this need by encouraging risk-taking in ways that will encourage success and personal worth.
Although teachers are not responsible for investigation of child abuse, they are legally obligated to report suspected abuse. When abuse is suspected, the teacher can compare the child's behaviors with those of other students at the same developmental level, review the child's past and present behaviors, and refer to indicators such as those listed in Figure 1. To report any suspicions, the teacher should contact the school district child abuse team or the Department of Social Services. The appropriate agencies will assess the situation and decide how to keep the child safe.
Working with children who have suffered abuse is a skill that every teacher possesses. Given a few guidelines and accurate information, the teacher's natural concern and caring for students will promote the process of healing. Teachers have the opportunity to give an abused child the hope of a childhood, the joy of play, and the sense of being cared for by others. Those are gifts that cannot be measured in any monetary or quantitative way.

Besharov, D. (1990). Recognizing Child Abuse. New York: The Free Press.

Blume, E. (1990). Secret Survivors. New York: The Free Press.

Butler, S. (1978). Conspiracy of Silence. San Francisco: New Glide Publications.

Colorado Department of Education (1988). The School's Role in the Prevention/Intervention of Child Abuse and Neglect. Denver: Colorado Department of Education.

Conerly, S. (1986). “Assessment of Suspected Child Sexual Abuse.” In Sexual Abuse of Young Children, edited by K. MacFarlane, pp. 30–51. New York: The Guilford Press.

Crewdson, J. (1988). By Silence Abused. New York: Harper & Row.

Geiser, R. (1979). Hidden Victims: The Sexual Abuse of Children. Boston: Beacon Press.

Goodwin, J. (1982). Sexual Abuse: Incest Victims and Their Families. Boston: John Wright.

Hillman, D., and J. Solek-Tefft. (1988). Spiders and Flies. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books.

Kantrowitz, B. (December 1988). “A Tale of Abuse.” Newsweek, pp. 56–59.

National Organization for Victims' Assistance. (March 1989). Newsletter.

Sawyer, F. (Journalist). (1989). Nightline television program, ABC.

Sgroi, S., F. Porter, and L. Blick. (1982). “Validation of Child Sexual Abuse.” In Handbook of Clinical Intervention in Child Sexual Abuse, edited by S. Sgroi, pp. 39–79. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books.

“Study Finds Child Care Increasing.” (April 1992). The Greeley Tribune, p. A-11.

Thelma Bear has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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