I see them in my office, you see them in your classroom. The child who just can’t seem to make eye contact. The child who has an edge. The kid who carries an aura of sadness, of insecurity. The child lacking the basics of hygiene. For you it may manifest with missing homework and poor test grades. The child may often be late to school. He or she may wear long sleeves and pants even when the weather demands short sleeves and shorts. Or he may exhibit exhaustion in class. This may also be the child who becomes aggressive, threatening or hitting other children with abandon. For me, this child is often uncommunicative, reserved, overly shy, and reluctant to discuss symptoms. For me, the parent hovers, making sure I do not look too deeply, ask too many questions.
As professionals, how do we handle this? Because while it is all well and good to assert our mandated reporter roles, we also know that simply reporting is not enough. These children need more, and we are in positions to provide it. As educators, as adults who see the same children every day, you are often in the most pivotal position of all.
Reality is, we live in a litigious society. Confront a child about suspected abuse, and you may call down the wrath of the parents, bringing a nightmare to you and your school. And no one wants that. But do nothing and you may tacitly allow for continued and escalating abuse.
When the signs are indisputable – bruises and broken bones – we have no problem being proactive. But when the signs are more subtle, we must often follow suit. So what should we do? Of course, if the signs of abuse are blatant, report. But if you are still gathering information, the following may be helpgful.
Pay a bit more attention to the child. Ask them for assistance with handing things out, tidying up the classroom, bringing messages to the office. Elevating them to a more trusted position in your classroom invites them to reciprocate your trust.
Raise pertinent issues in class. Choose a book or article for the class to read that engenders the discussion of abusive behaviors, of bullying, of feeling as though we have no control in a situation. And invite the child to participate in the discussion without singling him out.
Be observant and catalogue your observations. There are always telltale signs of abuse. Watch for them, and keep a journal of your observations. When you have several, share them with a counselor, your principal, or the school nurse.
Find reasons several times a week to chat with the child. Whether you approach them with a task, with something serious, or something funny, do so with a sense of ease. While your initial efforts may be rebuffed, eventually children reach back and respond. Gentle but consistent efforts to connect with a child usually gain a level of trust from them.
In short, as a teacher you have tremendous access to a child and a rare opportunity to gain that child’s trust. If you believe it is possible that a child in your care is being abused, take every possible opportunity to provide them with an adult with whom they can relate and who they can trust, seek to confirm your suspicion, and then take action. You may just be the only real lifeline for a child at risk.