Sunday, December 5, 2010

Recognizing Abuse & Neglect

As a teacher, one of the many things you'll have to be familiar with is the ability to recognize abuse and neglect in your students. First, you need to know what the definition of child maltreatment is. There are four major types: neglect, sexual, physical and emotional. All are harmful and all of them have lasting effects on the child. No matter what grade you teach, in a career, you will see all four at least once, no matter where you work or how rich the parents are.

Neglect is failure to provide basic needs. Children who are neglected may wear the same clothes repeatedly. As the school year goes on, you'll notice they wear the same one or two items every day and they don't get cleaned. They may be unclean, have dirty hair and even smell. They won't have basic classroom needs. They may be tired and sleep in class. They may be hungry and attempt to take food from you or another student. They will get picked on and bullied. They are often embarrassed and afraid to ask for help.

Sexual abuse can happen at any age. It can range from a parent or step parent coercing a child, to rape or even a family member exploited the child for prostitution. One thing that can throw you off is that signs of sexual abuse can mirror signs of neglect. Students may attempt to make themselves "undesirable" to their attacker by gaining weight, refusing to bathe or altering their appearance in order to appear unattractive. They may fear physical contact with anyone and appear to be extremely worried about younger siblings. Alternately, they can be hypersexual and inappropriate with peers and instructors.

Physical abuse is the one most people are aware of. Students who have been physically abused can have visible bruises that appear suddenly. Sometimes the student will lie about where they got them, or they'll tell you the truth. They may try to hide bruises by wearing long sleeves or long pants despite warm temperatures. They may appear to be withdrawn and aggressive. They may attempt to stay at school longer than necessary to avoid going home. Yelling at them can trigger their aggression. Certain "normal" behaviors, like looking them in the eye when talking, may appear to be threatening to them.

Emotional abuse is the final maltreatment. Students who may have been emotionally abused can show some of the same aggressive behaviors as students who have been physically abused. They may also have some sort of developmental delay or behaviors they should have outgrown. I've seen high school students who suck their thumb when they are upset or angry. They may show a lot of behavior problems in the classroom as all attention is good attention to them.

When you recognize the signs of abuse in a student, the best course of action to take is to call as soon as you become aware of the problem. Your school should have some sort of counseling program in the building, such as Youth Service Centers in my district. Refer the student to there as well so that the school can help keep track of the student should they enter the system. Let the student know that you are there for them. Be prepared for the fact that a student may ask to move in with you or ask for you to adopt them. It happens. What you do in your family is your business and depends largely on your involvement with the student. Do not feel guilty if you have to say no. After you report, the student may initially be angry with you and insist that you've betrayed them. You need to be prepared for this as well. They might not come back around before leaving you. Just know that you did the right thing, even if they don't recognized that now. They will. It may take years, but they'll remember you as the person who saved their life. In teaching, you don't get the thanks you may feel you deserve, but sometimes your kids will come to you later in their life and thank you. Even if they don't, I'm telling you right now; thank you. Thank you for joining this profession. Thank you for caring about children. Thank you for doing the best you can for every child that walks into your classroom. Thank you.

If you would like to donate to Prevent Child Abuse America, this is a direct link to their donation page.

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