Matthew Lynch: Recognizing and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect

Abuse and neglect are difficult elements of student life that school staff must take appropriate action with, writes Matthew Lynch.

Child abuse and child neglect are issues that we would rather avoid.  Unfortunately, they are all too real and they are so prevalent that, as teachers, we must rise to the challenge.  Chances are teachers will have abused and neglected children in their class. What was once a problem known only by police and social workers has become a problem that the public is well aware of.

When we think of child abuse, physical abuse is the first image that comes to mine. There are however many other forms of abuse, including sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, neglect and maltreatment. Sadly, much of the abuse experience of children is still hidden.  Children who are abused often do not speak of it because they feel guilty, may feel they did something to bring the abuse on themselves, or have been told not to tell by the abuser.

Abused children have more than just low self-esteem. They are under a great deal of stress and they may be shy, withdrawn, and unable to concentrate.  If they are physically abused, they may actually suffer injuries that affect their ability to perform in school.  Another effect that abuse has on children is they have a need for control. Their home life is so out of control and they have no power at all, so many of these children seek power and control in other areas of their lives.  This means they in turn often bully other children and may end up abusing their own children when they grow up. Unfortunately, most of these children think they live a normal life and all children are treated this way.

It is very important to remember that it is not always obvious in which family abuse might occur, and abuse and neglect do not necessarily have to be ongoing.  Parents may end up becoming abusive for various reasons, including financial or psychological stress or unrealistic expectations of their children. It can be as simple as losing one’s temper under stress and calling a child “stupid” or smacking them in the face.

However, it is known that child abuse often occurs from one generation to the next, parents who were abused often abuse their children. Abused children have a difficult time functioning in society as adults, substantiated by the fact that many violent criminals and serious juvenile offenders report being abused as children.

The definition of child abuse according to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act states that “The term ‘child abuse and neglect’ means, at a minimum, any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”  The current definition includes four categories of abuse: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect.

When a teacher encounters the problem of child abuse, regardless of the state where they teach, they have a moral and legal responsibility to report it to the proper authorities.  This means all teachers need to know the signs of abuse. These include:

  • Injuries that are seen again and again.  These can be bruises, burns and welts on the body, particularly on the head or abdomen;
  • Child stealing food, having a hard time staying awake, or with poor hygiene and an unclean and neglected physical appearance;
  • A very sudden decline in academic performance

Child abuse is a very serious problem that must not be taken lightly.  Any sign of abuse must be reported, and teachers must be ready to offer support and encouragement to these students.

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Dr.Lynch is the author of two newly released books; It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade and A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories. He is also the author of an upcoming textbook  entitled The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Education (Pearson 2013). Please visit www.drmattlynch.com for more information.

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