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The Role of Educators in Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau., Caliber Associates. Crosson-Tower, Cynthia.|
|Year Published: 2003|
Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect
Recognizing and reporting child maltreatment are important to prevent abuse and neglect from continuing or recurring. Schools also must be involved in working to prevent maltreatment from ever occurring at all. Schools are in a unique position to address this problem by virtue of the staff 's training and expertise, the school's position in the community, and the availability of physical facilities. A school's involvement in prevention can be divided into school-based programs, school-community programs, and individual action on the part of educators.
School-Based Programs for Children and Adolescents
Some prevention efforts are provided through specifically designed programs, other efforts are integrated into existing school curricula. Some of the more common areas that prevention activities address or strengthen are:
- Life skills training;
- Socialization skills;
- Problem-solving and coping skills;
- Preparation for parenthood;
- Self-protection training.
Life Skills Training
Adults require specific skills to navigate today's complex society successfully, but many daily living skills are never taught to them as they are growing up. Parents or other involved adults may teach these skills directly or by example; if they do not, young adults usually learn them by trial and error. Therefore, schools are increasingly integrating lessons teaching these skills into the curriculum. Learning skills that ease the transition into adulthood can prevent frustrated or overwhelmed future parents from becoming abusive to their children.
It is important to promote tangible and intangible life skills that are tailored to students' developmental needs. Tangible life skills are those needed for daily living, self-maintenance, and obtaining and sustaining employment, such as:
- Food preparation
- Personal hygiene
- Obtaining appropriate medical care
- Educational planning
- Money management and budgeting
- Time management
- Finding housing
Intangible life skills are those needed for developing and maintaining positive personal and professional relationships, such as:
- Conflict management skills
- Peer mediation skills
- Communication skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Parenting skills
Instruction in these tangible and intangible life skills is intended to have a positive impact on a youth's self-sufficiency and self-esteem, in addition to the practical advantages he or she will incur in adulthood.39 Although only few of these programs have been fully evaluated related to child abuse prevention, many are working towards that goal in order to demonstrate their effectiveness. There are, however, studies demonstrating the effectiveness of life skills training related to other concerns, such as substance abuse prevention. One of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) rigorously researched and reviewed "model programs" is LifeSkills Training. Compared to children not receiving the training, participants cut their alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use by 50 to 75 percent and decreased multiple drug use by up to 66 percent. These effects were observed up to 6 years post-intervention.40
Another study, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, focused on reducing the level of chronic disruptive and aggressive behavior in middle school populations by teaching conflict management and peer mediation skills. Such acting out behaviors are frequently observed in youth who have been abused or are members of high-risk families. This 3-year study found that disciplinary problems in the school decreased somewhat and that the skills taught were found to be generalized to the home environment and minor conflict situations.41
Socialization—learning appropriate ways to interact with peers—is learned by children as they participate in activities during the school day. Less emphasis on competition and more attention paid to cooperative learning, in addition to teaching conflict resolution and problem solving, will enable children to better relate to peers.
Research suggests that it is important for children to learn these four basic skills to become adequately socialized, productive adults. Children need to:
- Learn how to get their needs met appropriately. Often maltreated children are not able to express their needs and ask for help.
- Learn how to express feelings, which enables children to separate these feelings from actions. For example, children must learn that it is acceptable to feel anger toward someone, but it is not appropriate to hit another person.
- Learn to take responsibility for their actions.
- Learn how to make decisions and solve problems.42
Some educators use other techniques to strengthen socialization skills. For example, a tool used with increased frequency is the journal. Children and teens are asked to write in journals as a way of composing their thoughts, expressing feelings, and gaining self-awareness.
A lack of socialization skills in children can be manifest in a variety of ways. Some may act withdrawn or introverted, while others are aggressive. Sometimes aggressive, threatening behavior becomes entrenched, creating a threat to siblings, neighborhood children, and classmates. Bullying can be defined as repeated or systematic harassment and attacks on others. It can be perpetrated by individuals or groups. Bullying can take many forms, including:
A power imbalance is a key to the dynamic. Students who bully are nearly always stronger, bigger, more aggressive, and bolder than those students who are victimized. Bullying behavior may be an indicator of difficulties in the home. Abuse, exposure to domestic violence, as well as other high-conflict dynamics can play a role in the acceptance of inappropriate power dictating the actions of others. Supervision of children has been found to be of significant importance. Just as low levels of supervision in the home may be associated with the development of bullying behavior, so too can low levels of supervision at schools be problematic, particularly on the playground or in the hallways. Other measures schools can take to reduce bullying behavior include:
Problem-solving and Coping Skills
In a stress-filled society, basic lessons on how to solve problems are essential. The four steps of problem solving are:
- Define the problem;
- Generate alternative solutions;
- Choose the best solution, make a plan, and execute it;
- Evaluate the outcome.44
Children also must learn how to cope with a crisis. Many sexual abuse prevention programs include segments on who the children should call in a crisis situation, such as a possible case of abuse. Officers from local agencies (e.g., police and fire department) often are helpful in educating children on how to respond to an emergency. By knowing their resources, children take control of their lives and are less likely to feel vulnerable. Building a positive self-image is vital for children to become healthy adults. Additionally, there are numerous publications and videos that educators may find useful in activities and exercises that help children develop positive self-concepts.
Preparation for Parenthood
To help stop the intergenerational cycle of violence or prevent new cycles of child abuse, many schools have curricula on learning how to parent adequately. To do so, children must be armed with knowledge in three areas: reproductive processes, child development, and parenting skills.
Not all schools teach how to prevent sexual abuse or sexual reproduction. When children are presented with age-appropriate material, however, they are better equipped to enter into healthy sexual relationships as adults, a fact that can strengthen healthy marriages and enhance effective parenting.46
|Class Activity to Help Build Problem-solving Skills|
Here is an easy and fun activity to enhance problem-solving abilities and it is appropriate for students in grades 6 through 12.
For example, using Romeo and Juliet, present to the students: There are two teenagers who are desperately in love with each other, but they cannot date because their families have been rivals and disliked each other for generations. What should the teens do?45
Basic concepts of child development also should be taught to children. Some cases of maltreatment have been associated with the parents' lack of knowledge about their children's developmental needs. Thus, students who are trained to understand what children do at specific ages may be better able to cope as parents. As parents, they are far less likely to become angry with a 2-year-old who says "NO!" to every command or suggestion when they understand that every 2-year-old does this. Courses on child development can provide information for teens who wish to try their skills with children through babysitting. Some schools actually provide a babysitting certificate for both boys and girls who learn appropriate skills.
Parenting skills are a necessary complement for understanding child development. Numerous lessons and exercises exist that teach what is expected of new parents, as well as the social, financial, physical, and psychological implications of sexual activity and potential parenthood. One frequently used exercise is the "egg baby" in which students pair up and assume responsibility for the complete care of an egg. The egg, representing their baby, must be cared for, protected, nurtured, kept warm and safe, and not left alone. At the completion of the exercise, participants discuss their frustrations and satisfactions with the experience. The exercise is intended to help the students recognize and understand the energy and responsibility required in caring for something or someone totally dependent on them. The youth hopefully learn the gravity and consequences of parenthood so they better understand the serious implications of sexual behavior. Schools develop and establish various programs and activities to achieve the same realizations. For instance, some schools have programs that promote abstinence as the surest way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Additionally, abstinence ensures the avoidance of other consequences associated with premature sexual activity, such as the increased likelihood of emotional difficulties, substance abuse, or dropping out of school.47
It is important that parenting skills training be a component of any high school program for boys and girls. Traditionally, such courses have been aimed primarily at high school girls. Limiting these courses to half of the population means that the other half of future parents receive no training or education for possibly the biggest challenge they will face as adults.
Numerous self-protection programs are available now to help children defend themselves, especially against sexual abuse. The components of such programs usually include: educating children about what sexual abuse is (i.e., distinguishing among "good," "bad," and "confusing" touches); making children aware of potential abusers; and teaching children what to do when they are abused or feel that they are vulnerable to abuse.48 Some programs bring in experts to educate the children, while others train teachers to conduct the training seminar or to integrate the information into their curriculum. It is essential that teachers train in the course content and become comfortable with their involvement in this type of training. Opinions on such programs vary, however, with some maintaining that they make the child feel responsible for their own protection and cause them to feel guilty if they are molested.
The effectiveness of child abuse prevention programs has been researched in several studies. Researchers concluded that not only did children grasp the basic concepts, but they also communicated more openly about abuse, both in the classroom and with their parents.49 One study evaluated 542 school-based prevention programs at the elementary school level and found that children did benefit from these programs, but those who benefited the most had already been acquainted with some of the concepts by their parents.50 Finally, a meta-analysis of 27 evaluation studies pointed to the conclusion that programs with a minimum of four sessions were the most effective, and that active, long-term programs had the most impact on children.51
In addition to in-school prevention programs, there are attitudinal additions to the curriculum that help both maltreated children and their nonabused peers. In the past, society and many helping professions have been geared toward looking at people's deficits or "what is wrong with a person." More recently, mental health professionals began to look more at "what is right with a person" and focus on the individual's strengths. Indeed, the studies of resiliency in the face of trauma have emphasized the fact that many individuals are able to build on their inherent strengths. This concept of strength-based learning has been filtering into schools. All children can benefit from educators who look for the positive in them. Such a seemingly simple change in focus can have a profound impact.
Community groups develop and implement different types of programs with the goal of preventing and responding to sexual abuse. One such program is Stop It Now!, which seeks to educate adults about the ways to stop sexual abuse and to increase public awareness of the trauma of child sexual abuse, and calls on all abusers and potential abusers to stop and seek help. For more information, visit http://www.stopitnow.com.
School-Based Programs for Families
A number of school-based programs exist for families. These programs are described below.
Help for Families at Risk
The strength-based philosophy can benefit parents as well as their children. As discussed earlier, parents have the ability to learn more effectively if they are given the time and necessary training. Schools are a natural focal point for such efforts and can aid community efforts to prevent child maltreatment by recognizing and aiding families at risk. One way is by offering after-school care for children of working parents or parents who need relief from child care responsibilities.
Adolescents at risk also present special problems for identification and help. These young people often have more problems with their parents than younger children. Schools should make an effort to identify and serve adolescents and their families to alleviate some of this stress. Setting up recreation programs for adolescents during after-school hours is an effective way of helping them and their parents.
Support for Adolescent Parents and Their Children
Schools are becoming increasingly aware of the needs of adolescents, who often become parents (whether married or single) without some essential knowledge or experience. These youths are faced with adult responsibilities while their emotional immaturity and the need to continue their studies present additional problems. Some schools have begun to address adolescent parents specifically because they are at a higher risk for economic difficulties, health problems, job instability, and troubles with child rearing. Programs designed for adolescent parents, especially those aimed at adolescent fathers, focus on specific activities and skills to help them stay in school and strengthen their family life.
In some school districts, married students and adolescent parents are excluded from regular academic programs and extracurricular activities. This exclusion only heightens the loneliness and isolation that many of these adolescents already feel. These schools should develop alternative programs for these students, such as programs that allow contact with their friends, as well as specific help with the demands of schoolwork and caring for a family of their own.
Some schools provide special programs for the children of adolescent students. Both parents and the child attend school, with the child cared for in a special child-care center. The parents attend regular classes, but they also spend time in the child-care center observing and caring for all the children there. Such an arrangement offers a unique training ground for parents and an enhanced learning experience for the children. Other schools are meeting the needs of this population in different ways. Some provide support groups and others assign special teachers and counselors to monitor and support the students. Some schools also offer these teens training in parenting, birth control, budgeting, child development, and time management.
One school-based program that works with high-risk families is Circle of Security in Spokane, Washington. It is a 20-week parent education and therapeutic group working to create secure and emotional attachments while decreasing risk factors. For more information on this and other prevention programs that suggest positive outcomes, refer to Emerging Practices in the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect at http://www.childwelfare.gov/preventing/programs/whatworks/report/report.pdf.
School-community partnerships for the welfare of children have existed for years, and these partnerships now include efforts to work with maltreated children. Although implementing new programs and making changes requires effort, the school and community together can serve as powerful advocates for children. Two exciting new programs that have taken shape in the last decade are the Families and Schools Together (FAST) Program, which joins parents and schools to help reduce delinquency, and Community Schools, which provides a forum for collaboration between educators, social service agencies, parents, and the wider community.52 Although many of these programs are originally directed toward the reduction of violence, in a broader sense their impact on child abuse, as one form of violence, can be significant.
Traditionally, advocates for special needs programs have been the parents of children in need. For maltreated children, however, someone other than their parents often needs to assume this function. A school-community partnership is a logical option.
Training and Staff Development Programs
Cooperative efforts between schools and the community can be an effective means of preventing child maltreatment. Training and staff development programs for those who work with children are an excellent starting point. These programs should stress identifying, reporting, treating, and preventing child maltreatment; furnish information on professional roles and responsibilities; and offer opportunities for free and frank discussion of mutual interests and problems among professionals in various disciplines. Some States even require educators to receive training on being a mandated reporter.
Public Awareness Programs
Schools can participate in public awareness programs through parent-teacher groups and other school-community organizations. By increasing public sensitivity to child maltreatment, schools can help develop a cadre of concerned individuals who will press for resources and programs for child abuse and neglect prevention. This is a familiar process for educators. Many programs for physically disabled, learning disabled, and other children with special needs began this way.
Use of School Facilities and Resources
Schools can offer facilities such as auditoriums or conference rooms to self-help groups, such as Parents Anonymous or Circle of Parents, or for school-sponsored public forums and workshops on child abuse and neglect prevention. Joint school-community adult education programs also can be offered on such topics as alternative disciplinary methods and early childhood growth and development. School buildings can be made available for daycare, crisis care, and after-school care programs operated by social service agencies. School staff can serve as consultants, leaders, and facilitators of these programs. School newsletters can be used to announce them. In addition, school-owned films and books can be lent to other agencies and organizations for training programs and meetings.
In short, the school offers a wealth of resources for efforts that seek to prevent child maltreatment. All that is needed is the school's willingness to offer them and the community's willingness to accept them.
Child Welfare Information Gateway continually develops and obtains information on prevention and intervention services for children and families. Visit the Information Gateway website at http://www.childwelfare.gov to locate relevant publications and information.
While the school as a whole is important in preventing child maltreatment, it is the individual who is often in a position of carrying out these efforts. As mentioned previously, reporting suspected child maltreatment is necessary to prevent it from continuing. The attitude of the reporter can affect the progress the family is able to make once the report is filed. The educator, who recognizes the strengths of both children and their parents and is supportive and available to the family throughout the investigation, treatment, and rehabilitation process, helps the family maintain its dignity and protects the child.
Educators must consider how their actions affect family functioning. For example, if behavior management is a point of contention between parents and their child, a terse note from the school about the child misbehaving in class may increase the risk of maltreatment to the child. Instead, it may be better to meet with the parents to decide together which techniques of behavior management should be used.
If grades are an issue, a parent-teacher conference to discuss academic performance may be a better choice than sending home a report card with a failing grade. Whenever possible, the educator should stress the child's positive performance while suggesting ways to improve any negative aspects. Reiterating the child's faults may reinforce the child's negative self-image and further the parent's view of the child as a disappointment. In contrast, emphasizing the child's assets will increase the child's self-confidence and indicate to the parent that the child is worthwhile, capable, and someone of whom to be proud.
The positive influence of an educator on the life of a child can be significant. As one survivor of an abusive home commented:
"I don't think my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Evans, had any idea what an impact he had on my life. He was my father's opposite and taught me much about how men could be. He was consistent and concerned while my father was drunk or ignored me. He praised me while my father criticized. He prized my mind and my accomplishments; my father cared only about abusing my body. I learned a great deal from that teacher about who I was and that I was an important person. I think I became a teacher myself to be like him, so that I could make a difference for some other child."
Many survivors will name an educator who made a real difference in their lives by showing they cared.
The actions of these vital educators helped prevent survivors of abusive homes from repeating the negative behaviors from their childhoods. Every educator has the opportunity to make a difference for an abused or neglected child. It is a challenge worth meeting.
As is illustrated throughout this manual, educators are important partners in preventing, identifying, and responding to child abuse and neglect. Because of their close and consistent contact with students and their families, educators are in a unique and critical position to help deal with these issues. Schools and educators have developed creative approaches in the programs they have established and supported, as well as in the messages and lessons incorporated into curricula. This creativity is instrumental in allowing educators to play an ever-evolving role in addressing the needs of maltreated children and their families.
This material may be freely reproduced and distributed. However, when doing so, please credit Child Welfare Information Gateway.