Last updated: 21.07.17

Safeguarding in education: How teachers can spot signs of abuse

Detecting signs that a child has been abused, either physically or mentally, can be difficult. Here we take a look at signs teachers can look out for if they suspect a pupil is being abused.

Education professionals (and teachers specifically) play a crucial role in safeguarding pupils because of the nature of their work. Frequently coming into close contact with children means that they are in a position to spot any signs of abuse, whether this be physically or mentally. By identifying concerns at an early stage, the relevant help and support can be provided to help the child understand how to stay safe from abuse, while they are referred to the relevant agencies.

However, much of the time, it can be difficult for teachers to spot signs of abuse especially when it comes to challenging parents or guardians because these relationships rely heavily on mutual trust and support.

It is crucial that teachers remember that parents present only a version of themselves to the school, claims Liz Yardley, lecturer in criminology at Birmingham City University.

"Doing something [about a concern] calls into question the very notion we have of what parents are,” she told the Guardian. “We have a very idealistic notion of the family and to acknowledge that this is not true can be painful.”

Because of situations like this it is vital that teachers and other education professionals feel supported when they report abuse. Here we take a look at signs of abuse to look out for so they can feel confident when reporting concerns:

Physical abuse

Of course, much of the time bruises, cuts and harm that children have come from general childhood activities like running and playing with others, which is why it can be hard to separate injuries like this from abuse.

However, when wounds become common, follow patterns and a child appears to have overall poor health, it is a teacher's duty to act. Common indications of physical abuse include harm that appears after weekends or school holidays, suspicious fractures and multiple injuries.

Behavioural indications of this type of abuse could include a child being uncomfortable undressing for PE in front of others, unable to explain their injuries, or acting aggressively or in a withdrawn manner.


It is important for education professionals to spot signs of neglect, as often this can develop into more serious types of abuse. Yet this isn’t always easy as children come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and may be overweight or underweight due to no fault of their parents or guardians.

Signs that teachers can look out for link to whether any health concerns or medical problems have gone unattended, if they have poor hygiene, body odour or an unkempt appearance, inappropriate clothing, or lack or supervision. A child turning up to school hungry on a regular basis is also a common sign of neglect.

Sexual abuse

Should a teacher or other educational professional spot any indication of a child being sexually abused, they must report their concerns immediately in order to prevent and protect the child from further abuse. Physical indicators of this type of abuse can include:

  • Regular bladder infections or STDs
  • Bruising, swelling, itching, bleeding or pain in the genital or anal region
  • Pregnancy in pre-teen girls
  • Blood in the child's underwear

When it comes to the child's behaviour, they may suddenly start acting differently, becoming depressed and suicidal or regressing to more childlike behaviour. They may start acting in a promiscuous manner or talk about having sex or being touched. Refusing to undress during PE sessions could also be a sign that a child has been sexually abused.

For teachers, social workers and others working in childcare, complying with the government’s latest advice on safeguarding guidance for schools is essential.

Download our safeguarding resource to access the important information you need to know including the key changes that have been made. Learn more today

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