Last updated: 14.02.22

How Teachers can spot signs of Abuse and Child Neglect

Signs of abuse can be difficult to spot in children, especially child neglect and emotional abuse. Physical abuse signs are clearer, but it can still be challenging for professionals with safeguarding responsibilities, such as teachers, to follow up on indicators of abuse.

The relationship between teachers and parents or guardians relies heavily on mutual trust, so it can be particularly difficult for teachers to bring up the subject with caregivers.

However, at the same time, it is important for teachers to remember that parents only present one version of themselves to their child's school.

Indeed, Liz Yardley, criminology lecturer at Birmingham City University, told the Guardian: "Doing something [about a concern] calls into question the very notion we have of what parents are.

"We have a very idealistic notion of the family and to acknowledge that this is not true can be painful."

With this in mind, support must be available to teachers when they are reporting signs and symptoms of physical abuse, as well as emotional abuse and child neglect. The NSPCC has advice for this on its website, but the following information covers signs to look out for.

Signs and symptoms of physical abuse to look out for:

Many children are accident-prone, and cuts and bruises can simply be symptoms of boisterous play, which is why it can be hard for teachers to pinpoint signs of physical abuse.

However, when injuries are common or follow a pattern, and a child appears to have overall poor health, teachers have a duty as safeguarding professionals to act. These common indicators of abuse could include regular injuries after weekends or holidays, multiple injuries at a time, and suspicious fractures.

There may be behavioural indicators of abuse too, such as a child being uncomfortable undressing for PE in front of others, being unable to explain their injuries, or acting withdrawn or aggressive.

How to spot signs of child neglect:

Neglect can often develop into more serious types of child abuse, so teachers need to be able to spot the signs. Again, this can be difficult, as children can be overweight or underweight due to no fault of their parents or guardians.

Teachers can look for signs of health concerns or medical problems going seemingly unattended for long periods, as well as signs of poor hygiene, regularly turning up to school hungry, body odour, an unkempt appearance, inappropriate clothing or a general lack of supervision.

Signs of sexual abuse to be aware of:

Concerns over sexual abuse must be immediately reported to protect the child from further abuse.

Physical signs of sexual 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

Meanwhile, behavioural signs of sexual abuse may include:

● The child displaying signs of depression

● Suicidal feelings, or a regression to more childlike behaviour

● A child acting in a promiscuous manner

● The child talking about sex or being touched

● Refusing to undress during a PE session

It is vital that teachers, social workers and other professionals with a safeguarding role comply with the government's latest guidance for schools in this area.

Schools are typically safe spaces for kids to be kids – where they can learn about the world around them, have fun and enjoy being young. For most schools, this is exactly the case. But for others there are certain abusive individuals who take advantage of the school setting to get access to young children, exploiting them for their own purposes. Safeguarding training has never been more important than now to ensure the safety of students from potential abusers, whether that’s a staff members or even another student. Here are some cases which call up the important of safeguarding training and having proper processes in place to report any behaviour that appears abusive.

Weston-super-Mare, Somerset

A serious case review following the arrest of Nigel Leat in 2010 found major failings of the school staff after several charges were brought against him, including sexual assault of a child and possession of indecent imagery of children.

Over the course of four years between 2006 and 2010, the case review found that the school management had recorded several incidents like inappropriate lesson content and over-familiarity with student, but only a third were formally reported by school management. It was common knowledge amongst staff that Leat’s behaviour towards students was inappropriate, even within the first year of his appointment back in 1995, with several common actions he did being identified as typical grooming behaviours.

The fact that such a low percentage of Leat’s behaviour was formally recognised raised questions around the safeguarding training implemented within the school, such as how incident should be escalated and properly addressed. Because of the seemingly lax attitude of the school management, Leat’s continued abuse of students was able to continue without any tangible repercussions.

The North Somerset Safeguarding Children Board raised 32 individual recommendations and met with parents before the release of the report to highlight the changes which would improve how the school handled child abuse allegations and ensured similar incidents were reported and resolved.

Solihull, West Midlands

Back in 2017, 28-year-old teaching assistance and nursery worker operating in Solihull – Jamie Chapman – was arrested for sexually abusing 18 children in different schools between 2011 and 2016, utilising social media in order to contact children outside of school hours.

Chapman created fake profiles on Facebook, impersonating teenage girls, in order to send young boys messages and convince students he believed to be vulnerable into sending him explicit images. Once Chapman had these image, he attempted to blackmail several male students into engaging in sexual acts with him by using the fake profiles to convince the boys into meeting up with him.

The police eventually tracked down Chapman using information pulled from the fake profiles he’d used to uncover his identity and bring a vast amount of evidence against him in the form of the archived messages. Online platforms are becoming more and more prevalent in child abuse cases as they give abusers even greater access to their victims and new ways to exploit them, such as the blackmail threats made by Chapman.

Social media companies are seeing a rise in abusers using these platforms to facilitate child abuse, with 11.6 million pieces of content linked to child abuse and exploitation taken down between July and September 2019 alone. It’s never been important than right now to educate children on the dangers the internet can present and how to identify methods used by abusers to take advantage of them. Teachers and parents also need to be aware of safeguarding methods specific to online safety and spot signs that children may be experiencing abuse via social media channels.

London, Greater London

The parents of “Bella” - a six-year-old girl attending a school in London - have called for a record to be established to address sexual abuse committed between students after their daughter was abused by two male students for six weeks.

While the recent update to the statutory guidelines introduced by the Department of Education explained to teaching staff what types of sexual abuse to be aware of, including peer-on-peer abuse which Bella suffered, there was no reporting mechanism introduced to record incidents and no enforcement to ensure teachers read the updated guidance.

There had been two instances of teachers walking in on the abuse occurring, but they had told Bella off for being “a silly girl”. This shows the importance of teaching staff understanding the types of abuse, as incidents like this should never have resulted in this type of response. Anyone working in a school needs to be aware of all safeguarding measures and information, as well as the types of abuse which children can suffer. Dismissing peer-on-peer abuse is just as bad as dismissing any other forms of sexual abuse claims, and it’s the responsibility of everyone around children to report any sexually abusive behaviour.

The Metropolitan Police reported that reports of sexual assaults on children under 13 by other children had increased by 6% over the last year, with the children’s commissioner saying that leaving it to chance how schools interpret official guidance on abuse wasn’t good enough. As schools aren’t legally required to report safeguarding incidents, it can be hard to understand the scope of different abuse forms in schools, but the advice is there for schools to use in order to help prevent or report any incidents.

If you’re interested in undertaking any safeguarding training in order to get a wider understanding of how to help prevent child abuse or how to spot signs of child abuse, Virtual College have a number of online safeguarding courses which you can take at your own pace. Our safeguarding training courses offer a wealth of information that will help you get a deeper understanding of safeguarding issues and how you can help protect children from abuse.

You can also check out our useful and informative downloadable resources, including this infographic on the signs of child abuse, and this video on safeguarding children.