Abused Kids: How Teachers Can Help

Scars that Last a Lifetime

Child abuse can result in physical scars that last a lifetime.  Broken bones heal much quicker than broken spirits, as the abuse is encoded at the cellular level.  The heart just seems to have a memory system of its own.  Having borne witness to the stories of countless abused children, I am struck not only by their pain, but also by their resilience. 

Healing Takes Place in the Context of Relationships

Emotional healing takes place in the context of relationships, and when trust is an issue, you can imagine how challenging this can become.  As I've worked with kids who've shared their stories, I've always asked what got them through the worst of times.  Not surprisingly, their answers have been, "My teacher cared about me!" 

It was Nothing Special

Sometimes it might be a teacher that a student mentions, while other times, it may have been a school janitor, bus driver or cook, but it has always been an adult who was consistent in their care and concern for the child.  Funny thing is, sometimes these adults have said, "I didn't do anything special."  And that's just the point.  "Nothing special" to you may mean a world of difference to a child. 

Just Notice

Simply noticing a child exists, taking an interest in her life, following up with questions that show you have listened well may be all it takes to forever change the trajectory of a child's life. For children whose basic needs for affiliation, love and nurturing are not met, doing "nothing special" from your perspective is beyond extraordinary from the child's perspective.

You Can Make a Difference

Recently, a study has shown how much of a difference teachers (and dare I say, other caring adults) actually can make when it comes to the lives of abused children.  In fact, a teacher's support is a critical factor in determining an abused child's academic success.  While a child's ability to find success is also dependent upon the type of abuse and the length of time it lasted, the study also showed:

"...the abused children who had their teachers' help managing everyday skills -- controlling their emotions, paying attention to detail and finding the inspiration to stay motivated -- had the most success academically.

The key to a successful response to an unprecedented life event is to control what you can. Children who can translate that skill into the classroom can have an advantage over others who cannot," said Whitney. Teachers are the gatekeepers to reporting abuse, getting kids the help they need and then providing crucial support in helping those kids overcome their past."

That is great news for kids recovering from an abusive history.

Other Things to Bear in Mind

1.  Hypervigilance - Not only are an abused child's emotions at play (thinking about the abuse, experiencing flashbacks or other post-traumatic symptoms), but depending upon the length and the extent of the abuse, the child's brain may be literally re-wired to be hypervigilant.  This means that instead of listening to what the teacher is saying in class, the child may instead be attending to the teacher's body language, facial expressions and intonation.  The child may literally be "on guard" 24/7, even though there is no real threat present. 

2.  ADHD Imposter - Not surprisingly, about 90% of the kids that have been referred to me for abuse, also come with a diagnosis of ADHD.  This is frequently a misdiagnosis, as these students really are experiencig hypervigilance.  Think about how attuned you would be to learning if your brain were constantly searching the environment for a physical threat.  Combat soldiers would not be expected to sit and learn algebraic equations and how to diagram sentences when they are trying to save their lives.

3.   Attachment - Depending upon the age at which the abuse occurred, there may also be attachment issues, which can lead to many behavioral issues that the child uses to simultaneously push caring adults away, while at the same time drawing them closer (to apply consequences, punishment and the like).  Try to see through the behavior, so that you can provide the nurturing and stability that the child desperately needs. 

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