The Role of the Educator
It is a fact that we do not know exactly how many cases of child abuse and/or neglect occur in Greece each year, as there is no official system in place for identifying cases and collecting and recording data. According to estimates however, it is believed that there are a few thousand cases each year and that they concern children of all ages. Therefore, child abuse is not only a grievous matter for the children-victims themselves, leading to very adverse consequences for their overall psychological and physical development, but also a major social problem.
Since these children were not fortunate enough to find themselves in a supportive family, society needs to fulfil that role. The person that provides the closest link between the child and the community in which it lives is the child’s teacher. Besides, in many instances teachers are a child’s first contact with someone outside the family environment and certainly someone with whom it comes into contact every day of the week, someone they know well and (it is to be hoped) they trust.
The educator, on his part, has taken on the task of educating children, and this role, as is well known, is not limited to teaching the curriculum, but also encompasses guiding children in how to take care of themselves. Even in countries like Greece, where the institutional duty of educators to identify and report cases of abuse and neglect is a rather grey area, most educators consider it their moral duty to protect children and to prevent situations that may place them in danger. Besides, they realize that not even the most basic level of teaching can be achieved if a child is not well and does not live in a safe environment.
How can an educator identify instances of abuse?
First of all, we need to accept the fact that the detection of cases of abuse and neglect is no simple matter. Even in countries where clear instructions and guidelines for such situations are in place (e.g. in the USA, Australia), a high percentage of cases is not detected. This happens for a number of reasons.
First of all, the “signs” of abuse or neglect are not only present in such cases; they can be a result of many other causes. To put it simply, bruising is not only found on abused children, and behavioural issues do not only manifest themselves in children who are being neglected. It is important, though also difficult, that teachers remain vigilant at all times and are in a position to perceive the overall picture so as to better judge whether or not the apparent signs are a result of abuse and/or neglect.
On the other hand, the emotional burden for the teachers is very considerable. The identification of cases of abuse/neglect can generate intense emotions. It is possible that a teacher may “not want to realize” or accept that anything untoward is happening to a child, as the mere thought may be unbearable, or he may feel that he will be targeting the student and his family, therefore causing them harm; finally, the teacher may feel that he will be entangling himself in a complicated situation, as he may not be certain that he has identified the signs correctly.
Two possible answers to an educator’s concerns
Firstly, there are times when a family may not be able to care for its members properly. This is a reality and should not give cause for the family’s stigmatization. Sometimes the weight of the responsibility of caring for a child can be too great, especially for those who are emotionally/mentally fragile, and this is precisely where an “outsider” should intervene; an external, protective presence who can take on the burden of putting an end to the cycle of abuse and neglect. If this cycle is not broken, there is a good chance it will continue indefinitely.
Secondly, and most importantly, the educator should trust himself. When his intuition tells him that something about a child is not quite right, then he should allow himself to feel concerned. He should investigate the causes that have given rise to his concerns, inform himself with regard to abuse and neglect and ask for help. An educator’s experience and his concern for the well-being of the children under his care can literally save lives!
The different forms of child abuse often coexist (for example, physical abuse is almost always accompanied by emotional abuse). In order to better describe the signs an educator should look out for, we distinguish among different forms of abuse.
The signs of abuse described concern physical signs and/or indications in the child’s behaviour, but the lists presented here are indicative rather than exhaustive. In each case we stress that the educator should first and foremost be alert, observe closely and trust his intuition, while all the while taking into consideration the overall appearance and behaviour of the child.
Abuse refers to those physical or psychological injuries that are inflicted intentionally by an adult and includes the following forms: physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse (emotional abuse includes behaviours such as the constant humiliation and/or derision of the child, threats, and any other treatment that is derisive or dismissive).
Considering the questions below, the educator could identify the following:
Signs of physical abuse
- Does the child carry evidence of injuries or bruising on parts of the body where such marks wouldn’t be normal for a child, such as the abdomen or the face?
- Does the child have burn marks of a particular shape (e.g. cigarette burns, etc.)?
- Does the child often complain about bodily pain or often seems to have such pain?
- Does the child respond with reasonable and adequate explanations when asked about bruises, scars, etc.?
- Does the child try to cover its body with long garments, even when the weather is hot?
- Does the child systematically delay to return home after school?
- Is the child aggressive or excessively recalcitrant?
- Does the child appear to be fearful of adults? Does it seem afraid when someone tries to touch it?
- Is the child experiencing learning difficulties? (a sudden drop in the child’s performance should give rise for concern).
Signs of sexual abuse
- Does the child seem to experience discomfort when walking or sitting?
- Does it complain of pain in the area of the genitals?
- Is it excessively secretive?
- Does it have knowledge of sexual acts that is not consistent with its age?
- Is the manner of the child’s play sexualized, or does it exhibit a tendency to behave in a sexualized way towards adults?
- Does it exhibit aggressive behaviour?
- Does it have low self-esteem, or is it withdrawn?
- Is there a marked drop in its academic performance?
Signs of emotional abuse
- Is the child withdrawn? Does he/she seem reluctant to ask for anything, or, conversely, is he/she excessively demanding and aggressive?
- Does he/she exhibit self-destructive behaviour?
- Does he/she often suffer from psychosomatic symptoms, e.g. stomach-ache, or headache?
- Doeshe/she react in an unusual manner, such as laughing when in pain?
The behaviour of emotionally abused children is similar to that of children with emotional difficulties, and it is the behaviour of the parents that can enable the teacher to tell which of the two a child may be suffering from. Parents who abuse their children emotionally display indifference when approached by the teachers regarding the child’s issues and don’t seek help.
Neglect includes the failure of the person responsible for the child’s care to provide adequate food, clothing, protection, medical care, education, etc. The intentional nature of child abuse can be shocking, but neglect too can cause emotional deficiencies, physical pain, or even the death of the young victims.
Considering the questions below, the educator could identify the following:
Signs of Neglect
- Does the child often come to school in scruffy, dirty clothes, unsuitable for the child’s size and/or the weather?
- Does the child look and/or smell unclean?
- Does the child come to school without any food? Does it seem to be constantly hungry, and does it often ask for or steal food?
- Is the child often absent, or late to arrive at school?
- Does it find it difficult to form friendships with other children (who could be avoiding it due to its bad personal hygiene)?
- Does it have low self-esteem?
- Does it have learning difficulties?