School is often the only safe place for young children who live with domestic violence. Witnessing or being exposed to physical abuse can have a significant impact on the well-being of a child. Whether it is sexual, verbal, or physical abuse, when a child witnesses this type of abuse between their parents or caregivers, the effects can be far-reaching. Many children who are exposed to violence are fearful and anxious. They may also have difficulty forming relationships in school or performing academically. A teacher can be the first person to recognize these signs in a student. Although teachers, educators, and educational psychologists (EPs) receive extensive training to arm them with the tools necessary to address these issues in their students, it is unclear how this type of disclosure affects these professionals.
Gemma Ellis of the Luton Burough Council at Unity House in the UK recently led a study to gain the educators’ perspectives on domestic violence revelations from their students. Ellis wanted to find out if the professionals felt capable of identifying a child experiencing domestic abuse, and if they were comfortable receiving that information and responding to it. She also wanted to know how they felt about training, what fears they had, and what changes they would make to the current procedures in place.
Ellis interviewed a group of elementary school educators and found that one important need was that of more time for the teacher to emotionally process what the child revealed. Many teachers explained that they were overwhelmed and struggled with having to send the children back to a potentially abusive home. Ellis believes this finding is in line with secondary trauma theories, which suggest that confidants of abuse victims may themselves experience trauma. The teachers and EPs in this study benefited from the procedures in their schools. In an uncontrollable and emotionally taxing situation, having a protocol to follow helped them contain their own emotions so that they could best serve their students.
They did, however, have fears related to family retaliation. In particular, the teachers relied heavily on parent participation for the success of the child. They worried that accusations against the family would decrease participation. They also feared that the abusers would turn their abuse toward the teachers. Ellis believes these findings provide insight into the concerns teachers and EPs have with regard to supporting abuse victims and that this study will serve as a preliminary step in future discussions. “It is hoped and expected that through the dissemination process the topic of domestic abuse will be elevated in both teachers’ and EPs’ consciousness,” Ellis said.
Ellis, Gemma. The impact on reachers of supporting children exposed to domestic abuse. Education & Child Psychology 29.4 (2012): 109-20. Print.
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