by Alana Cole-Faber
As I have shared in a previous post, last year our children reported to us that they had experienced physical and emotional abuse at their school. When our children first reported this to us, we were alarmed and terrified. We had so many questions. What should we do? Whom should we tell? Are we the only ones? What will happen when we report this? Will there be retribution against us or our children?
We are not experts on abuse or child psychology, so we would always recommend consulting an expert when it comes to concerns of abuse and have done so ourselves for the sake of our own children. However, based on our experiences, these are the actions we would suggest to other parents whose children may have experienced abuse at school.
1. Aim for prevention. Talk to your child about what behaviors are not appropriate from teachers and classmates. Tell your child exactly what they should do if they believe a teacher or classmate is behaving inappropriately. Repeat this conversation regularly, and be sure to give your child the opportunity to ask questions.
2. Create an environment in which your child feels secure and knows that he/she can come to you with problems. We made a rule with our children that if they got in trouble at school and were punished at school, we would not punish them at home as long as they told us the truth about what had happened at school. This did not mean we did not care about misbehavior, but rather that we placed more emphasis on honesty and openness in our home. We believe this was the critical thing that made our children feel comfortable talking to us after our son was struck by his teacher.
3. Keep an eye on your child’s behavior. If your child’s behavior or attitude towards school changes suddenly, this could be a sign that your child has had a negative experience. This negative experience might simply have to do with finding school work more challenging, or it might be an indicator that something more serious has taken place. In our children’s case, their attitude toward school changed dramatically almost overnight. They began asking to stay home, whereas before they had always loved going to school and would barely take a moment to hug us goodbye before running off to join their class.
4. Talk to your child about his/her experiences at school. When you talk to your child about school experiences, try to talk to your child alone, without siblings or others present who may distract or otherwise influence your child. It may help your child relax if you talk while doing another activity that he/she enjoys, such as putting together a puzzle or coloring. One of our children was always very comfortable talking about experiences, but our other child felt most comfortable having a stuffed animal tell us what happened. Ask open-ended questions whenever possible and avoid asking leading questions, even if you think you know exactly what happened during the incident in question. Try to remain calm and avoid reacting emotionally to the things your child describes. If your child describes an event that alarms you, calmly ask questions like, “What happened next? What did the teacher say? Who else was there?” Reassure your child that he/she is not in trouble for reporting information to you. In our experience, it took multiple conversations before our children were willing to reveal all of the details of the event.
5. Do your best to help your child identify and understand his/her feelings about the event. Validate any feelings your child may have. You can try saying something like, “You said that behavior made you feel sad. I understand. I think I might feel sad, too, if something like that happened to me.”