Academic journal article Childhood Education

Reaching and Teaching Abused Children

Academic journal article Childhood Education

Reaching and Teaching Abused Children

Article excerpt

Millions of children in the United States carry more than their book bags to school each day. They haul the baggage of abuse straight into the classroom. And what do they unpack? Pain masquerading in the guise of misbehavior and underachievement. And who gets blamed? Teachers. When troubled children misbehave and underachieve, their teachers are often accused of incompetence. Feeling like failures, teachers themselves accept the blame when they are unable to reach these children.

Teachers are not to blame! Standard classroom management techniques do not work so well for abused children as for children who misbehave and underachieve because of immaturity, lack of motivation or attention deficit disorder. Abused children's baggage is too heavy.

Teachers have a legal and moral responsibility to report suspected abuse. They must be adequately trained to recognize the physical and behavioral signs of abuse or neglect. Once teachers report suspected abuse or neglect, however, they still have to deal with the ramifications of this abuse. They still have to contend with the leaden baggage of abuse on a daily basis.

In the classroom, many abused children act out their searing pain because they cannot express it in words. They act out this pain in disruptive, annoying and frustrating ways--through behaving aggressively, hurting others without seeming to care, deliberately annoying others, being hypervigilant, dissociating themselves, fearing failure, and other dysfunctional behaviors. Not all children who behave this way have been abused. Consequently, this behavior should not be used as the sole criterion for reporting suspected abuse. If the children who exhibit any of these behaviors have been abused, then teachers must stop blaming themselves or the children for the problems. Instead, by seeing these behaviors as frantic signals for help and by understanding their causes, teachers can help these students learn socially acceptable coping strategies (Morrow, 1987).

But can teachers make a difference in less than a year, for just a few hours a day? Can teachers really help without devoting their full attention to one child or becoming therapists? Absolutely! Alice Miller, author of several books on abused children, stresses that teachers, among others, can be "enlightened witnesses" for abused children. By believing that there is a core of goodness within each child and that children are not to blame for their abuse, an "enlightened witness" can help children overcome the trauma of mistreatment (Miller, 1990).

Zimrin's research with adults who had been abused as children confirms the importance of such a witness. Zimrin found that abused children who grew up to be healthy, nonabusing adults knew an adult during their childhood who treated them with empathy and encouragement and inspired confidence in them. Children who did not have such an adult were not so fortunate. Their dysfunction continued into adulthood. Zimrin includes teachers in her list of possible adult supporters. She stresses that being such a supporter does not require extra time, just sincerity and confidence in these children (Zimrin, 1986).

Teachers who perceive abused children as "wounded" and "victimized" rather than "mean," "lazy," "stubborn" or "bad" can begin to become "enlightened witnesses." Trust, empathy and the patience to help wounded children develop socially acceptable coping strategies can plant healthy seeds within the child that will flower in the future. The key lies in acknowledging that these children are not at fault, understanding the nature and origin of their behaviors and then using the classroom experience to counterbalance the situation. Keep in mind the complexities of people and their relationships and recognize that behaviors can have more than one origin and more than one solution.

The behaviors discussed below are some of the more common dysfunctional behaviors manifested by abused children in the classroom. …

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