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Equipping teachers to better respond to disclosures of abuse and neglect

Last updated: 02 Apr 2019 Topics: Blog
teacher and student talking in a library

By Helen Baker, Senior Analyst - NSPCC Strategy Unit and Pam Miller, Associate Head of Research - NSPCC Strategy Unit

There are many scenarios in which a child may disclose abuse or neglect in a school setting. With daily contact and trusted relationships with the children in their school, teachers are often the first person a child discloses to.

Disclosures are a long and complex journey for a child. They may delay speaking out, waiting instead for someone to notice or something else to happen. They may share their experiences over a period of time. And, when they do disclose, they may not do so verbally or directly. And while it's essential that anyone working with children is able to recognise the signs of abuse and neglect and act on their concerns, we must also ensure that children and young people are listened to and supported if and when they do speak out.

But one research study showed that 90% of children had a negative experience at some point when disclosing abuse, mostly when the person they shared with responded poorly. How then can we equip professionals to better notice, listen, hear and support a child or young person when they disclose abuse and neglect?

Understanding teachers' experiences

We conducted a review of the evidence using the NSPCC Library and Information Service and consulted with children and young people. We then ran focus groups and undertook a survey with adults who work with children across a range of sectors to better understand their experiences. Over 70% of respondents to the survey had worked with children for more than 11 years*. But, significantly, almost 80% of respondents told us that they wanted more resources and training about responding to disclosures*.

The project highlighted a number of verbal and non-verbal interpersonal skills that make it clear you are listening and taking the child seriously. We've grouped these into three directions:

  • showing you care, helping them open up
  • taking your time, slowing down
  • showing you understand, reflecting back.

Of course, adults who work with children know these skills well. But children told us that adults don't necessarily do these things. We wanted to create a practical resource that would keep these skills at the front of mind and help give professionals the confidence and skills they need to better listen to and support young people.

Let children know you're listening

The result is a poster that schools can display in the staff room, classroom, toilets - anywhere that teachers will be able to see it. It's visual and memorable and has been purposefully designed to be understood by young people too. We've also produced a briefing paper that gives more detail and background to the project and we'll soon be launching an animation.

What we're doing next

But this is just the first step. The research also highlighted a number of other areas of concern. Professionals told us that in the moment of disclosure it can be difficult to know how to respond appropriately, know the right thing to say, ask non-leading questions and explain confidentiality. There's often uncertainty around how to respond in a human and supportive way to a child that also takes into account the organisation's safeguarding policies and procedures. For example, professionals may be unsure how to explain confidentiality to a child in a way that doesn’t undermine the child’s trust.

Children and young people told us that they could often sense that a professional wasn't entirely present when they shared their experiences. Of course, with so many things to think about this is a very natural, problem-solving response. But it's also key that the child is at the heart of the conversation.

We're continuing to work on addressing these gaps and concerns and are exploring ways that we can give adults the necessary skills to support children when they disclose abuse. Because, with disclosures being a long and complex journey, it's essential we're there every step of the way for children and young people.

> Download the poster and briefing paper

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Author biographies

Helen Baker is Senior Analyst and Pam Miller is the Associate Head of Research both in the Strategy Unit at the NSPCC. The Strategy Unit deliver projects that use emerging research and innovations to help keep children safe.

* A UK-wide survey was carried out with 1,510 adults who work with children, the majority (1,071, 71%) of whom had worked with children for more than 11 years. 1,184 (almost 80%) respondents told us they wanted more resources and training about how to interact with a child who is disclosing abuse.