Teaching children and young people in special schools to recognise abusive behaviours and tell

Findings from a process evaluation of Keeping Safe, a whole-school education programme in Northern Ireland

The NSPCC’s Keeping Safe programme for schools, developed in Northern Ireland aims to support school staff and parents to deliver sensitive messages to children about recognising abusive behaviours and talking to a trusted adult.

This report evaluates the implementation of the programme in five schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and additional support needs between 2016 and 2018.

The report looks at:

  • how the Keeping Safe programme was implemented and delivered by schools
  • contextual factors associated with implementation, identifying key enablers and challenges
  • programme strengths and weaknesses
  • perceived outcomes of the programme.

Authors: Aisling McElearney, Louise Craig, Deirdre Fullerton, Sophie Morris and Christina Murphy
Published: 2021

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Key finding

Keeping Safe and whole school programmes aiming to teach children about abuse can be successfully implemented in special schools, with the right support and resources.

Adopting a whole-school approach that engaged children, staff and parents was found to have positive benefits. This included: creating a climate of listening and telling in the classroom; improving teacher confidence; and enhancing communication between parents and their children in relation to sensitive messages.

Other findings

Schools should adopt a strategic approach when implementing programmes focusing on abuse, and on relationships and sex education (RSE).

School-based programmes focusing on abuse and RSE benefit from strategic leadership and an appropriate allocation of resources to ensure effective implementation and programme sustainability. Programmes should include resources that schools can use to monitor and evaluate the implementation and outcomes.

Parents and teachers are key partners in teaching children with SEND and additional support needs to recognise abusive behaviours and tell a safe adult.

Schools should ideally engage parents early on, from programme planning through to programme delivery. This engagement should seek to educate parents on the importance of teaching children about abuse, as well as informing them about the specific content of programmes so they can prepare and support their children. Teachers should have access to training and on-going support to help them teach sensitive messages. 

What teachers told us

“Taking part in the project…whilst we were already doing a lot of safeguarding work, I think it has really formalised what we do within each year group…. It’s very good for us because at this stage, it’s a very planned approach and we know what every teacher is doing. The programme is there, so we know that we are covering the topics and I think as a school leader that is really good.”

Primary School Principal
“One of our Year 1s who has seen abuse in the family actually opened up during the session and talked about it for the first time….In years gone by, even in the other RSE lessons, this child never spoke but he opened up completely because of the programme, the way it was delivered, and the little video, so he must have felt comfortable saying it.”

Primary School Principal


Please cite as: McElearney, A., Craig, L., Fullerton, D., Morris, S. and Murphy C. (2021) Teaching children and young people in special schools to recognise abusive behaviours and tell: findings from the process evaluation of Keeping Safe, a whole-school education programme. London: NSPCC.

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