Teachers may be mistaking the signs of emotional abuse in children for conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, research commissioned by children's charity the NSPCC warns.
School staff are ideally placed to spot emotional abuse and neglect by parents as they have regular contact with children, Dr Sabine Maguire of Cardiff University, one of the researchers, told a conference in London this week. But it could sometimes be difficult to identify victims because there were no physical signs, she added.
"We suspect that teachers cope with these children on a day-to-day basis," Dr Maguire said. "We want to help them understand why children behave in a particular way. If a child is acting up and problems escalate, it may be that they are desperate to have friends and to be loved because they are lacking love and affection at home."
The research identifies links between emotional maltreatment and poorer standards of behaviour and low self-esteem in primary-aged children. It also establishes a clear link between neglect and lower attainment in literacy and numeracy.
Using the findings, the NSPCC has put together a guide for teachers listing signs that could indicate a child is being persistently criticised, scapegoated or ignored at home. These include impulsiveness and other behaviours such as aggression or being unusually withdrawn. Such children may find it difficult to maintain friendships and may experience more mood swings than expected for their age.
"When trying to explore why a child is showing these behaviours, emotional maltreatment is one possible explanation," Dr Maguire said. "It is just like having a case of a high temperature - you look for a range of causes. If you are looking at why a child is behaving a certain way, you must consider emotional maltreatment along with other causes."
Delegates at the conference, organised by the NSPCC, heard that physical neglect - the failure to provide children with adequate clothing, food or bedding - was the most common form of abuse in the UK. Emotional neglect concerns the relationship between child and parent and is harder for outsiders to spot, especially as there may be no single incident that prompts a child to speak out or adults to intervene.
The NSPCC estimates that one in 14 children have experienced emotional abuse by a parent or guardian. Almost a third of children (16,000) identified on child protection registers as at risk of harm are in need of protection from emotional abuse.
Lisa Valla, headteacher of London Colney Primary School in Hertfordshire, said the NSPCC guide would give staff the confidence to raise concerns. "It will help all staff to be able to identify those behaviours and know that the cause may be a number of things - but one of those things may be emotional abuse or neglect," she added.
Joanne Hensman, a drama therapist at Midfield Primary School in Orpington, Kent, said: "What's helpful about this is having those indicators, and having the language to go to social services and say this is why this is not acceptable, this is why it's important to deal with this now and not wait for the `terrible thing' to happen."
If you think a child is at risk: