Opening up about something traumatic takes an incredible amount of strength and a lot of trust. As teachers, we know how important it is to take any disclosure from a student seriously and then put a plan in place to support that child in the most appropriate way.
But what happens if we miss a disclosure? If a student tries to tell us they are going through something, and we don’t bat an eyelid? It’s a terrifying thought and, sadly, it happens more than we realise.
Researchers from the NSPCC interviewed 60 young adults aged between 16 and 24, who had all experienced high levels of abuse and violence during childhood. When asked if they’d tried to tell someone about what was happening to them, 80 per cent said they had. However, the interviews revealed that many disclosures were either not recognised or were dismissed and played down.
Shockingly, 90 per cent of the young people said they had a negative experience at some point while making a disclosure, most of which were about the response. Can you imagine the pain of going through something horrific and having the courage to speak up about it, only to see it being dismissed?
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Where young people said they’d had positive experiences, it had involved some action being taken to protect them, emotional support being provided and crucially, an understanding that they were believed.
Safeguarding: How to identify a disclosure – and what you should do next
So how can teachers and educators ensure that they spot all disclosures? What are some of the less obvious signs to look out for?
Sometimes a student may come to you to talk without really saying much. They may seem distant or hesitant when talking. Often they might start by telling us something small, something easier to talk about. Something that feels safe. It is important to remind the student that they are in a safe space and that there is support available for them if they need to talk about anything else. This reassurance can often be the thing that makes them feel safe enough to open up.
Your actions once a child does start to disclose are just as important as spotting that they are doing so. So what should you do?
1. Use your body language
Sometimes a young person will want to make a disclosure but actually finding the words can be difficult. Helping them to open up can be as simple as changing your body language, making sure that you are open and relaxed, showing the young person that they have your focus and attention. Encouragement and reassurance that they are doing the right thing can go a long way, too, in giving them the confidence to talk.
2. Give them the space to talk
Once the young person starts to open up, it is important that they are given space to talk. This means embracing the pauses in conversation. Sometimes we feel an urge to fill the silence and maybe ask a question, but that can often throw someone off their train of thought and stop them from formulating their response. It can take time to make sense of what they want to say, as it might be the first time they’ve ever acknowledged what has happened out loud. Let the silence linger and often they will find the words to keep the conversation going. Often students have sat in my office saying “I don’t know…” so I have just waited for 20 seconds or so; the majority of the time the student starts talking first and carries on with the disclosure.
3. Be genuinely interested
One of the things that can stop a young person from making a disclosure is thinking that other people won’t understand. When someone is in front of us making a disclosure it is important that we show that we are genuinely interested in what they are telling us. One of the ways of doing this is to reflect back what they’ve said to us in order to make sure we understand. This shows that we have been listening and by checking our understanding, we show that we are taking the disclosure seriously. We can do this by using their words in our response; for example, “You said you felt scared. Could you tell me a little more about why you were scared?”
What if a child doesn't disclose?
In some cases a young person may not seek out support or feel comfortable or confident enough to make a disclosure, but there still may have been some signs that were missed.
In some cases the potential indicators can be quite obvious. For instance, young children using sexually explicit language or displays of affection that are sexual or not age-appropriate; or unexplained bruises or trips to the hospital, poor attendance or unexplained money or gifts.
However, sometimes it isn’t so obvious and some signs can be dismissed as just poor behaviour. A student may start being unusually argumentative or show signs of aggression, for example. Teen boys punching walls out of anger or frustration is often passed off as just an angry hormonal teen lashing out. It is hardly ever looked at through the lens of self-harm, which means that we miss opportunities to address the root cause.
The Children’s Society put together a video for staff working in health and care settings to help spot the signs of child sexual exploitation. Although it is aimed at a different sector, the overall message still applies to education.
I know that saying “behaviour is communication” is a contentious line within educational circles, but sometimes it really can be. I would much rather stop and think “what could be behind this?” and start a conversation rather than taking the behaviour at face value and potentially missing an opportunity to support someone.
It might end up being absolutely nothing, but sometimes that conversation could be everything that student needs.
Thomas Michael is a safeguarding and welfare officer in a secondary school.