Learn to lend a sympathetic ear

15th March 2013 at 00:00
When a vulnerable child wants to tell you something, the best thing to do is shut up and listen, Tom Bennett says

Has one of your students been raped? It is a proposition that would appal anyone. Some years ago, 14-year-old Josella* stayed behind after class, her best friend offering support.

"Please sir, can I tell you something important?" she said in a barely audible voice. The tone warned me that I was not about to hear anything good. "There's this guy I've been seeing from the estate. He... he raped me."

Everything seems different after that.

Yet here is a dreadful truth: in a school of 1,000 pupils, without doubt someone is being abused. Someone else goes home to a house that has been empty all day. Someone else has to lock their bedroom door to prevent a family member attacking them. Someone is taking drugs. Someone has alcoholic parents. Someone's parents are dying. You will be fortunate if it is only one child in each category.

A 2012 survey by the NSPCC children's charity says that one in four adults experienced severe abuse in their childhood, one in five of them between the ages of 11 and 17. Nearly a quarter of young adults experienced some form of sexual abuse by an adult or a peer during childhood. That means some of you reading this. That means many of the children you teach.

Finding out who these children are is our concern. I have heard staff say, "This isn't our job." But that's hard to square when the wounded lie at our feet, disguised as happy children. Every teacher needs to be an obvious point of contact for any child to turn to first.

A simple lesson on Jewish birth rites led to a discussion on the ethics of circumcision. It also led to a girl weeping in the corner, and an after-class conversation that revealed why: she had recently returned from abroad where her mother had forced her to be circumcised. My anger could have melted steel. But my fury was useless - what she needed was someone to believe her.

When a child makes a disclosure to you they need you to listen. You may be the first person they have told, which means you need to make every appearance of believing them, not because no child lies but because the ones who tell the truth need you to hear their story. Listening is the most sacred duty we can provide. So how do you go about it?

Drop everything. Accept the gauntlet without question. You are now a part of this child's nightmare, and putting it off or passing it on will make you an accomplice to their misery.

Control yourself. Resist your impulse to match the violence of their disclosure with tears or fury. This is about them. Showing your upset will only add stress to an already stressful situation. Offer them calm refuge.

Above all else, listen. That is what they need, far more than instant solutions or homespun wisdom. When they stop speaking, do not treat that as a cue to talk. Stay silent. Let them know they have the floor. People often save their real message until the moment they are about to leave.

Be on their side. A minority of children do invent dreadful scenarios. But in the first instance believe them.

Tell them that you are going to help. Tell them that you are going to try to make things better for them. Then try to do it.

Tell them you will take this further. You have to pass this on to the designated child protection officer immediately (every school in England and Wales has to have one and their job is to liaise with the relevant authorities). Tell the pupil you cannot keep this secret. They may have been lied to by adults. Prove that you are trustworthy.

Do not use leading questions or language that the child does not use. For example, asking "Did he rape you?" could be construed as encouraging a false allegation. Let the child tell their story their way. Use pauses to encourage further disclosure, or neutral prompts like, "Is there anything else you want to say?" You are not the investigator; you are the first contact.

In some cases, your involvement will end here and the child protection officer will take over. Or you may be interviewed from different angles by a dozen agencies.

In my experience, a child will often be dying for you to do something. Primarily they want to unburden themselves, especially if their personal hell has been private for too long. You may just be the adult who changes their life forever. There can be no greater responsibility than that. You may think such a thing will never happen to you. But the only real question is, what will you do when it does?

*All names and examples have been altered to respect the anonymity of the children.

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