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Reaching and teaching abused children.

Millions of children in the United States carry more than their book bags to school each day. They haul the baggage of abuse straight into the classroom. And what do they unpack? Pain masquerading in the guise of misbehavior and underachievement. And who gets blamed? Teachers. When troubled children misbehave and underachieve, their teachers are often accused of incompetence. Feeling like failures, teachers themselves accept the blame when they are unable to reach these children.

Teachers are not to blame! Standard classroom management techniques do not work so well for abused children as for children who misbehave and underachieve because of immaturity, lack of motivation or attention deficit disorder. Abused children's baggage is too heavy.

Teachers have a legal and moral responsibility to report suspected abuse. They must be adequately trained to recognize the physical and behavioral signs of abuse or neglect. Once teachers report suspected abuse or neglect, however, they still have to deal with the ramifications of this abuse. They still have to contend with the leaden baggage of abuse on a daily basis.

In the classroom, many abused children act out their searing pain because they cannot express it in words. They act out this pain in disruptive, annoying and frustrating ways--through behaving aggressively, hurting others without seeming to care, deliberately annoying others, being hypervigilant, dissociating themselves, fearing failure, and other dysfunctional behaviors. Not all children who behave this way have been abused. Consequently, this behavior should not be used as the sole criterion for reporting suspected abuse. If the children who exhibit any of these behaviors have been abused, then teachers must stop blaming themselves or the children for the problems. Instead, by seeing these behaviors as frantic signals for help and by understanding their causes, teachers can help these students learn socially acceptable coping strategies (Morrow, 1987).

But can teachers make a difference in less than a year, for just a few hours a day? Can teachers really help without devoting their full attention to one child or becoming therapists? Absolutely! Alice Miller, author of several books on abused children, stresses that teachers, among others, can be "enlightened witnesses" for abused children. By believing that there is a core of goodness within each child and that children are not to blame for their abuse, an "enlightened witness" can help children overcome the trauma of mistreatment (Miller, 1990).

Zimrin's research with adults who had been abused as children confirms the importance of such a witness. Zimrin found that abused children who grew up to be healthy, nonabusing adults knew an adult during their childhood who treated them with empathy and encouragement and inspired confidence in them. Children who did not have such an adult were not so fortunate. Their dysfunction continued into adulthood. Zimrin includes teachers in her list of possible adult supporters. She stresses that being such a supporter does not require extra time, just sincerity and confidence in these children (Zimrin, 1986).

Teachers who perceive abused children as "wounded" and "victimized" rather than "mean," "lazy," "stubborn" or "bad" can begin to become "enlightened witnesses." Trust, empathy and the patience to help wounded children develop socially acceptable coping strategies can plant healthy seeds within the child that will flower in the future. The key lies in acknowledging that these children are not at fault, understanding the nature and origin of their behaviors and then using the classroom experience to counterbalance the situation. Keep in mind the complexities of people and their relationships and recognize that behaviors can have more than one origin and more than one solution.

The behaviors discussed below are some of the more common dysfunctional behaviors manifested by abused children in the classroom.

Behaving Aggressively

Some children seem to be constantly fighting with others. They often pick fights for seemingly trivial reasons. They are aggressive and rarely hesitate to hit when angry.

Origin #1. All children identify with their parents. Abused children are no exception. As part of the process of identification, children copy parental behavior whether or not the behavior is worthy of copying. If parents hit their children, their children will hit others. If parents have no impulse control and lash out when they are angry, their children will do the same. Many children who have been treated aggressively at home carry that learned aggressiveness into the classroom.

Strategy #1. Children also identify with teachers. If teachers "keep their cool" when angry, restraining themselves from lashing out at students either verbally or physically, they can counterbalance aggressive models children may observe at home. A teacher who remains calm, yet firm, when angry can replace the aggressive parent model and become a constructive source of identification. Staying calm does not mean ignoring inappropriate behavior. Rather, it means staying calm when dealing with it.

Origin #2. Abused children are usually enraged by their mistreatment. Anybody who is abused has a right to be furious. Their rage silently foments within them because expressing their anger would antagonize their abusers and generate further mistreatment. But rage can only boil within for so long before spilling out. Abused children spill their rage on "safe" targets, such as classmates and teachers, rather than on those who instigate it. They seem angry all the time and are constantly getting into fights.

Strategy #2. While their rage is certainly a justified response to abuse, taking it out on others is not. Angry children need to learn that while they are entitled to their anger (as well as to other feelings), they are not entitled to express their anger through hurtfulness and aggression toward others. Three basic components to helping abused children deal constructively with their anger are:

* Acknowledgment. Acknowledge when they are angry, recognizing that they are entitled to their feelings. Bring the anger to the children's attention and then help them to recognize their own personal symptoms of anger--getting hot, shaky, sweaty, cold. Help them figure out their physical responses. Each person's reactions are different. Do not try to deny the anger or convince the children that they have no right to be angry. They will only become angrier. No one has the right to tell someone else how to feel. Try not to get angry at children for being angry. Remember, you are not responsible for their anger so don't take it personally. Also, try not to be afraid of angry children, lest it render you powerless.

* Cooling down. Once children recognize the symptoms of anger, help them learn cool-down techniques, such as deep breathing, counting backward from ten, writing, drawing, painting, scribbling, making something or listening to music. Find something that works for them personally and helps them release tension.

* Verbalization. Encourage children to put their feelings into words. Focus on the feelings behind the anger smokescreen. Listen. You do not have to agree, but they need to be heard. The goal is to teach children to substitute words for actions when they are angry. Also, remember to be encouraging when children behave with self-control and do not act out.

Origin #3. There is absolutely nothing children can do to protect themselves from a powerful, abusive adult. Abused children are terrified of re-experiencing the utter helplessness and powerlessness they suffered during abuse. When they fear that their safety or self-esteem may be threatened again, they try to replace helplessness with power by becoming aggressive and lashing out. They try to achieve mastery over a previously passively experienced danger, by being able to predict when the punishment will come and thus prepare themselves (Green, 1985).

Strategy #3. The key to helping abused children lies in giving them a positive sense of power and control over their own destiny. Allow them to make choices about their work. Involve them and all their classmates in determining classroom rules. When they break a rule, let them help you decide on an appropriate consequence. Encourage them to adopt a problem-solving approach: "This is what I did, this is what I can do next time instead."

Hurting Others Without Seeming To Care

Some children hurt others and do not seem to care that they have inflicted pain. They seem cold, hard and unfeeling.

Origin. Many abused children are hurt so often that they finally close off their minds from feeling. The only way they can tolerate their suffering is by suppressing their feelings so that they are no longer aware of them. But as Alice Miller notes, "The repression of our suffering destroys our empathy for the suffering of others" (Miller, 1990). Children who cannot feel their own pain do not know that others feel pain. Pain is a foreign concept for them. They are unaware that others feel pain and, therefore, hurt without feeling empathy for their victims.

Strategy. Even if they are ignorant about pain, no children should ever be allowed to hurt others. Children must be directly confronted and stopped when they cause pain and be told that they are hurting others. "Stop that. When you poke Billy with the ruler, it hurts."

Acknowledge when children are hurt. Because they have numbed themselves from feeling pain, abused children are often unaware that they have been hurt. They may act totally unaware of an injury they have sustained, such as a serious cut or bruise. Saying "That must have hurt when you fell off the swing" helps them to acknowledge their own hurts. At first they may deny that they are feeling pain and may act as if they do not know what you are talking about. Nevertheless, they need to be reminded when they hurt in order to reawaken their feelings. Once they feel their own pain, they will learn to acknowledge the pain of others as well.

Try to help them see that pain is an alarm that warns them to cry for help (Terr, 1990). Do not be concerned if their initial response to pain is exaggerated. This is a common reaction when the senses are reawakened.

Deliberately Annoying Others

Some children will do anything to deliberately annoy the teacher or classmates. They tap on desks, drop pencils, constantly interrupt, argue about everything and often go out of their way to disobey.

Origin #1. Often, abuse happens spontaneously, without misbehavior or provocation on the part of children. Abused children frequently have no idea when they will be hit. The unpredictability terrifies many children and renders them totally helpless. In order to overcome this sense of powerlessness, some children deliberately provoke as if to say, "I will misbehave so that I will be in control and know exactly when I will be punished."

Strategy #1. A predictable environment is essential for abused children. Knowing the routines of the day--when they eat, when they go to recess, when they study math--reassures them that order, rather than chaos, is the modus operandi in the class. They also need to know when routines will be changed (e.g., for a class play or a field trip). Advance preparation eliminates the fear of randomness and helplessness. In addition to routines, clearly stated rules and consequences are essential for creating a predictable environment. Knowing in advance what is expected of them gives children a sense of self-control and responsibility.

Origin #2. Some children receive very little stimulation except when they are being abused. They so desperately want to be touched and noticed that they will even provoke punishment in order to get attention. They transfer this behavior into the classroom and deliberately annoy teachers to get attention.

Strategy #2. Annoying children are often ignored because "they are just looking for attention." They are usually looking for attention because they need it and if positive attention is not given, these children will demand negative attention. Praising them for improvement or accomplishments is positive attention. Giving them responsibilities in the classroom--such as taking care of a pet, delivering messages to the office or erasing the blackboards--is positive attention (if you fear you cannot trust them alone, pair them up with a more responsible child). Calling when they are absent or listening to their ideas is positive attention. Having them share a hobby or special knowledge with the class is positive attention. Such positive recognition helps convince children that they are worthwhile human beings and encourages them to seek recognition in socially acceptable ways.

Being Hypervigilant

Some children always seem to be on guard and are hypervigilant while sitting passively. They are fearful, suspicious and mistrustful--always on the lookout for potential dangers. These children are acutely sensitive to mood, tone of voice, facial expression and bodily movement. Often they are afraid to express their own ideas.

Origin. Abuse is unpredictable. Children never know when they are going to "get it" next. Abusers are impulsive and often lash out unexpectedly with no rhyme or reason. Therefore, abused children have to remain constantly on guard. They also have to remain on guard in the outside world lest an event occur that might trigger the same feelings of helplessness and panic. Hence, their frequent state of "frozen watchfulness" (Ounsted, Oppenheimer & Lindsay, 1974). Unfortunately, because they are using their receptors to identify potential dangers, they may not use them to process the environment, thus compromising their learning (Green, 1985).

Strategy. A predictable environment is essential for hypervigilant children. Clearly stated routines, rules and consequences that are consistently followed will gradually help reduce their hyper-alertness. These children also need teachers who remain calm and who do not explode in unpredictable outbursts.

Dissociating Themselves

Some children become trance-like in school. They may appear "spacey" and forgetful and frequently daydream. Through the process of dissociation, they remove their minds from their bodies. Some of these children read and do not seem to be processing what they are reading. When carried to the extreme, dissociation can lead to multiple personalities. Scientists believe that some children may have a genetic predisposition to this form of coping.

Origin. Many children dissociate or hypnotize themselves, separating their minds from their bodies to escape overwhelming thoughts, emotions and sensations they experience during abuse (James, 1989). They also dissociate to defend themselves against any event that might trigger memories of their original suffering. Therefore, they may become spacey or dissociative in school when they experience an echo of their painful experience. Even a seemingly innocuous story in a reading book could trigger this reaction.

Strategy. First, try to recognize when this happens to your students. It is neither the children's fault nor yours. Children do not deliberately go into a trance and you have not knowingly caused it. Try to stand by these children and gently bring them back, perhaps by softly calling their name. Do not reprimand children for dissociating. Privately help children become aware of what is happening ("I notice that when ..."). Also help children to identify and sort out feelings of sadness, anger and happiness. Make children aware that each person has many feelings and that thoughts and feelings are not the same as actions. Nobody will punish or reject them for their thoughts and feelings (James, 1989).

Fearing Failure

Some children seem to give up before they even try. They may cry and tremble when faced with a new lesson or activity. "I can't" is their favorite phrase. Some try so hard to get everything just right, that they never finish their work.

Origin. Some parents hold unrealistically high expectations for their children. When the children fail to meet these expectations, they heap physical and/or emotional abuse upon them. "How can you be so stupid?" and "What's the matter with you, dummy?" can hurt just as much as the sting of a belt. These children are paralyzed by the fear that they will make a mistake.

Strategy #1. Try to have a fail-safe environment in the classroom. Allow children to correct papers until they are right, rather than grading them. Break work down into small segments that are easier to grasp. Also, your contact with parents must be very circumspect. Try to be as positive as you can, rather than venting your frustration with their child's behavior.

Strategy #2. Use a problem-solving model for dealing with misbehavior: 1) state the problem, 2) brainstorm solutions, 3) choose a solution, 4) implement the solution, 5) evaluate whether the solution is working and 6) if the solution fails, return to step 2. Problem-solving helps children learn that we all make mistakes and that mistakes are part of learning.


The key to working with the discipline problems presented by abused children lies in understanding the origins of their misbehavior and then designing strategies to counteract these origins. Ten basic strategies emerge from this approach:

* Modeling appropriate behavior. Children do as we do. If we want them to have self-control, then teachers must model self-control and not lash out hurtfully.

* Directly confronting hurtfulness. Regardless of children's pain, they must not be allowed to hurt others either physically or emotionally. Some children will assume approval of their actions if they are not directly told to stop them.

* Acknowledging pain and other feelings. Children who cannot feel for themselves cannot feel for others. Helping them acknowledge their own feelings will increase their awareness of others' feelings.

* Teaching anger management skills. Expressing anger in words rather than actions is a skill that can and must be directly taught to children.

* Teaching problem-solving skills. Problem-solving can help children who feel totally helpless and overwhelmed realize that they can gain some sense of control in many aspects of their lives.

* Establishing routines and a predictable, stable environment. Chaotic home environments create anxiety and tension that are often transferred into the classroom. Classroom predictability and stability can help diminish this hyper-alert, hyper-reactive state.

* Setting fair, meaningful limits and consequences. Overly restrictive rules and harsh consequences are commonplace in abusive homes. It is essential that classrooms counteract this situation.

* Providing opportunities for choice and decision-making. Children who feel totally powerless in their home lives can gain a sense of self-respect and empowerment when given the opportunity to make choices and decisions in school.

* Helping children find an area of interest and expertise. Children who feel doomed to failure and who are constantly reminded of their inadequacies can overcome their negative self-image by becoming an "expert" in an area that captures their attention.

* Focusing on the positive through recognition and encouragement. Honest, sincere, positive feedback is a basic need for every human being.

Often, teachers solicit parents' help when their children are being disruptive in the classroom. It certainly makes sense for parents and teachers to work together to solve problems. If you suspect that parents may be abusing their children, however, do not ask them to help you with disruptive behavior or even with homework. This will likely generate further abuse. Try to be as positive as you can about their children. While it would be a natural tendency to be angry at these people and treat them with hostility, try to look at them as troubled human beings who need some support and encouragement. Certainly, if you have evidence of abuse, report it immediately.

Approximately 2.5 million American children are abused annually. You will probably meet several of them during your teaching career. Their behavior is often exasperating. They pose a challenge to the best of teachers. But remember, they will likely continue along this destructive path unless an "enlightened witness" steps forward.


Green, A. H. (1985). Children traumatized by physical abuse. In S. Eth & R. S. Pynoos (Eds.), Post-traumatic stress disorder in children (pp. 133-154). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press.

James, B. (1989). Treating traumatized children: New insights and creative interventions. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Miller, A. (1990). Banished knowledge. New York: Doubleday.

Morrow, G. (1987). The compassionate school: A practical guide to educating abused and traumatized children. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Ounsted, C., Oppenheimer, R., & Lindsay, J. (1974). Aspects of bonding failure: The psychopathology and psychotherapeutic treatment of families of battered children. Developmental Medical Child Neurology, 16, 447-456.

Terr, L. (1990). Too scared to cry. New York: Harper & Row.

Zimrin, H. (1986). A profile of survival. Child Abuse & Neglect, 10, 339-349.

Marilyn E. Gootman is Assistant Professor, Department of Elementary Education, University of Georgia, Athens.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Gootman, Marilyn E.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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