The role of school staff in safeguarding children with SEN
No matter what sector you’re working in, if your job brings you into contact with children or young people, you have an obligation to ensure their wellbeing. However, there are areas that carry an even greater responsibility regarding the duty of care, such those who work with people with SEN and disabilities.
According to the 2014 SEN and Disability Code of Practice, “a child or young person has SEND if they have a learning difficulty or disability which calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her”. Children and young people with SEN and disabilities have the same human rights as any other child; however, are often especially vulnerable and can be at an increased risk of abuse or neglect.
It is so important for school staff to be able to recognise the tell-tale signs of abuse amongst the pupils in their care. Regular safeguarding training can help guide staff through the different symptoms of abuse, enabling them to recognise potential issues as they emerge. Such training is an essential part of a school team’s continuous professional development.
When young people experience abuse, it can have a very serious and long-lasting effect on them. It can create a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem that is carried over into all areas of their lives and can have a negative impact that will affect the young person’s study, work and relationships; later in life, it may also influence the way they parent their own children.
It is known that abuse, in whatever form it takes, is a major contributing factor in both self-harm and suicide. The NHS Website lists “having a traumatic experience during childhood, a history of sexual or physical abuse, or a history of parental neglect” as determinants of a person’s vulnerability to suicidal thinking and behaviour.
Reading the signs
While there are general signs of potential abuse among children – such as the child talking about being left alone at home or with strangers, and acting out aggressively with other children – there are also signs that are more specific, which anyone who works with children needs to be aware of. These signs are key to being able to recognise incidents of abuse but may be more subtle if a child has SEN.
The symptoms of abuse and neglect vary depending on the child or young person in question and the type of abuse they may be experiencing. They may also be very different for children and young people of different ages. For example, two important indicators of possible abuse and/or neglect among children in the five- to 11-year-old age bracket are an unwillingness to share information and a reluctance to return home at the end of the school day. For 11- to 16-year-olds though, the most common signs of abuse include consumption of alcohol and exhibiting concern for siblings without elaborating on why they are concerned.
Having expert attention to detail is crucial in caring for people with SEN. It is important to think about the physical and behavioural signs and also to understand that young people may be experiencing more than one type of abuse, such as psychological, sexual, financial/material, discriminatory and domestic abuse.
Increasing communication ability
Another core part of safeguarding training is working on the communication skills that can be used to talk to young people about abuse and neglect. School staff must have the right skills to interact appropriately and effectively if they are concerned about a child.
If a young person confides abuse to a member of staff, of if a teacher initiates a conversation with a child they suspect may be subject to abuse, it is important that the professional knows how to respond and what actions to avoid, ensuring they do not distress the child or give them any reason to feel their trust has been betrayed.
A sympathetic approach
Sometimes, staff may identify what they feel are the symptoms of abuse and neglect which may relate to something about a young person’s physical appearance and/or behaviour. Staff cannot immediately assume the young person is being abused, exploited, radicalised or bullied, but if they are able to initiate an appropriate conversation with them, they may help to reassure the young person, while letting them know there is someone to turn to if they need to.
Education settings should have set guidelines about procedures and practices when staff members are seeing a young person on a one-to-one basis, to ensure the young person in this situation is safe and that members of staff are not left open to allegations.
It’s essential to empower staff to be able to deal appropriately with incidents of abuse or neglect. An effective school safeguarding policy should not only help professionals who work with children and young people to recognise incidents of abuse and initiate conversations with a child or young person, it should also ensure they know how to report incidents swiftly and accurately to ensuring the wellbeing of those in their care. A sound safeguarding policy that is well implemented should also serve to give parents and school stakeholders confidence in the ability of staff members and the whole team to deal with any potential issues.
There are many different safeguarding considerations that need to be taken into account depending on the needs of the students or individuals the particular school or staff member is working with. Regular safeguarding training is an essential investment for any school, organisation, or business that works with individuals who have SEN. School safeguarding policies should seek to ensure staff are able to identify potential issues at an early stage. Staff should know how to communicate with the children and young people in question, and what to do next if they are concerned that a pupil is suffering abuse or neglect.
Keir McDonald MBE is CEO and Chairman of EduCare, which provides safeguarding and duty of care training to professionals in education and other sectors: