Education Opinion

The Baggage Of Abuse

By Marilyn Gootman — September 01, 1992 5 min read

Millions of children in our country carry more than their book bags to school each day. They also haul into the classroom the baggage of abuse. What do they unpack? Pain masquerading in the wraps 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 also blame themselves when they are unable to reach these children.

Teachers are not to blame. Standard classroom management techniques do not work for these children the way they do for children who misbehave and underachieve for reasons such as immaturity, lack of motivation, and attention deficit disorder. Baggage abused children bring to school is too heavy.

Even after teachers report suspected abuse, they still have to contend with the leaden contents of this baggage 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 aggressiveness, hypervigilance, and spaciness and by hurting others without seeming to care. Of course, not all children who behave this way have been abused, so these behaviors should not be used as the sole criteria for reporting suspected abuse. But if any of these behaviors appear in children who are known to have been abused, teachers must stop blaming themselves and the children for the problems. Instead, they should view the behaviors as a signal for help. By understanding their causes, teachers can help teach these students socially acceptable coping strategies.

Can teachers who see these students for just a few hours a day for less than a year really make a difference without devoting their full attention to one child or becoming therapists? Absolutely. Alice Miller, author of several books on abused children, argues 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, teachers can help these students overcome the trauma of mistreatment.

Trust, empathy, and patience plant a healthy seed within these children 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 direct teaching strategies to counterbalance the situation.

Following are several of the more common dysfunctional behaviors manifested by abused children in the classroom.

  • Aggressiveness: Abused children often spill their rage over their mistreatment on “safe” targets, such as classmates and teachers, rather than on those who deserve it. Many are aggressive and rarely hesitate to hit when angry. They seem to be bullies who pick fights for seemingly trivial reasons. These children carry the aggressiveness they have learned at home into the classroom. They can and must be taught how to deal constructively with their anger. A teacher who remains calm yet firm when angry can replace the aggressive parent model and become a constructive source of identification for children. Staying calm does not mean ignoring inappropriate behavior; it just means “keeping your cool” when dealing with it. Children who act aggressively can be taught how to recognize that they’re getting angry, how to cool down, and how to put their feelings into words.

    Some abused children are terrified of re-experiencing the feeling of utter helplessness and powerlessness they suffered when being abused. When they fear that their safety or self-esteem may be threatened again, they try to replace helplessness with power and become aggressive and lash out in the process. The key to helping these children lies in giving them a positive sense of power and control over their own destiny. They need to be allowed to make choices and decisions about their work. With the other children in the class, they need to be involved in determining classroom rules. When a rule is broken, they can help decide an appropriate consequence.

  • Hypervigilance: Abusers are impulsive and often lash out unexpectedly with no rhyme or reason. Their victims, therefore, never know when they are going to “get it” next and, as a result, have to remain constantly on guard. Many abused children remain on guard in the outside world lest an event occur that might trigger the same feelings of helplessness and panic. In school, these children may seem fearful and suspicious, on the lookout for potential dangers. They are acutely sensitive to mood, tone of voice, facial expression, and bodily movement. Often they are afraid to express their own ideas. A predictable school environment is essential for these children. Clearly stated routines, rules, and consequences that are consistently followed can gradually help reduce their hypervigilance. These children also benefit from teachers who remain calm and do not explode in unpredictable outbursts.
  • Hurting others without seeming to care: Many abused children are hurt so often that the only way they can tolerate it is by suppressing their feelings so they are no longer aware of them. Children who cannot feel their own pain do not know that others feel pain. Therefore, they may hurt others without seeming to care that they have done so. They seem cold, hard, and unfeeling. Such children must be directly confronted and told that they are hurting others: “Stop that. When you poke Billy with the ruler, it hurts.” Because they have numbed themselves to pain, these children often don’t even know when they have been hurt. They may, for example, act totally unaware of an injury, such as a cut or a bruise. Saying, “that must have hurt when you fell off the swing,” helps them to acknowledge their own hurts. Once they feel their own pain, they will learn to acknowledge the pain others feel, as well.
  • Spaciness: Many abused children dissociate or hypnotize themselves to escape overwhelming thoughts, emotions, and sensations they experience during abuse. In school, they may become spacey, forgetful, and frequently daydream if they experience an echo of their painful experience. Even a seemingly innocuous story in a reading book can trigger such a reaction. Teachers can bring such children back by gently touching them or softly calling their name. They should not reprimand these youngsters for dissociating. Instead, they should privately help these children become aware of what is happening: “I notice that when....” Teachers can also help students to identify and sort out feelings, such as sadness, anger, and happiness, and to become aware that thoughts and feelings are not the same as actions. Reassurance that nobody will punish or reject them for their thoughts and feelings is important.

The baggage that abused children bring to the classroom poses a challenge to the best of teachers. Their behavior is often exasperating, but it is important to remember that it is a direct result of the weight they must carry. An enlightened witness can do a great deal to ease the burden.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 1984 edition of Education Week as The Baggage Of Abuse