Learning About Harm and Abuse In Schools Can Be Beneficial For Kids

Children listening to teacher in classroom

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Key Takeaways

  • It can be extremely difficult for children who have experienced abuse to talk about what they've been through.
  • Harm and abuse education in schools teaches kids about different types of abuse, and it helps them find the confidence to ask a trusted adult for help.
  • It also empowers school staff to recognize abuse and respond in the right way to children who confide in them.

Kids who’ve been abused often don’t feel comfortable telling somebody what’s happened or even understand that the abuse is wrong. That’s why learning about harm and abuse in schools can be so important. And the benefits are clear for both students and staff, according to new research from the U.K. 

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC)’s Speak Out Stay Safe (SOSS) program aims to increase children's understanding of different forms of harm and abuse and enable them to seek help from a trusted adult. An evaluation of the program surveyed 3,297 primary school children across the U.K. who participated in the program.

The study found that after learning about harm and abuse, children were better able to identify trusted adults whom they could talk to. They also had better knowledge about the different types of abuse and harm. Crucially, it also showed that the program strengthened the confidence and skills that teachers need to respond effectively to children who confide in them about their experiences of abuse or harm.

All About the Study 

This study was long overdue, says lead author Nicky Stanley, MA, MSc a professor of social work at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in England. “There have been very few evaluations of violence and harm prevention programmes targeting children under 11, and those that are available have focused on one form of harm or abuse, such as bullying or sexual abuse,” she says.  

The survey was redesigned after COVID-19 restrictions impacted data collection so that it could be completed remotely either on schools’ tablets or computer systems or on paper. 

Nicky Stanley, MA, MSc

Increasing school staff’s knowledge and competence in this type of education has the potential to improve their sensitivity and responsiveness to children’s disclosures of abuse and harm.

— Nicky Stanley, MA, MSc

“The reduction in the number of schools providing follow-up data does not impact on the robustness of the analyses that have been undertaken and the confidence that readers can have in the results,” Stanley explains. 

Six months after the program was delivered, children ages 7 to 11 who participated in the program improved their knowledge of different forms of harm and abuse, especially neglect, and this change was attributed to the SOSS program. The children were also more likely to be able to identify a trusted adult who they would tell about abuse or harm, and they made significantly greater gains than children who had not learned from the program.

However, the change achieved by boys still lagged behind that of girls, which the researchers say was disheartening—but not surprising. "We need to engage [boys] in the design of programs to ensure that they are meeting their needs," Stanley says.

What Is Harm and Abuse Education?

Harm and abuse education teaches children and educators how to recognize abuse, then how to properly respond to it. "Educators are taught to identify signs of abuse and what to do when abuse is suspected," says Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers. "Children are taught what the different types of abuse are and who to go to if they are being abused."

Julian Lagoy, MD

Educators are taught to identify signs of abuse and what to do when abuse is suspected. Children are taught what the different types of abuse are and who to go to if they are being abused.

— Julian Lagoy, MD

Child abuse occurs when a child under the age of 18 is mistreated or neglected by an adult, resulting in harm, the threat of imminent harm, or the potential for harm. Each state has its own legal definition of a perpetrator of child abuse and neglect—in most cases a parent or other caregiver (such as relative or babysitter) who has harmed a child in their care.

In the U.S., around nine out of 1,000 children experience child abuse or neglect, per the 2019 Child Maltreatment Report. Child abuse is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE) that can have serious long-term impacts on a person’s overall health and well-being.

Every case is different, and child abuse may occur on a single or several occasions. It falls within four main categories: emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect.

The Importance of Harm and Abuse Education

Learning about harm and abuse can be extremely important because it helps empower children who have been abused and empowers their educators to spot abused children, says Dr. Lagoy. In the long term, he hopes this will help lower rates of child abuse.

Stanley hopes the findings will give education providers the confidence to recognize that younger children can engage with learning on the topics of harm and abuse and that children can benefit from this type of education.

This, in turn, will hopefully give school staff the confidence to work closely with those delivering this type of education and develop the skills and confidence required to pick up and reinforce these important messages in their own teaching.

"Increasing school staff’s knowledge and competence in this type of education has the potential to improve their sensitivity and responsiveness to children’s disclosures of abuse and harm," Stanley adds.

What This Means For You

We can all help to prevent and oppose all forms of child abuse. If you believe a child you know is experiencing harm or abuse, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor. An official investigation into the situation is the first step toward ensuring the child is safe and gets all the support and care they need.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Stanley N, Barter CA, Batool F, et al. Evaluation of the NSPCC Speak Out Stay Safe Programme (Final Report). NSPCC Learning.

  2. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Definitions of child abuse.

  3. ACF Children's Bureau. Child Maltreatment: Summary of Key Findings.

  4. Easton SD. Understanding adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and their relationship to adult stress among male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. J Prev Interv Community. 2012;40(4):291-303. doi:10.1080/10852352.2012.707446

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more. Claire is passionate about raising awareness for mental health issues and helping people experiencing them not feel so alone.