Child abuse can affect a child’s ability to learn. In the second of two articles, Jenni Whitehead looks at ways of helping such children in the classroom.

The first part of this article (click here) addressed a growing body of research about how childhood abuse can bring about physical changes in the way that the brain functions. Research shows that repeated experiences of abuse will cause a child to develop coping mechanisms as an act of survival. It suggests that the regions of the brain that deal with anxiety and fear responses may be overdeveloped in people who have been subjected to abuse. Chronic stimulation of fear hinders the development of parts of the brain involved in more complex thought and this affects learning.

Repeated abuse and resulting stress may affect neuro-chemical systems and cause changes in attention, impulse control, sleep patterns, and fine motor control. (Perry 2000)

Studies have shown that child abuse affects the development of a number of regions of the brain:

  • the hippocampus – involved in cognition and memory
  • the subcortical and limbic systems – involved in emotions and abstract thought.

The resulting effects include extreme anxiety, depression and difficulty forming attachments and relationships.

Dissociation is the term used to describe the process by which a person detaches themselves from events that they are directly involved in. Children who repeatedly use dissociation as a coping mechanism may develop a way of being that affects their ability to look back at the past for fear of coming face-to-face with abusive memories. If the past becomes a scary place then children may develop a way of being that means they are always in the present and deny themselves access to the past. As many curriculum subjects build on past knowledge to move forward, to take learning further, some abused children will struggle with learning and taking in new learning.

How might this present in the classroom?

Abused children may have great difficulty with understanding subjects that involve sequential learning. Problem-solving may prove particularly difficult; maths is one example. Such children may attempt to avoid such subjects or distract themselves in the lesson either by ‘drifting off’ or by involving themselves in disruptive behaviour. Their attention span may appear limited and where their flight response is over-developed they may show signs of extreme anxiety.

Some children may, however, try to establish and/or maintain strong routines, within which they are able to operate. This can become an obsession, always wanting to know what happens next, needing to know that everything is in its rightful place and always will be, becoming frustrated, confused and sometimes angry if routines are changed without warning. The child is trying here to establish a new set of ‘definites’, rules to operate within. The routines become the child’s safety net and woe betide anyone who alters the routine or pattern of the day!

Keeping routines, rules and boundaries

As most teachers know, routines provide both structure and control to the school day. However, the importance of routines for children who have suffered abuse may not be recognised and there is a risk that some routines may be broken by staff who are trying, in a way, to compensate for a child’s difficult background. For instance, when a child who has been abused is naughty or disruptive, some staff may tend to be more lenient than they would if they were dealing with a pupil who has a better home life. I am not suggesting here that staff should ignore the child’s background or that they shouldn’t try to understand causes behind behaviour – after all we should be doing this for all our pupils. I am suggesting, however, that rules are rules and all children need to learn that behaviours have consequences.

Routines, rules and regularly repeated messages provide the safety net for learning and this is particularly important for abused children. If the rules and boundaries are very different at home from at school the child may have to step over the boundary or break the rules a few times in order to establish exactly what and where they are! In other words we can’t expect a child to understand new rules and boundaries overnight.

Try to establish clear routines and if you have to change a timing of an event or order of the day make sure this is explained to the child with a reassurance that the usual routine will be returned to as soon as possible. If you make an appointment with a child make sure you keep it and keep to the time set. These sound like little things but they are extremely important to the child. If you are a member of staff who spends individual time with a young person make sure that you stick to both the time set for starting and the time set for finishing.

By keeping a routine and doing what we say we will, the child will learn to put trust in us, and this in turn helps children to understand that relationships are worth developing and that not all people are untrustworthy.

If we have agreed that our meeting with a young person will last half an hour, keep to it. The child who drops a bombshell on us five minutes before the end of a set session poses a difficult question: should we extend the time? If we do not end the session when we say we will we will be breaking the rules we have set, the boundaries we have given to that time. If we don’t extend the session we may lose the opportunity. We need to ask ourselves, ‘why have they said this now?’ If we have given a clear set of rules to work within, it may be that the child is testing them, or that the child is actively using the time, telling us something big at a time when they know you cannot continue for very long. Maybe they can only cope with five minutes of talking about it. My advice is to stick to the time, mark the ending of the session and arrange another session to talk about the new issue. Your professional judgement may tell you that the next session needs to come very quickly, and in some cases immediately, after the first, but always mark the end of one session before starting the next: ‘Our session was set for half an hour and that time has finished now, so you may go off to do other things. However, you said something just now that tells me you may need some more time. Shall we carry on now for a further half an hour or shall we set another time?’

Being clear, especially about time, helps the child to know how to use the time given, to keep focused and again helps the learning process.


I have described how some children try to always look forward and try hard not to look back; while this protects them from difficult memories, it does little to develop memories that are useful. We can help children to start to use their memories properly in a number of ways, see below.

Helping children use their memories

  • Recap – most teachers will recap what the class did in the last lesson as a matter of course. For the survivor of abuse recapping has two purposes: it helps the child to think back to previous learning and it helps them to see it is safe to look back.
  • Written instructions – for some children it is necessary to write down instructions, even for quite simple tasks. You may send a child to the office to ask for something but by the time they are there they may well have forgotten the task. Memory is affected by abuse.
  • Diaries – For the same reason diaries are very useful but only if staff help the child to fill them in regularly and learn how to use them.
  • Photographic records – taking photos of children’s work offers a permanent record that can be used to help the child remember past achievements or to recap on past learning. Remember, though, that some children may have good reason to be frightened of the camera, always explain why the photograph is to be taken and seek the child’s permission.
  • Recognise that for some children learning such as maths may prove particularly difficult and they may need extra time spent with them going back over previous learning before taking on new problems.
  • Repetition – perhaps the most useful aid to memory is repetition. We don’t have to constantly think through how to do simple tasks because we have repeatedly done them. Children may need tasks repeatedly explained and the learning reinforced through repetition.


In the first part of this article I explained how some children may appear to switch off in lessons, glaze over, drift away. This may occur in lessons that in some way present as a reminder of abuse; sex and relationship teaching is one such instance. The young person may drop straight into their coping mechanism as a way of getting through the lesson. If this happens, gently remind the child where they are, what they should be doing and let them know they are safe, use their name to call them back.

Try not to draw too much attention from the other children. Approach the child from the front so they can see you, and say their name, ‘Susan you are here in school where you are safe, we are doing maths, I will help you.’ You may need to repeat this message a number of times. This will help the child to reground. Do not touch a child who has drifted off, you might startle them, and in worst cases your touch may be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Panic attacks

Survivors may experience anxiety to the extent that they have panic attacks. A child experiencing a panic attack will be very scared and may react to others out of fear. Panic attacks can affect the child’s breathing.

Try to reground the child in the way described above. Do not get too close and try to help them control their breathing by gently reminding them to breath slowly and calmly. In through the nose and out through their mouth. As the child calms down remind them again that they are in school and that they are safe and use their name to call them back.

Managing our feelings

Being cross with a child who cannot remember the task or who appears to drift off during a lesson is never the answer. If we feel frustrated at having to repeat things over and over again discuss this with a trusted colleague. Child survivors need our care, understanding and our patience.


Some children who have been abused will find even sitting in a classroom difficult and in extreme cases such children may need an escape route. Design a system by which the child can indicate that they are feeling unsafe and are getting the urge to run. The system would allow the child to leave the classroom and to go to an agreed space for a short period of time to come round.

Many of the strategies I have described here will already be being used in school for all children. If this is the case, brilliant. If not I hope this article will spark off discussion across the staff team and help people improve their own practice.

I strongly believe that schools can provide the structures and routines that will help the child to feel secure enough to engage in learning.


Perry, B D (2001). Violence and Childhood: How Persisting Fear can Alter the Developing Child’s Brain [online]. Retrieved 7/10/01 from