A Timely Reminder
The recent imprisonment of George Pell has focused our attention on the evil abuse suffered at the hands of those whom children should trust. The atrocious revelations, uncovered by Julia Gillard’s Royal Commission and reported across the globe, confirms the magnitude of this appalling cruelty. Unfortunately, the numbers of children damaged by a range of secular and non-secular organisations is most likely to be exceeded by those children who are abused those who they are programed to trust - their families and friends of those families.
Any attempt to quantify the numbers is at best an estimation as so many of the victims never disclose their history. Although estimates of the numbers differ it seems to be between 15% to 43% of children will experience a traumatic event and up to 15% will develop PTSD. This is an increase on the general view that, from 1% to 9% of the population suffer from PTSD.
The accuracy of these records is not relevant to this paper, they are just presented to give a sense of the magnitude of the numbers of kids who carry the wounds of their abuse or neglect. These statistics indicate that in a school of 1000 students you could expect 10 – 90 students suffering PTSD. So, in a class of 30 students you could expect between three to nine students who suffer from the injuries inflicted on them through abuse or neglect.
Also, PTSD is not equally distributed across the landscape; in resource-poor suburbs up to 23% suffer PTSD (in the school mentioned above you would have 230 students with PTSD). These figures are reflected in behavioural indicators in school systems. The numbers of suspensions positively correlate with the socio-economic profile of a school as does the number of children referred to child protection agencies.
The high levels of stress suffered during these abusive episodes, if systematically repeated will damage the child’s brain leaving them with a permanent cognitive disability. This includes:
- Amygdala is increased in size – resulting in a hyper sensitivity to real or perceived danger
- Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this is the area where memories are first created.
- Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface – this is our executive part of the brain where all the considered decisions are made.
- Cerebellum is reduced in size – this is an area of the brain that is intimately involved in all the coordination of thoughts and imagined outcomes for given situations.
They have also learned to behave in ways that may well have saved them in their dysfunctional environment, things like exaggerated anger, bullying or unhealthy compliance.
However, the result of this cognitive damage and their dysfunctional behaviours have created a group of students who:
- Have significant brain damage
- Are vulnerable to elevated levels of threat
- Have entrenched behaviours that repulse and threaten others
- Have behaviours that push well-meaning people away
- Have behaviours that damage the physical and psychological wellbeing of other members of their community
Having seen what abuse does to the child’s development it is no surprise that childhood PTSD is linked to almost every behavioural illness in the diagnostic manual (the DSM) used to diagnose psychiatric illnesses. These include disorders whose symptoms create the difficulties for teachers:
- Attention Deficit
- Conduct Disorder
- Oppositional Defiance
I can’t emphasise enough these children do not easily attract the compassion from society that those kids who become disabled through a developmental mishap or an accident attract, yet their ‘injuries’ have been inflicted on them through the malevolent assaults of adults. They are victims, not of ‘bad luck’ but a cruelty that has never been really identified or accepted by society.
The really difficult issue in dealing with these victims is to foster and maintain an empathetic relationship with these kids. Beneath their severely dysfunctional behaviour is a child who is precious, special and unique. When we accept this, we recognise them as victims of such cruelty. Understanding this sustains our dedication when we are subjected to the very repellent behaviours we might face, particularly when we first encounter them in our classrooms.
Right now, the media is addressing the issue of child sexual abuse and appropriately there is an outcry about the abhorrent nature of this abuse and sympathy for the victims. Unfortunately, the media will move on and this compassion for the victims will fade and we will return to the consistent position that these bad children should be punished. The connection between the bad behaviour and the abusive history is forgotten. But we are a professional teacher and we understand that these kids are victims and so we have a right to help them:
- Achieve their sense of value
- Exercise their right to take a place of equity in their communities
- Access all opportunities that are available to others
It is tempting to make the case that these kids are more deserving of special support but that would be plain wrong; all our kids need all they need. But, I would argue that these children whose dysfunctional behaviour that has been inflicted on them by adults do not receive the same support as other children with a disability. This is a task that requires specialist training, resources to support teachers dealing with these children and a professional recognition of the special skills required. Despite the difficulty in providing the appropriate programs there is promise that, with the proper interventions these children can make significant progress on overcoming their failings, an outcome not always available to children with more acknowledged disabilities.
This is a challenge for all of society but a professional responsibility for us teachers; it’s hard, it’s not fair but addressing the needs of these ‘unpleasant’ children allows us to display those very qualities that make teaching the profession I am proud to be associated with.