Teacher stress, child sexual abuse and sources of support

Unlike many other professions, teachers are exposed daily to emotionally provocative and distressing situations with limited options for self-regulation.  When a student is blowing a gasket, they are usually given the option of taking time out, or leaving the classroom to cool off.  A teacher cannot do this, teachers must stay in the room.  Whatever the circumstance or however unpleasant or distressing the situation teachers must stay in charge, take the higher ground and rise above the provocation or distress.  This is enormously draining, emotionally and mentally.  Left unaddressed, this chronic stress will produce deadly outcomes.


The ill effects of stressed teachers on learning are equally obvious.  Learning is very difficult if the classroom is not managed well and behaviour is hard to manage when a teacher is struggling to stand up – literally and metaphorically.  Poorly managed behaviour is a recipe for disruption in the classroom.  Learning is repeatedly interrupted, stilted or stopped altogether…it is also important to remember that teachers are managing large numbers of students at a time.


In an article for The Guardian (2013), Richard Adams reported that according to the Health and Safety Executive, teaching and education professions report 2,340 cases of work-related stress for every 100,000 employees each year, with only nursing having a worse record. In support of this, in an article for the TES magazine (2012), Jo Knowsley recounted The Teacher Support Network (a teacher helpline) was recording rising numbers of calls reporting anxiety and depression, and Teachersolidarity.com  has claimed that ‘…teachers are 40% more likely to commit suicide than the average for all other occupations…’  (accessible at: www.teachersolidarity.com/blog/teachersuicide-problem-in-uk#sthash.HMdWLyfi.dpuf)


In this context I decided to survey a sample of teachers about what caused them stress generally and, in particular, the effects of dealing with allegations or cases of child sexual abuse (CSA).


Survey of Teachers

A short, exploratory survey was sent out, via Survey Monkey, asking education staff questions about school ‘staff well-bring polices and the help available to them after being informed of a students they support being victims of sexual abuse or if a student discloses sexual abuse to them.  The survey was sent via email to twelve former colleagues, two primary and 10 secondary staff, with the request to complete and forward the link to other education staff. In the end 42 teaching staff responded comprising:


  • 13 primary mainstream school staff
  • 25 secondary mainstream school staff
  • 1 primary special education
  • 2 secondary special education
  • 1 secondary school governor
I was not expecting such a good response rate but perhaps this reflected a need to unburden feelings. As one respondents wrote:  ‘…in the journey of a teacher, accountability and stress are constant travel companions…’


General Stress

Eleven respondents (26%) described how they see teaching as the best job in the world.  One primary school teacher, for example, stated, ‘…watching your students’ blossom is the greatest reward for the hours spent preparing lessons, marking and meetings…’  However, feedback also described how the pressure of targets, league tables and exam results diluted the magic that is the very nature of a good teaching.


Balancing work and life was the biggest challenge facing teachers, and respondents felt they needed help when head teachers, local authorities, school inspectors and other professional bodies’ placed unrealistic targets and expectations on them, denying them time to reflect and develop. As one respondent commented ‘…good teachers are happy, (but) they can’t be happy if they have no space or time to reflect and learn…’


Over 90%  of respondents (39), which included all the secondary school staff described how schools were too target-driven leaving them drowning in ‘accountability’ –  ‘…accountable to the students, parents, head teachers, the government, and at times to the media…’ This respondent when on to describe how accountability was not the problem, but the high-stakes accountability, when everything they say or do not say, do or do not do and what they see or do not see are under the microscope of reputation.  Both primary and secondary school respondents described how ‘accountability’ is being used to cloak victimisation, writing that often teachers felt accountability just seemed to be about blame.  It was thus felt that anxiety about bench marking of schools and School Inspection ratings drive head teachers to berate rather than provide support. As one respondent commented: ‘….wellbeing is a massive issue not just for teachers, but for everyone in education…”. 


Feedback suggested that teachers felt largely unsupported in their education role, with even less availability of support to promote their own well-being for anything outside this role, including any emotional damage suffered whilst caring for their students. One respondent stating‘…the added value stuff is not valued at all…


Dealing with cases of child sexual abuse

95% of respondents (40 staff) reported their school had no formal procedures or school policy in place that discussed how to support staff after a CSA disclosure. The remaining two said they did not know if their school had such guidance:


  ‘…it’s happened about twice since I’ve been in the school when a child has disclosed sexual abuse, it’s a very small staff team so we support each other, there is nothing in writing…’ (primary)
–   ‘…there is lots of information about who the Child Protection staff member is and what we should or should not do if a student does disclose something but nothing about how we personally deal with the shock of being chosen by a child to disclose to…’ (secondary)
  ‘…when I was in my second year of teaching I experienced such a situation, my head was very supportive, but that was because she was an experienced head I think… there was nothing formal in place… I was just lucky…’ (primary)
  ‘…I was really affected when a male student disclosed to me… I felt helpless … the worst bit for me was no-one told me how to help him in the class…he was desperate to continue with his final year…I was told not to make demands on him for coursework…I was told we could apply to the examination board for extraneous circumstances… but the student told me I was treating him different and he wanted staff to expect his best…‘ (secondary)



The one School Governor respondent asked whether other respondents did have ‘staff-wellbeing’ information, in their schools that highlighted how to support staff after a disclosure, if so, would I access a copy and forward it to them. As yet, I have not managed to access such a policy. All respondents had received general child protection training that included CSA as a type of abuse, and the procedures they needed to follow in the case of a disclosure, but none described training that was CSA specific or covered issues of staff support:


  ‘…I am not aware of any training that looks only at child sexual abuse…’ (primary)
  ‘…its part and parcel of the CP training we get…but nothing about coping after…’ (secondary special)
  ‘…the CP training I did said nothing about how staff would feel or where to look for support if you needed it…’ (secondary)
  ‘…I think we would benefit from gaining knowledge about all aspects of sexual abuse… it’s not only adults who abuse… in my last school I worked with more than one student who had abused others…’ 
Just one respondent reported they had received CSA specialist training, but the respondent did not indicate what the training had included, such as information about processes for staff to follow after a disclosure to access support available to staff.


All of the respondents (100%) believed that support should be available to staff after a CSA disclosure, their comments including


–   ‘…disclosure is about making sure the child is safe, but I think some sort of preparation about how a disclosure can impact on you emotionally and would be very useful…’ (secondary)
  ‘…as a CP lead in a school I would appreciate guidance on this…’ (primary)
  ‘…it should be from a specialist practitioner…someone who understands this area…’
  ‘…not everyone would need or want it…staff could complete a sort of risk assessment to indicate they needed support or not…’ (secondary)
  ‘…you hear about things happening, you read about them but a child actually disclosing to you is not something that we experience everyday… I know I would find it quite traumatic… there should be something out there…’ (primary)


A Case Example

One respondent described an incident in a secondary school.  The teacher had e-mailed the male deputy-head (Child Protection Lead) early in the day asking for an emergency meeting to discuss a case of CSA, with no response.  Later she sent a student to the office of the deputy-head asking him to urgently contact the teacher, but still no response.  The teacher had a full timetable so not able to leave the classroom and no free time to go search for the deputy head. As soon as lunch break came she went in search of the deputy-head.  When the teacher secured an opportunity to speak to the deputy-head she described a conversation that had taken place between her and a student about CSA incidents at home.  The deputy informed the teacher that he was timetabled to teach so she needed to ‘hold on’ to the child until he could organise cover for himself.   Whilst supporting the student the teacher missed the start of her final lesson and a lunch-time planned meeting with another family.  The consequences for her were not support from senior staff for a teacher who cared and held the hand of a distressed child nor time to gather her thoughts and emotions but a reprimand from her head of department for not organising cover for her lesson and a compliant from secretarial staff who had to ‘entertain’ the family because she did not turn up for the meeting, although the meeting was rearranged for immediately after school which she attended.


Conclusions and Reflections

Teachers working with children and young people have a critical role in protecting them and creating an environment where they feel safe.   There are times when that safe environment enables a child ‘to tell’. Child protection training warns us about changes in behaviours and other signs to look out for that may indicate a child is in need of our protection; such training also informs what steps to follow to make sure a disclosure is reported correctly.  However, currently, it appears that present training offers little on the likely impact of CSA disclosure on staff and what support they can expect.


It is widely accepted that teachers face stresses, linked to managing student behaviour and meeting student progress targets.  Awareness of those stresses places a duty of care on education management. However there should also be strategies in place to provide support when cases of child abuse, including CSA, occur.


Recognising the impact disclosure can have on education staff should place a similar ‘duty of care’ on managers.  However, based on the findings from this small survey, such support seems to be in short supply and, currently, there are no other research findings which might lead to managers paying more attention to the needs of education who struggle emotionally after a student’s CSA disclosure.


Feedback from this survey suggests:

  • Education staff are affected by CSA disclosure
  • Training programmes should discuss how CSA disclosure can impact on a teacher emotionally
  • Specialist support should be available to education staff after a student has made a CSA disclosure
  • Further research in this area is needed.
Dr April May Kitchener
Director, Siarad Da


Richard Adams Wednesday 1 May 2013 Guardian: Head teacher killed herself after six months in job, coroner rules


Times Educational Supplement 1 June, 2012, Jo Knowsley, Stressed? Coping? Increasing numbers of teachers aren’t and see only one, desperate way out. What can be done to protect the mental health of the UK’s educators?




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