Safeguarding against child abuse: The ‘art’ of listening

Written by: Sam Preston | Published:
Image: iStock

It can take years before a child will disclose abuse, so spotting any early signs is vital. Safeguarding expert Sam Preston explains what to look out for and how to start a conversation when you have concerns

Child abuse: a distressing topic that’s never easy to talk about, even as teaching professionals tasked with its identification and intervention. However, for the children and young people who are victims of abuse, trusting and telling an adult, can be one of the hardest things they’ll ever do.

Over the years, it has become assumed that young people who experience abuse, don’t talk about it. However, recent research shows us that children do disclose. The big question we must ask ourselves as practitioners, is: are we accurately listening?

Research from the NSPCC estimates that it takes seven years on average for children and young people to disclose sexual abuse, so how can we ensure that we do not miss opportunities for intervention? To do this, we need to pay attention not only to what the child says, but also to what is not said.

Never assume that students will behave or react in a specific way as every case is different, and thus, each student will respond in their own way.

So, how do you encourage your students to speak up while reading the signs for those that have not found their voice just yet? There are a range of practical strategies and techniques which can be adopted to support and encourage children and young people to express their views.

Non-verbal cues

Not every student will feel capable of speaking directly about the abuse they are experiencing, so it is important to be aware of non-verbal cues indicating risk to instigate and facilitate a conversation with them. You might notice:

  • Behavioural: Changes in eating habits, shrinking away from or seeming threatened by physical contact (e.g. during P.E. music lessons, drama classes), age-inappropriate sexual behaviours, sudden unexplained personality changes, mood swings and seeming insecure.
  • Physical: Cuts and bruises (especially those presenting as defensive wounds), unrealistic description of events to explain injuries, signs of self-harm.
  • Verbal: Using words or phrases that are “too adult” for their age, unexplained silence, withdrawal, or suddenly being less talkative in class.

How you start the conversation will depend on how old and mature your student is, however, here are some basic strategies you can employ to help open and facilitate conversation. Remember this is a conversation not an investigation:

Find regular time to speak alone with the student: Building trust will of course take time; however, it is important that the student has one-to-one time with you to enable them to talk openly without fear of your (or peer) judgement.

Consider location and time of day: Predicting how long the conversation will last is difficult, particularly if the student does disclose to you. Therefore, consider a location where you have ample time without risk of being disturbed and meet at a time when your student is less likely to be tired or not in the mood to concentrate (20 minutes before lunch break for example, is not a great time).

Be aware of your tone: Try to keep your tone and conversation casual to put your student at ease. A serious formal tone is likely to make them feel uneasy and more likely to give you the answers they think you want to hear. It is essential not to lead or direct the conversation in a particular theme – let the student talk and facilitate them to expand on what they have shared.

Be aware of student’s reactions: Body language, pace and tone of voice should be observed throughout your discussion and will provide indicators of a sensitive subject or beginning of disclosure.

Use reflection techniques: To help decrease the student’s stress during the disclosure process, you can ask them about specific behaviours or emotions you have observed. For example, you could ask them: “Is this difficult to talk about?”, “How do you feel talking about this?” or “I see you have your head down, what’s going on?”

Don’t be afraid of silence: Let your student pause and don’t fill gaps in conversation. This will also give you time to reflect on what you’ve been told.

Be patient: You must have realistic expectations and an understanding that the discussion might not go as planned – it’s important to give it time. While your student might not be quite ready to talk today, they may well pick the conversation up with you in a few days. This will also give you time to process what they’ve told you, seek advice, share information, record concerns and plan next actions.

Become an ‘active listener’

The predominant reason young people give for not reporting abuse is the concern that they will not be listened to or that they will be misunderstood. To become a trusted support and be of greatest help to students, you must first become an “active listener”. Put simply, active listening is the practice of listening to a speaker while providing feedback indicating that the listener both hears and understands what the student is saying.

I have referenced a fantastic resource at bottom of this article from DABS and here’s a good example of how to open a conversation as an active listener:

Opening statements

Good opening statements convey an interest in where the other person is emotionally and what they are thinking and feeling. Statements should always convey respect and acceptance that the other person may not wish to talk.
Opening statements should be accompanied by body language, facial expressions and voice tone that reflect all the concepts above.

An opening can be as little as a smile accompanied by an open gesture (opening of one’s hands) conveying the message that you are there for the victim. It could be a long sentence including all or most of the above concepts. A quiet voice, a gentle disposition together with an ability to remain silent and still while the speaker thinks are excellent listening resources.

Some openings to avoid might include:

  • “Are you alright”? “How are you”? “Are you feeling any better”? These questions are often repeated with more and more emphasis, transmitting the state of anxiety being experienced by you as the questioner.
  • Asking questions about circumstances and detail is disrespectful and may feel voyeuristic.
  • Asking leading questions that are more likely to take the speaker away from their material and instead reveal your train of thought.
  • Crying, hugging and in other ways attempting to soothe a victim.
  • Promising confidentiality.


If a student does disclose abuse to you, you should:

Be an empathetic listener: Remind your student that it is not their fault. They did whatever they needed to, to cope. Empathy is a key attribute of active listening and will help build trust between you and your students.

Be receptive and understanding of their view on the situation: Despite your potentially differing opinion. It might be tempting to “rail road” in with a suggested solution or your personal perception of the situation. However, it is imperative to allow the student to air their thoughts in an open and trusting environment.

Honour their boundaries: Ask for permission before any touch. It is important that they feel in control of their body at all times.

If you plan to intervene and report the issue, let your student know: Otherwise they may feel like you’re going behind their back and they should never have told you in the first place. If a student says they want to speak to you but don’t want you to tell anyone you must make it clear that information may be shared. A good way of achieving this is to positively reinforce first, e.g: “I’m really glad you felt able to approach / speak to me and I am here to listen / help. I want you to know that if I think you are at risk I will share information.”

And remember, don’t panic: Feel honoured that this young person has trusted you enough to tell you about what has happened to them. You have the power to make a positive difference in this student’s life.

Reluctant to talk

If a young person is reluctant to talk, you should remember first and foremost that disclosure of abuse is a process – not an event. It is extremely important that you have been given training to understand why a child is reluctant to talk to you.

Most victims will have developed their own coping strategies to deal with abuse and, in many cases, this means burying the experience and making the decision never to talk to anyone about it. This could be down to pressure from the abuser if the abuse if still occurring or, feelings of guilt or fear in the child that they will not be believed or will get into trouble if they do tell.

Do not put pressure on them or shift the discussion to sensitive issues before they seem comfortable. Denial is a very large factor of the disclosure process and so it is vital that you’re patient and empathetic.

Reassurance that they are doing the right thing by talking to you is key. Use an opening line such as: “My job is to talk and listen to people, you are not in any trouble with me today. This is a safe room.” This a good opener.

Rita Farrell, a forensic interview specialist with the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, has produced some brilliant slides on interview techniques for reluctant children (see further information).

Respond with care and urgency

Remember: if you suspect abuse, you are legally required to report it, irrespective of whether a student has confided the details.

The world of legislative protection for young people is continuously evolving in line with case learnings and outcomes. For example, the Department for Education has released updates to its Working Together to Safeguard Children statutory guidance and Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and guide for practitioners that have an impact upon the legal requirements relating to child sexual exploitation that are placed upon schools.

It is essential that any frontline professional trained before these dates understands the latest requirements they are required to embed in everyday safeguarding practice.

And finally

Seek support for yourself. Be kind to yourself – child abuse is devastating and you will need support through the process too. Your designated safeguarding lead or senior leadership team can refer you to a counsellor and agree a support plan as you walk the path with your student.

Further information and resources


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