Frontlines with Helen Bonnick

Staff must listen to students’ worries and act on them – even without the parents knowing, writes Helen Bonnick

Does your child tell you everything? Speaking as a former child I would be sceptical. How much is our desire to know based on our child’s needs – and how much on our own? How do we strike that balance between “asking too many questions” and being available? It is a tightrope walk that is hard enough for the most self-aware and functioning of families – and a nightmare for the rest of us.

Each day, hundreds of children and young people seek out a trusted adult at school in order to talk about their fears, anxieties or a whole range of stuff. Often it is an incident that has occurred that morning before school or it may be a regular visit for a youngster who has a caring role at home. Sometimes it’s a student who has waited for two or three years to decide they trust this person enough to disclose the abuse that has been going on since they were little. In many cases it will be accompanied by a desperate plea: “Please don’t tell my mum.”

Many reasons are given for not wanting parents involved: “Mum has too many worries of her own”, “she’s frightened we’ll all be taken away if anyone finds out”, “she isn’t my real mum”. There is the one we dread, “she’ll go ballistic”, and the sad one, “she’ll be so ashamed I could not talk to her”.

Students find out quickly which staff members they feel comfortable with but everyone in school should receive child protection training and know how to respond.

The first priority must be to ensure the safety of the student. Does this fall within the child protection procedures? If so, then they must understand that the matter needs to be passed on and may be out of that person’s hands, but that they can still be supported through the process of mother being told. If there is no risk to the student’s health or welfare then the process can afford to be more leisurely. It might mean working to strengthen family relationships so that people can tell in future, or perhaps finding a different confidante in the child’s life – for example, the father.
But let’s be real about this. Aside from the serious, the grim or the life-threatening, there’s stuff that goes on which mother might like to know about, but frankly doesn’t concern her. 

Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker

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