Handling Suspicions of Child Abuse for ECD Practitioners

Anti child abuseHow to Handle Suspicions of Child Abuse for ECD Practitioners


A child who is abused feels lonely, very scared and confused. The little person might display behavior that is often incorrectly categorized as ‘naughty’ or ‘rebellious’.

As a matter of fact, the child is suffering severely from a lack of trust and, often, feels that he has nowhere and no-one to turn to. If a child cannot trust the parents/caregivers, who can she trust?


  1. Child abuse crosses all racial, economic and cultural lines.
  2. Children need predictability, structure and clear boundaries. Even if the child shows signs of not wanting to operate within the boundaries, he or she needs the knowledge that their parents/caregivers/ECD practitioners are looking out for their safety.
  3. Abuse could be a slap, harsh comments or not knowing if dinner will be served that night.

Emotional Abuse and Signs to Recognise

Definition: Emotional abuse is the ongoing emotional maltreatment or emotional neglect of a child. It’s sometimes called psychological abuse and can seriously damage a child’s emotional health and development. Emotional abuse can involve deliberately trying to scare or humiliate a child or isolating or ignoring them.

  1. Abused children cannot predict how their parents/caregivers will act, so they live in a frightening place with no rules. Thus, they cannot express their emotions safely.
  2. Belittling, shaming and humiliation of the child.
  3. Name calling, making negative comparisons to others (including siblings).
  4. Telling the child that he is no good, worthless, stupid or a mistake.
  5. Frequent yelling, threatening and/or bullying.
  6. Ignoring or rejecting the child.
  7. Limited affection or physical contact, no hugs or kisses, no I love you’s.
  8. Exposure to violence.

Physical Abuse and Signs to Recognise

Definition: Physical abuse can be defined as any intentional act causing injury or trauma to another person by way of bodily contact. In most cases, children are the victims of physical abuse, but adults can also be victims, as in cases of domestic violence.

  1. Deliberately hurting a child causing injuries such as bruises, broken bones, burns or cuts. It isn’t accidental.
  2. Slaps, hidings, pinching, ear and hair pulling.
  3. All sexual activities, including the child watching (it’s as bad as participating).
  4. Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, belt or wooden spoon markings, cuts, cigarette burns, etc.
  5. The child is always watchful and on alert, as if waiting for something bad to happen.
  6. The child shies away from touch and flinches at sudden movements.
  7. The child does not want to go home.
  8. The child wears inappropriate clothing to cover up marks and injuries.

Neglectful Abuse and Signs to Recognise

Definition: Neglect is the ongoing failure to meet a child’s basic needs and is the most common form of child abuse. A child may be left hungry or dirty, without adequate clothing, shelter, supervision, medical or health care. A child may be put in danger or not protected from physical or emotional harm.

  1. Ill-fitting clothes, dirty or weather inappropriate.
  2. Bad hygiene.
  3. Untreated illnesses and physical injuries.
  4. Frequently unsupervised or left in unsafe situations.
  5. Frequently late or misses school.
  6. Developmental delays.

Sexual Abuse and Signs to Recognise

Definition: Sexual abuse is when a child or young person is pressurised, forced, tricked or coerced into taking part in any kind of sexual activity with an adult or another young person. This can include kissing, touching the young person’s genitals (private parts) or breasts, intercourse or oral sex.

  1. Trouble walking or sitting.
  2. Displays high knowledge or interest in sexual behavior/acts, and/or seductive behavior, inappropriate to the child’s age.
  3. Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without any apparent reason.
  4. Does not want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities.
  5. Runs away from home/school.

General Signs to Look Out For

  1. The child is excessively withdrawn, fearful and/or anxious about doing something wrong.
  2. The child shows extreme behavior – extremely passive or extremely aggressive – extremely compliant or extremely demanding.
  3. The child does not show attachment to parents/caregivers.
  4. The child acts inappropriately adult or inappropriately infantile such as rocking, thumb sucking, throwing tantrums (this is a sign when the child has already outgrown these types of behavior).

How to Handle the Child when Suspicions of Abuse Arise

  1. Sometimes an abused child will blurt the situation out at random times, such as the morning ring, or whilst getting a hug from one of the caregivers at school.
  2. At other times you and your staff may observe signs of some form of abuse or neglect, and suspicions may be aroused.
  3. If you address it with the child, let the child do most of the talking. When you ask questions make certain that they are not leading questions.
  4. Be very kind to the child and guide your staff into treating the child with lots of compassion and love.
  5. Whilst being careful not to pre-judge the situation, the child always gets the benefit of the doubt.

Recording and Handling of Disclosures

When a child makes comments to a staff member that gives cause for concern (disclosure), or a member of staff notices another member of staff being abusive to a child, or a member of staff observes signs or signals that give cause for concern, such as significant changes in behaviour, deterioration in general well-being, unexplained bruising, marks or signs of possible abuse or neglect, that member of staff:

  1. Listens to the child, offers comfort and gives assurance that she or he will take action.
  2. Does not question the child.
  3. Writes a report that forms an objective record of the observation or disclosure. The report must include:
    1. The date and time of the observation or the disclosure.
    2. The exact words spoken by the child as far as possible.
    3. The name of the person to whom the concern was reported, with the date and time.
    4. The names of any other person present at the time.
  4. These records are signed and dated and kept in the child’s personal file, which is kept securely and confidentially.
  5. If you have a Safety Coordinator at school, he/she is informed as soon as possible.

Informing Parents

  1. Parents are normally the first point of contact. We discuss concerns with parents to gain their view of events, unless we feel that the parent is the perpetrator of the abuse and that informing them may put the child in greater danger.
  2. We make a note of any discussion we have the parents regarding a concern and the notes are stored in the child’s personal file.
  3. If a suspicion of abuse warrants referral to Childline, SAPS, Legal Aid or DSD, parents are informed that the abuse has been reported.
  4. If the parent is the possible abuser, management takes advice from the Department they initially consulted with or the school’s attorney regarding when and how to inform the parents.
  5. An Accident Incident Reporting from School Register should be implemented. It is used to inform parents of any injuries that happened during the day. All injuries, no matter how small, should also be reported to the parents telephonically, or by text, when it happens.

Information From Parents

  1. An Accident Incident Reporting from Home should be implemented. It is used by the parents to notify the preschool of any injuries that happened at home over the weekend or the night before.
  2. Sometimes a parent might come to you with concerns that the other parent is abusing the child in some way. These concerns don’t appear on any forms that the public can see, but you should make a confidential note in the child’s personal file.
  3. Guide the parent with the concerns towards the organisations listed in ‘Where to get help’ below.

Where to get help


Department of Social Development:

  • Phone or visit the Social Development officer who works with your preschool.

Legal Aid South Africa:

  • Hotline : 0800-110-110 and 0800-153-728
  • Find a Legal Aid SA Centre close to you: http://www.legal-aid.co.za – click on ‘Find a Centre’.

With thanks to:
Legal Aid South Africa: http://www.legal-aid.co.za, and

About Andrea Sciarappa

The heart of any pre-school comes from three places. • Firstly, from the Principal of the school, because that is who sets the ethos (yes, it is a bit lonely at the top, but that's why Tools for School is here). • Secondly, from the teachers and other staff. • In third place, is the office because this is the central place from which everything that happens in the school is organised. I have 20 years of experience in pre-school management, and it is my passion and privilege to share all I know about pre-school management with you.
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