We work to ensure our member communities provide comprehensive, effective education and support for children and young adults, focused on their physical, social and emotional well-being. Together with a team of global experts, we provide child protection and student well-being training, resources, and support to our school and university leaders. We empower them to learn how to educate their communities and develop capacity to prevent and manage all aspects of abuse.

Talking about mental health, abuse or violence is not easy. Although it may be uncomfortable, it is critical to start the discussion in international school and university communities. At CIS, we purposefully foster open discussion with our members and have invested to increase the knowledge of our staff to consider the role we all have in keeping students safe and strengthening their well-being.

In addition to integrating new practices into our member services, we have created a series of workshops to raise awareness and improve practices within schools and universities.

Taking Action

We are committed to creating the necessary changes in the international education community. We have integrated new practices into all our service areas and will continue to invest in educating our community of members, partners, and educators around the world.

Why is this a priority?

We became deeply involved in child protection work when a specific case involving hundreds of students across multiple schools and countries shed light on the fact that children were being abused without detection or reporting. We learned that even when suspicions do arise, offenders often leave to join other schools and continue their pattern of behaviour due to a lack of awareness of the signs of abuse coupled with historic mismanagement of allegations.

The international education community responded by forming an International Taskforce on Child Protection (ITFCP). Jane Larsson, CIS Executive Director formed the International Taskforce on Child Protection and has served as the Taskforce chair since 2014.

Following two years of consultation, a comprehensive set of child protection standards have now been agreed by accreditation and inspection bodies globally. The standards cover allegation management, staff selection, detecting and reporting abuse, education and support for leaders, teachers and students about behaviour and boundaries, implementation of policies, and collaboration with the local community.

“It became clear that everyone must begin to discuss the topic more openly to develop understanding and address it effectively.”

Our school and university communities need to consider how they are keeping students safe and promoting student well-being. This engages a wide range of areas of life: from being vigilant in hiring and monitoring staff, to recognizing problematic behaviours of adults or students in our communities. From active oversight and scrutiny by school and university boards and owners, to strengthening the organization’s approach to online safety. From tackling peer-on-peer abuse in all its forms, to strengthening the procedures for trip, homestay arrangements and student exchange programs. It is only by taking steps to address these and other issues that leaders will understand their roles in addressing abuse and harm.

How common is child sexual abuse in international schools?

There are no statistics available which detail abuse by educators in international schools. Studies conducted around the world report that the rate of abuse and exploitation (by the age of 18) impacts between 1 in 10 children, and as high as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 4 boys according to various national studies.

Studies estimate that 70% of child sexual abuse occurs between children. Schools and educators need to consider:

“What is problematic sexual behaviour in children?” 

These numbers have significant implications for the work ahead of us as we educate children and support them in our communities.

Why are international communities especially vulnerable?

Diverse cultural norms and varying national laws addressing physical and sexual abuse add complexity and uncertainty when serving an international community. As part of the International Taskforce, a survey of 716 international educators identified cultural norms as the #1 barrier to identifying and reporting abuse. Almost half of the educators reported they lack confidence in their abilities to detect abuse.

Globally across cultures, child sexual abuse is not addressed openly or effectively. Too often, the signs of abuse go unrecognized. It is historically under-reported: experts tell us that only 5% of sexual abuse incidents are reported to authorities and of those, only 7% result in a criminal conviction. 

Recruiting from a pool of internationally mobile individuals also presents significant safer recruitment challenges. These challenges can also arise as a result of the legal or cultural framework of the country where the school is based. Isolation from local services and under-developed child protection systems can also make it harder for schools to prevent, identify early and respond appropriately to abuse in their community. 

The Child Protection Handbook of the Association of International Schools in Africa explains that

“international school communities are vulnerable to abuse because the nature of abuse requires secrecy, insularity, isolation and limited access to support resources, which are some characteristics of the international community. International schools must respond to the reality that these characteristics are exactly the characteristics that perpetrators will use to their advantage in abusing children”.

For a list of specific characteristics of international school communities that should be taken into account when considering how to design and implement child protection policies in your schools, review the online handbook

Why is this topic just as important for our university members?

All of us in education have a responsibility to support student mental health and well-being, from early years through to their transition out of higher education. 
In international education, we also have a responsibility to develop our intercultural skills and behaviours to ensure that we are able to support the mental health of students from across cultures.
Higher education institutions not only have the responsibility of their enrolled students, they also come into contact with increasing numbers of children below the age of 18. They might be secondary school students attending summer schools, recruitment fairs or open days, university students under the age of 18 or they may have contact with children through research, outreach or other activities. Universities should consider how they are protecting these children and looking at how schools have implemented child protection programs can be a good starting point.
Here are some ways you can advance your knowledge about the topic of student mental health and well-being to more effectively support your international students.

  • Read about some examples of student well-being initiatives at our member universities and let us know about the work that your institution is doing in this area
  • Read Student mental health and well-being: Supporting students in transition from school to university (blog updated with more resources 19 July 2019) by Katie Rigg, CIS Head of Safeguarding and Student Well-Being
  • CIS member universities can attend a CIS Student Well-being Workshop to: 
    • Explore broader knowledge and guidance on student well-being issues—topics like mental health and intercultural competence, transitions between institutions, how to co-design effective programs with your students and how to proactively identify students who are struggling at an early stage
    • Learn how to identify and prevent abuse by trusted professionals and other students in your organization
    • Be equipped with knowledge and important information to take back and share with your colleagues to develop a whole-university approach to student well-being in your institution