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Learning what you don't know about Child Protection

 by Hannah Sapunor-Davis, Communications Coordinator, Council of International Schools

“My job is to tell you what you don’t know and, what you don’t know that you don’t know.” This is how Dr Joe Sullivan, a leading forensics expert, explains his role at the CIS Child Protection Workshops. It can be disconcerting when school leaders realize that they are missing vital information. And when that lack of knowledge means they are missing signs of children being abused, this discomfort creates an urgent need for expertise and resources. For this reason, we’ve created a series of Child Protection workshops throughout the world led by CIS Affiliated Consultants to support and empower international schools to build robust safeguarding practices and policies in preparation for new internationally-recognised accreditation standards. Sullivan led one of two strands at the workshop, along with Tim Gerrish, to provide school leaders with information about school policies, practices and implementation.

A second strand at the workshop focused on the role of school counsellors, nurses, and educators exploring ‘Curriculum, Education and Student Outcomes.’ Two accomplished CIS Affiliated Consultants, Doug Walker and Susie March, led enlightening, if not also jarring, sessions on how child abuse can deeply affect a child’s performance in school and outlook on life. School staff who work directly with children in the day-to-day activities form the essential first line of reporting and are most apt to witness the signs of abuse, so it was important for to us to build a workshop that engaged both the policy-making and the child-facing sides of an international school.

Dr Douglas Walker, a Clinical Psychologist specialising in trauma-informed mental health programmes, works to increase vigilance necessary to protect children from abuse in two primary ways. The first is real-time awareness of threats to children, the second is recognising the signs and symptoms of abuse in the classroom. The latter training offers educators the knowledge to interpret, and respond to problematic behaviour differently in the school environment. Walker gave examples of when this training becomes crucial: “For instance, a student that is viewed as "lazy" might have a lot going on in his mind, maybe reliving a traumatic event from last evening and unable to work in the classroom environment.” Walker discussed core features of evidence-based therapies for childhood trauma, so that participants would become familiar with the next steps in seeking appropriate mental health treatment in the country where they are living.

One of the most surprising takeaways that the workshop attendees learned was that a large percentage of child abuse occurs between children. Much of the discussion about child abuse centres on defining appropriate boundaries between adults and children. Yet it is dually important for children to understand and be in control of their boundaries between one another. That’s where Susie March’s expertise comes in. March’s career in the medical field (sexual health, women's health and family planning) and experience with schools has led her to build comprehensive age and development appropriate Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) programmes for international schools during the last 10 years.

March is familiar with common obstacles that prevent a school from implementing a CSE programme. Staff are often unprepared or unwilling to teach the subject, often referring to it as being an unwelcome addition to all their other work, and fit into ‘a gap’ in the academic schedule. Backlash or opposition from parents, community or local authorities could prevent the subject from being taught robustly, a conflict not unfamiliar in a multicultural international school. Furthermore, Comprehensive Sexuality Education programmes are often under-funded and take low priority when compared to academic subjects. “When speaking with teachers, parents, board members and students, everyone agrees that young people need to be prepared for ‘life’. However, doing everything to ensure the optimum test score is the ultimate goal for the school –  even if, in achieving this, it could leave students ill-prepared for life beyond academic study.” Attendees immediately recognized these roadblocks and the consequences that could come if children are not formally educated to help them understand the risks and protect their own health and well-being.

In reflecting on the first workshop, both strand leaders observed topics that came up in questions from attendees that they plan to address going forward in the next three Child Protection Workshops. Doug Walker will add a section in future workshops on "How You Can Help," to offer practical advice on how to manage the behaviour of children who have been traumatised. He says, “Other than formal trauma treatment by a mental health professional, there are ways in which administrators, counsellors and teachers can help the traumatized child heal, and flourish in the classroom.” In relation to Comprehensive Sexuality Education, Susie March observed a low level of readiness among her strand participants and a concern about teacher selection, suitability and training. Based on the discussions in Amsterdam, she plans to address this in future workshops by offering more tips for delivery-staff to build the right content for their school culture and engaging with stakeholders such as school administration, concerned parents, and local authorities.

It would be difficult to walk away from this workshop without learning new insights about the risks and effects of child abuse, which in turn compels attendees to look at their schools’ policies and practices critically. Attendees came from 49 schools in 27 different countries, and quickly recognised the shared challenges of safeguarding children in an international school. One attendee said, “It was news to me that child abusers are targeting international schools especially, because they have the impression that they can 'shop around' internationally, even after being convicted.” Another attendee summed up the experience as “While the topic is one I know most of us would rather stay away from, it is one in which we need to be forward-thinking.” Conversations started in sessions spilled out into the hallways during breaks and lunch. Several attendees expressed regret that they did not bring more people from their schools to the workshop. The audience represented a diverse range of school roles, including Head of School, Guidance Counsellor, School Nurse, Board Member and even a Head of Transportation—which provided the opportunity for a holistic discussion about child abuse in schools. This professional development opportunity quickly revealed itself to be a valuable, if not crucial, experience for all who came together to learn.

Jane Larsson, the Executive Director of CIS and Chair of the International Task Force on Child Protection, reflected on the leadership and commitment of the workshop presenters. “Each of us at CIS witnessed their dedication to this work, their own pride on being selected by and affiliated with CIS, their heartfelt appreciation to be able to apply their skills to preventive work – educating school communities to save children from being harmed, given the reality that the majority of their time is spent treating children after they have been abused.” In essence, that is the hope that we have for every attendee at te Child Protection Workshops—to commit to taking informed preventative measures in their schools to decrease the risks of more child suffering from trauma from abuse. 

Read more about CIS Child Protection Workshops here.
Posted by CIS on Thursday November, 3, 2016

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