He Just Disclosed in Class! What Do I Do?

by Tonje Molyneux, M.Ed.

The goal of the Child Protection Unit lessons is to develop students’ ability to recognize, report, and refuse unsafe or sexually abusive situations. During the lessons, students will hear stories and scenarios about children in unsafe and potentially abusive situations who use their skills to stay safe. This may prompt students to disclose information about similar situations in their own lives, sometimes in the middle of a lesson in front of the entire class! Needless to say, this can put teachers in an uncomfortable position, and in the moment it's hard to know how to respond.

A few simple techniques can help teachers respond appropriately to these disclosures without derailing a lesson or inadvertently dismissing the disclosure. Below are two scenarios that illustrate techniques teachers can use to handle disclosures about unsafe or potentially abusive situations during a lesson. Specific practice for responding to direct and indirect disclosures of abuse and neglect outside of lesson time is included in Module 2 of the Child Protection Unit Online Training for all staff.

Scenario 1: Ms. Jones, kindergarten teacher

Ms. Jones is almost finished teaching the Story and Discussion portion of Lesson 1. Through the story about Brayden and Clara finding a gun, the students are learning the Ways to Stay Safe and the Never-Never Rule about guns: Never touch guns.

“So Clara tells her dad about the gun. He tells her she stayed safe by following the Never Touch Guns Rule. Then he says he’ll go get the gun and lock it up right away,” Ms. Jones says, finishing the story.

As Ms. Jones is preparing to transition her students to the Skill Practice portion of the lesson, Emmett announces, “Well my dad lets me play with his guns all the time. He has LOTS of guns. BIG guns.”

Twenty-four pairs of eyes stare wide-eyed at Emmett, somewhat impressed by his claim, but also aware of how dangerous this sounds. Then those same twenty-four pairs of eyes shift from Emmett to Ms. Jones, waiting to see how she reacts.

Ms. Jones is panicked. “This could get out of hand,” she thinks. “What if all my students start piping up with their own examples of guns in their houses, or other weapons? I've got to shut this down fast, but how? What Emmett's revealed is a potentially unsafe situation in his house. I can't ignore that! I need to stay calm.”

Ms. Jones takes a deep breath in through her nose and slowly exhales out her of mouth. She looks at her students, and then at Emmett. “Hmmm. Your dad lets you play with his guns. Let's talk more about that later.” Turning to the rest of the class, she quickly transitions to the Skill Practice.

What did Ms. Jones do right?

  • Recognized Emmett's comment as important and informing her about a potentially unsafe situation in the home of a child
  • Calmed down before responding to Emmett's comment
  • Acknowledged Emmett's comment in a calm, matter-of-fact way
  • Told Emmett that they would talk more about it later

This information from Emmett may add to Ms. Jones’ running list of concerns about him, or it may be new information that is only just opening her eyes to a potentially unsafe situation in Emmett's home. Or it may be no cause for alarm at all. Regardless, it's important for Ms. Jones to follow up with Emmett to find out more and to share her concerns with other staff in her school who may have a different perspective or more information about Emmett's situation.

Scenario 2: Mr. Richard, grade 2

Mr. Richard's class is learning about the Touching Rule: A person should never touch your private body parts except to keep you healthy. The students are practicing reporting a broken Touching Rule during the Skill Practice for Lesson 4. Mr. Richard reads them the scenario and calls on a few students to stand and practice what to say to report.

“Okay, class. Are you ready for the next scenario?” His students nod, eager to hear the next one. “Here it is: Your uncle touched your private body parts while you were swimming together. You're reporting to your aunt.”

Hands shoot up all over the room. Mr. Richard waits a moment, then proceeds: “All right, hands down . . . Victor, pretend I'm your aunt and you're reporting a broken Touching Rule to me.”

Victor stands up slowly and looks around at his classmates. He looks down, hesitates, then looks at Mr. Richard and mumbles, “My uncle touches me sometimes, but not while we're swimming. In the bathtub.”

The few students who heard Victor gasp audibly. The other students start to murmur, “What? What'd he say?” Victor is still standing, hands shoved deep into pockets, staring at his feet.

Mr. Richard feels like he's been struck dumb. His breath quickens and his mind starts to race, “Did he just say what I think he said? Was that a disclosure? Of sexual abuse? Oh, no. The rest of the class is realizing what he said. They're getting louder. I need to move on, but how?”

Mr. Richard tells himself not to panic. He takes a few deep breaths in through his nose and slowly out his mouth. He can still feel tiny beads of perspiration popping up on his forehead, but his heart rate is starting to slow down a bit. He walks closer to Victor and says in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, “Hey, I believe you. It's not your fault. Let's finish up here, and then you and I can talk more about this.”

What did Mr. Richard do right?

  • Recognized Victor's comment as a possible direct disclosure of sexual abuse
  • Calmed down before responding to Victor's comment
  • Responded in a calm, matter-of-fact way
  • Told Victor he believed him and that it wasn't his fault
  • Told Victor what was going to happen next

A possible direct disclosure during the middle of a lesson requires some quick thinking. What's most important is that the student feels heard and believed. It's not important to find out more in the moment by asking for details to confirm that a disclosure of abuse has just been made. But following up as soon as possible is important. In this case, Mr. Richard could transition the rest of the class to a quiet, independent activity while he talks more with Victor, taking care to write down the exact words Victor uses. Then Mr. Richard should follow the reporting procedure used by his school.

The Child Protection Unit lessons teach students to report unsafe or abusive situations to any caring adult, so teachers and all school staff need to know how to respond appropriately. And sometimes these reports can happen in the middle of a lesson with a classroom full of students bearing witness. But when handled correctly, teachers can respond appropriately to the student in need of protection without tipping the scales in their classroom toward chaos and without getting too rattled themselves.