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Protecting children in virtual learning environments: Warning signs for teachers

Any teacher knows that you don’t get into this profession unless you care about kids and want to help them build the best possible life. On most days, that goal is also a pleasure. You get to watch your students bloom right before your eyes.

But on some days, that commitment can be a heartbreak. A crushing responsibility. Those are the days when you begin to suspect that one of your kids is being abused or neglected.

The signs that a student may be in trouble are, however, often difficult to spot. And that is especially true in this new world of online learning. Educators, as mandated reporters, are specifically trained to detect potential abuse and neglect in the physical classroom. But those skills may not translate so readily to the digital environment.

This article provides teachers a few best practices for identifying the signs of abuse and neglect in the digital learning environment.

Heightened risk

Online learning is nothing new, of course. What is new, however, is how many millions of children in thousands of school districts across the nation have transitioned to remote learning in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. The speed with which the shift occurred meant that teachers who may have had little or no experience with online education were forced to learn primarily by doing, through emergency remote teaching.

And when you’re taking flying lessons while you’re piloting the plane, there’s often very little time or focus for much else. But for kids facing trouble at home, the chaos of the transition can be an added layer of risk, taking them away from the attention, and the protection, of the adults they need the most.

In fact, studies suggest that when there is substance abuse or a history of violence in the home, the stresses of the pandemic, combined with fewer opportunities for children to get out of their volatile home environments, make this a particularly dangerous time for too many of our students. Anxiety surrounding the virus, massive layoffs, and the challenges of homeschooling are putting families under tremendous pressure.

Knowing the signs

Anyone who has spent time around kids knows that children who have experienced trauma exhibit particular signs indicating their distress, even when they can’t express it explicitly. They will often appear anxious, withdrawn, and moody. They may have difficulty concentrating or submitting work on time. Though these signs may be a bit more difficult to detect in the virtual environment than in the physical one, it is by no means impossible.

For example, if once punctual students begin turning in their work late or missing assignments entirely, that may be a red flag. The same is true if the quality of the work suddenly deteriorates or if the student is frequently absent from or late to online class meetings. It is also possible to notice how the child looks on camera: do they appear tired or disheveled? Are they engaging with the class, or are they quiet and disengaged?

You might ask the class to engage in activities that require them to get up and out of their chairs. This can give you a full-body view of the students, increasing your chances of spotting bruises or other marks. Additionally, you’ll be able to note how the students move, their energy levels, and even their environment — all of which are tremendously beneficial to assessing the student’s status in a virtual format.

Significantly, it is possible to use the remote learning environment to get more insight into the home and family environment than you might receive in the brick and mortar classroom. For example, if the child’s environment seems particularly chaotic or dysfunctional, this may be a warning sign.

Admittedly, signs of trouble may not be as blatant as they were in this case, but teachers’ intuition and experience pay off, even online. The critical issue is to pay attention. In addition to noting the child’s behavior and environment, paying attention to the child’s appearance on camera is also vitally important. Weight loss or gain, or lack of hygiene may be signs of emotional distress. Likewise, physical abuse may be detected on video cams through the appearance of marks or bruising, or even by the way the child moves or sits, which could indicate pain or injury.

It is especially vital to be alert to such signs in the present moment because, with increased stress and more time at home, “discipline” can easily spiral out of control. What parents may perceive to be “ordinary punishment” needed to win the child’s obedience in an especially difficult and dangerous time could easily descend into abuse if worry and fear, especially fear for the rebellious child, causes the parent to lose control. When a parent or guardian wields physical punishment out of emotion, rather than controlled reason, and this results in marks or lasting mental or bodily harm, that is no longer parenting, no longer discipline; it’s abuse.

Unique challenges

While it is still possible to detect the signs of abuse and neglect in online learning environments, today’s turn toward remote education brings with it particular challenges for which there are no easy answers. For example, as our newly remote students spend most of their time online, their vulnerability to cyberbullying, exploitation, and other risks associated with the online environment only grows.

For this reason, online educators should integrate principles of cyber-safety and good digital citizenship into their curriculum, even as they take pains to recognize the signs of emotional distress or maladjustment that may indicate children are being harassed online.

Perhaps most worrying of all, however, are the large segments of our student populations who have simply disappeared on us entirely. Absenteeism has perhaps always been an issue in our schools, but the problem has exploded with the shift to online learning. And that places an even greater onus on teachers and administrators to identify and safely track those students who seem to have gone off the grid — if only to ensure their safety and to provide family support whenever and however it may be needed.

The takeaway

Teaching is a true calling. It’s not only about educating our kids but also about loving and protecting them as well. In today’s brave new world of remote education, that responsibility may prove more challenging, but it has also perhaps never been more necessary or more important.

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