Children Who Witness Abuse: A Resource for Educators

It’s back to school time in Canada, and teachers are gearing up for the year ahead.

But many educators feel ill-equipped to support students who are experiencing violence at home. From our children’s and parenting support counsellors, we offer this resource on helping children who have witnessed abuse.

The students that have been exposed to verbal, psychological, emotional or physical abuse face a battlefield at home. The caregivers that were supposed to keep them safe and secure at home have been unable to do so, and therefore, the children have lost their ability to trust. When the children arrive at school, they often present as challenging for the teacher and the rest of the class. They generally are lagging in many areas such as the ability to self-regulate, maintain concentration, and interact with peers as well as struggle with executive function tasks such as transitioning.

What you may see in the classroom

Instinct to Fight

-Adrenalin-Based Alarm Problems
-Externalized Reactions

    • Aggression to self or others
    • Defensiveness
    • Defiant-like attitude
    • Attracted to setting off alarms in others
    • Seeks out risk taking activities
    • May seem to lack emotions

Instinct to Flee

-Agitation-Based Alarm Problems
-Avoidance Reactions

    • Short or scattered attention
    • “Gapping” out
    • Running out of the classroom
    • Avoiding seat work
    • Agitation such as fidgeting
    • Seeming unable to stay out of harm’s way
    • Impulsiveness

Instinct to Freeze

-Anxiety-Based Alarm Problems
-Internalized Reactions

  • Intense worries and fears
  • Somatic complaints
  • Obsessions
  • Compulsive behaviours
  • Including oral activities (biting, chewing, nail biting)
  • Rhythmic actions
  • Seeking distractions

Message they are trying to convey: “Help me, I am overwhelmed, I don’t know how to handle this.”

What you can do

The aim is to assist these children to shut off their alarm systems so their brains can rest and learn. Here are some strategies you may already be using, or might consider implementing as best practices:


The biggest need these children have is to feel safe, and to know that the adults in their life can keep them safe from harm and be a secure base from which to explore the world. In the school classroom, it is giving a clear message that you are there for this child, and that you can handle them, even when they are overwhelmed. You see past their behaviour to the underlying message that they need help and are overwhelmed, and care enough to set boundaries and follow through with them when they are broken.

It is letting them know that YOU, as the teacher or other member of the school team, are the answer for them, rather than just having the answer for them.


If at all possible, have the previous year’s teacher personally introduce the child to the new teacher at the start of this school year. This lets the child know that this will be a safe person for them based on their ability to trust the previous teacher.


Provide an increased sense of belonging for the child. Acknowledging their presence every day and your enjoyment or appreciation of something you have observed in them. When they need to be removed from the classroom or other similar separation, let them know that they have not broken your relationship with them: state that you will see them when then return and you can try again to continue the work.

“Children learn best when they think their teacher likes them.” – Gordon Neufeld

Safe place to move from mad to sad

Give them space and a place to release some of their emotional backlog safely. These children are lagging in their emotional regulation ability and do not have the skills to calm down on their own yet. These feelings are overwhelming and scary for them. Letting them know that you see their escalating emotions, and then help them learn what is happening for them by validating and naming the emotion. It also may be necessary to keep them apart from other children unless they are supervised. By keeping them inside at recess so they can play by themselves, having them visit a calming “safe eruption” room, or letting them leave the classroom to get a drink of water so they can practice mindfulness, they can begin to catch up on improving social connections.


Keep in mind that kids do well if they can and celebrate the small steps to success. You’ve got this!

Feel free to contact us for phone consultation, workshops, groups, or to refer parents and their children directly to us at

Elaine Lo, Children and Youth Counsellor 604-941-7111 ext 109,
Kathy Lafleche, Parenting Counsellor 604-941-7111 ext 106,

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5 Refreshing Reads on Identity and Relationships

Building off our post about the growing medium of podcasting, we’re back at it this week with some book recommendations. With e-books and audiobooks exploding onto the scene, it’s easier than ever to soak up knowledge and entertainment in book form.

There are millions of books featuring relationship and life advice, so we’ve attempted to curate a short list of books that might teach you something or help you feel less alone. Whether you’re dipping your toes into the world of books or are a voracious reader, we hope you enjoy at least one of the following reads.

A Sucky Love Story: Overcoming Unhappily Ever After by Brittani Louise Taylor

“For him, it was ‘love at first sight’. For her, it was ‘anxiety on every date’.” In her debut book, actress, mother, and YouTuber Brittani Louise Taylor reveals the harrowing details of a two-year relationship that left her with a child and a complex legal battle. A Sucky Love Story is due to come out in December 2018, and will surely be an inspiring tale of trauma and recovery. “This isn’t a love story. It’s [her] story of survival.” (Source: Amazon)

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell

Are you a fan of historical fiction or looking to support diverse authors and stories? Even if you aren’t, you might want to give All Out a read. Written by seventeen young adult authors from across the queer spectrum, this beautifully written collection will surely open your mind and heart. “From a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood set in war-torn 1870s Mexico featuring a transgender soldier, to two girls falling in love while mourning the death of Kurt Cobain, forbidden love in a sixteenth-century Spanish convent or an asexual girl discovering her identity amid the 1970s roller-disco scene, All Out tells a diverse range of stories across cultures, time periods and identities, shedding light on an area of history often ignored or forgotten.” While this isn’t strictly a relationship read, identity often intersects with sexuality. (Source: Abe Books)

Deal Breakers: When to Work On a Relationship and When to Walk Away by Dr. Bethany Marshall

If you’ve ever wondered whether a relationship is worth fighting for, this book is for you. Dr. Bethany Marshall discusses setting boundaries, identifying negative patterns, and choosing the right person from the get-go. “Deal Breakers is about getting out of. . . ‘relationship purgatory’ – where the present is unfulfilling and the future is the only thing you can hope for.” Relationships are hard work, and this book breaks down how hard they should really be. (Source: The Huffington Post and Simon and Schuster Canada)

The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love by Dr. Ty Tashiro

Whether you’re a science lover or not, you’ll find this “accessible, yet research-based book” full of insight on why we choose our partners. Acclaimed relationship psychologist Dr. Ty Tashiro offers evidence-based advice with a dash of humour, providing a “framework to help singles find their happily-ever-afters” (if they’re looking for love at all!) Tashiro draws from a wealth of knowledge to help his readers identify pitfalls and make smarter choices. (Source: Amazon and LifeHack)

The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Dr. Gary Chapman

On the off chance you haven’t heard of this relationship classic, we decided to include it in this list. The idea is that every person has a “love language” that they prefer to communicate affection with. The 5 languages are Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, and Physical Touch. Learning more about your own love language, as well as those of friends, partners, and colleagues, can help you navigate relationships better. Whether you subscribe to this framework or not, it’s an interesting way to learn more about yourself and those you love. (Source: The Huffington Post)

If you aren’t a fan of the traditional paperback or hardcover, you may be able to find these in e-book or audiobook form (check your local library or an online retailer).

Let us know if there’s any books we missed and we just might post a follow-up article!

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