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Children Who Witness Abuse: A Resource for Educators

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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,