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What is physical abuse?

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Physical abuse is a form of abuse which may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating or otherwise causing physical harm to a child.

What are the signs and indicators of physical abuse?

What are the physical signs and indicators of physical abuse?

Signs of physical abuse include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Bruises on the soft tissue, the face, neck or torso

  • Unexplained, untreated and recurring injuries

  • Broken bones or fractures in multiple stages of healing

  • Other injuries such as burns, bites or friction burns

  • Welts or swollen marks on the skin, especially where they show the outline of an implement used

  • Displaying the effects from suffocation or poisoning, e.g. vomiting, breathlessness or seizures

  • Defensive injuries

What are the behavioural signs and indicators of physical abuse?

Behavioural indicators of physical abuse include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Unlikely or limited explanations about injuries, e.g. where a pupil gives different accounts of what has happened, or cannot explain how they got injured

  • Flinching

  • Watchfulness or over-compliance

  • Reluctance to go home

  • Hiding injuries, e.g. refusing to change for PE or keeping their body covered in hot weather

  • Aggression towards others or acting out the abuse

  • Self-harm

  • Caregivers minimising injuries

  • Fear about parents/carers being contacted

What puts pupils at greater risk of physical abuse?

Several factors contribute to increased vulnerability among pupils. 

Living in unsuitable housing or facing poverty puts strains upon families, which can heighten the risk of physical abuse occurring. Domestic abuse within the household poses significant risks. 

Caregivers who fail to act to prevent harm, whether due to their own experiences of childhood abuse or struggles with substance abuse or mental health issues, further heighten these risks. Such caregivers may also experience isolation, exacerbating difficulties in providing adequate supervision and support.

Be aware...

Recognising physical abuse in pupils can be complex. Not all signs of physical abuse are immediately visible (such as the behavioural indicators listed above), and adults can't rely on children to make disclosures about the abuse - some pupils may not understand what's happening to them or feel uncomfortable sharing their experiences. Where indicators are visible, these can be harder to spot in some instances, such as bruising on pupils with a darker skin tone or head injuries/fractures under the hair.

A key factor to be aware of when identifying physical abuse is that children will often disclose accidents accurately but if abuse is occurring, sometimes details in their stories will change or their explanations will seem inaccurate or implausible. Additionally, most accidental childhood injuries, bumps and bruises appear on bony parts of the bodies, such as knees, shins, hips and elbows. It's less typical for them to injure themselves on soft tissue, such as the inside of their arms or their buttocks. Lastly, bruises and injuries in premobile babies is always a cause for concern.

An added complication to this is that caregivers may conceal abuse under the guise of discipline, e.g. smacking, or they may feel this is acceptable. 

Staff should be aware that physical abuse does not solely occur between a parent/carer and a child in the home; it can occur between pupils themselves as part of child-on-child abuse, e.g. bullying, or can be perpetrated outside of the family home and within the community.

A further aspect of physical abuse is fabricated and induced illness - more information about this can be found here.

Take action

  • Be curious about injuries and ask non-leading questions.

  • Use a body map to record the location of injuries, including the appearance, and size.

  • Be aware of stereotypes and bias, e.g. “Did your dad hit you?”

  • Seek medical advice from a trained professional if you're concerned about the severity or nature of the pupil's injury.

  • Follow the safeguarding procedures and speak to the DSL.

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Ready to train your staff?

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Physical Abuse: Safeguarding Training Bundle

This flexible pack contains four resources to support your training on the child protection issue of physical abuse:

  1. A ready-made safeguarding training PowerPoint presentation on physical abuse.

  2. A fictional safeguarding scenario on physical abuse that staff can discuss by identifying signs and indicators of harm in order to share how they'd respond.

  3. A set of quiz questions on physical abuse to assess staff understanding and a discussion prompt to get staff thinking.

  4. A one-page, one-minute safeguarding snapshot to display or disseminate as a follow-up to the training. 

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