Childhood Sexual Abuse and Its Impact on Special Education

Every day children are struggling with the effects of childhood sexual abuse. While the abuser can be anyone, typically the abuser is someone the child knows and trusts such as a teacher. News reporters tell stories about teachers who molest or rape students. These news reports regarding childhood sexual abuse between teacher and student are more common than a news report on a family member molesting a child within their family.

However, despite the growing prevalence of news reports on childhood sexual abuse within the school systems, one topic is not often discussed within the news media: the impact of childhood sexual abuse within special education. Each year children within special education are sexually abused by school faculty and staff working closely with them. The abuse is not likely to be addressed or discussed, so, like many other children who have been sexually abused, the children with special needs stay silent; though unlike other children who physically have a voice, some children with special needs cannot physically speak, so staying silent about the abuse is not only a psychological choice, but a physical one. Because of struggles such as this one, those working with children with special needs must understand the impact of childhood sexual abuse on special education, as the students who are in special education struggle to learn not only because of their special needs, but also because of the damage of childhood sexual abuse. The two struggles are connected. Because of the link between the two struggles, education personnel should seek to understand the impact of childhood sexual abuse within special education in order to fully meet the needs of the whole child so that students with special needs can learn appropriate academics and life skills effectively.

In seeking to understand the impact of childhood sexual abuse within special education, educators must acknowledge and recognize that “. . . child abuse and neglect are inextricably interwoven with disability” (Cohen & Warren, 1990, p. 254). Research shows “. . . evidence that children who are abused or neglected are at greater risk of becoming emotionally disturbed, language-impaired, [intellectually disabled], and/or physically disabled” (Diamond & Jaudes as cited in Cohen & Warren, 1990, p. 254). When schools start to consider why children with disabilities are frequently abused, faculty and staff need to understand that even though “. . . the field of child abuse and prevention and treatment has undergone enormous development . . . the subject of abuse and neglect of children with disabilities has not received substantial attention” (Cohen & Warren, 1990, p. 253). This lack of attention needs to be addressed by education professionals working with children in special education, as “. . . a child must feel safe and secure in an environment to be able to learn” (Hart as cited in Evanshen & Faulk, 2011, p. 67).

If a child does not feel safe at school, then he or she cannot receive the benefits from a positive environment. Positive environments help children to learn. “Children in positive environments are likely to experience enhanced memory, learning, and feelings of self-esteem” (Sylwester as cited in Evanshen & Faulk, 2011, p. 67). A negative environment, however, such as an environment filled with past memories and present acts of childhood sexual abuse, causes a child to “. . . experience . . . high levels of affective and physiological arousal and a tendency to interpret even the smallest demands as dangerous and anxiety producing” (Blaustein & Kinniburgh as cited in Lawson & Quinn, 2013, p. 499).

For instance, children who have undergone complex trauma typically “. . . spend an inordinate amount of time in a hypervigilant state, focused externally, and often eventually disconnect emotionally as a means to cope” (Blaustein & Kinniburgh as cited in Lawson & Quinn, 2013, p. 499). As these children grow, “continuation of these coping strategies . . . often leads to the development of rigid and circumscribed means of managing stress” (Blaustein & Kinniburgh as cited in Lawson & Quinn, 2013, p. 499). Those in the field of education, working with children with special needs, should understand that for healthy child development, “. . . co-regulation of emotions is often critical. . .” (Blaustein & Kinniburgh as cited in Lawson & Quinn, 2013, p. 499). Teachers should know that the most ideal way to obtain co-regulation is through “. . . attachment with a caregiver. . .” (Blaustein & Kinniburgh as cited in Lawson & Quinn, 2013, p. 499). Teachers can foster attachment through “. . . providing an environment that fosters love, encouragement, warmth, and caring . . .” (Diamond as cited in Evanshen & Faulk, 2011, p. 62). Teachers who foster these attributes within their classrooms understand that these attributes are “. . . a crucial component in determining academic success” (Diamond as cited in Evanshen & Faulk, 2011, p. 62).

Even though research has documented that a welcoming classroom environment is essential to learning, children with special needs are not always welcomed at school. Stephen J. Caldas and Mary Lou Bensey (2014), in their article “The Sexual Maltreatment of Students with Disabilities in American School Settings,” “. . . [present] results from the first nationwide survey of students with disabilities who were sexually maltreated in American schools” (p. 345). This survey was conducted online. The “. . . survey results . . . were mostly provided by caregivers, parents/guardians, and professional advocates. . .” (Caldas & Bensey, 2014, p. 345). Furthermore, the results of this survey “. . . document for the first time the prevalence and patterns of sexual maltreatment of this vulnerable and often invisible population within educational settings” (Caldas & Bensey, 2014, p. 346).

In order to understand the impact of childhood sexual abuse on special education, teachers must not only examine all the struggles of students with special needs, they must also examine the prevalence and patterns of childhood sexual abuse happening on school grounds. In Caldas and Bensey’s (2014) article, they simplify the patterns of childhood sexual abuse happening on school grounds into contact and no contact. Contact refers to all types of inappropriate physical touch and no contact refers to any inappropriate non-physical types of childhood sexual abuse such as what Dan B. Allender (2010) defines as interaction in his book THE WOUNDED HEART: HOPE FOR ADULT VICTIMS OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE. Childhood sexual abuse deemed interaction is essentially when children are sexually abused verbally, visually, and psychologically.

All educators who work with students with special needs should be aware that “approximately 13% of all public school students receive special education services. . .” (U.S. Department of Education as cited in Caldas & Bensey, 2014, p. 363). This percentage of students receiving special education services indicates “. . . the enormity of the population at risk for being sexually maltreated in school settings” (Caldas & Bensey, 2014, p. 363). The current research “. . . suggests that among this population of students diagnosed with disabilities, the most at-risk group are those children diagnosed with developmental or cognitive disabilities and who are ultimately educated in more isolated settings” (Caldas & Bensey, 2014, p. 363).

The research presently available alerts those working with special needs students to the fact “. . . that more concrete action is needed to improve the safety of school environments to safeguard these vulnerable children from abuse. . .” (Caldas & Bensey, 2014, p. 364). Therefore, all educators should rethink their classroom environments in order to provide caring and effective learning environments for children, including children with special needs.

In Evanshen and Faulk’s (2011) book, A ROOM TO LEARN: RETHINKING CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENTS, they show how educators can create safe and caring constructivist learning environments for all children through showing how to implement the following six types of classroom learning environments: meaningful learning, social learning, purposeful learning, responsible learning, continuous learning, and inquiry-based learning. Together these six types of classroom learning environments provide children with the benefits of a constructivist classroom. These six classroom learning environments keep children safe as well as help them develop appropriately, for Evanshen and Faulk (2011) state, “The constructivist classroom provides children with an emotionally safe environment, a crucial element in any child’s development” (p. 35).

The constructivist classroom design is a way that educators can immediately improve the safety of children so that they are protected from those who abuse them. For example, implementing a responsible learning environment, within a classroom, helps children learn responsibility. Evanshen and Faulk (2011) remark, “In constructivist classrooms, children take ownership for their own learning and work together with the teacher to accomplish learning goals” (p. 35). For children with special needs, who are at risk for being sexually abused, a responsible learning environment could provide children with a program that helps them see their personal responsibilities regarding sexuality and health. Ana Maria Martorella’s (1998) article, “Prevention of Sexual Abuse in Children with Learning Disabilities,” addresses how to implement such a program for students attending a Buenos Aires school specifically for special needs students. The “. . . central premise to the [program] was the belief that the child’s family should also be aware of issues concerning sexuality” (Martorella, 1998, p. 355). School staff in Buenos Aires “. . . first worked with parents, with the aim of providing them with a common vocabulary and insight into healthy and private sexual behaviors. The work then focused on the children themselves” (Martorella, 1998, p. 355).

For the parents, six parent involvement workshops were held regarding topics “. . . related to sexuality and disabilities” (Martorella, 1998, p. 355). For the students, three workshops were held, but the students’ workshops focused only on sexuality (Martorella, 1998). Essentially the parent workshops helped the parents agree “. . . to help their ‘problematic children’ to achieve adolescent experiences and independence” (Martorella, 1998, p. 355). The student workshops helped the children with special needs to show “. . . interest in sexuality” (Martorella, 1998, p. 358). Moreover, the student workshops helped the children with special needs to show “. . . a greater or lesser sexual identification related to the different moments of his/her intra- or extra- uterine life” (Martorella, 1998, p. 358).

The results of this implemented program in a Buenos Aires special needs school shows that children and parents can benefit from sexuality and health education, as it helps the parents to teach their children responsibility and helps the students to begin to develop the life skill of responsibility through learning about their bodies, as the students with special needs also learn what appropriate sexual behaviors actually are. However, having the parent and student workshops, in this particular school program on sexuality and health, provided evidence that “. . . in such a social context, there has been no perceived obligation to teach sexual education. . .” (Martorella, 1998, p. 359). Therefore, this school program highlighted the following problem within school systems concerning the impact of childhood sexual abuse on special education: “. . . [Children] can be left totally unprotected, the most vulnerable being those children who have difficulty in making judgments about threatening situations” (Martorella, 1998, p. 359). Educators, then, should recognize the obligation to implement sexual education within their classroom learning environments, as appropriate to the children’s respective ages, in order to help promote a responsible learning environment for everyone who is part of the school relationship: parent, teacher, and child.

As educators work with students with special needs, it is important for them to recognize that through appropriately developed school wide programs, targeting childhood sexual abuse and its prevention, that “child sexual abuse can be prevented” (Skarbek, Hahn, & Parrish, 2009, p. 162). Educators should also recognize that “. . . if a child with a disability has been sexually abused, schools can become a collaborative component of intervention” (Skarbek et. al., 2009, p. 162). For instance, schools should consider “. . . developing a communication cue. . .” (Baladerian as cited in Skaberk et. al., 2009, p.157). Some students with special needs are not able to talk, so developing a communication signal “. . . is critical for preventing sexual abuse since lack of communication was identified as one reason children with disabilities were vulnerable for sexual abuse” (Skaberk et. al., 2009, p. 157).

Collaborative program efforts schools should consider are including children with special needs “. . . in any decision-making process of service delivery options. . .” (Baladerian as cited in Skaberk et. al., 2009, p. 157). Schools should also consider including children with special needs “. . . in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process” (Gore & Janssen as cited in Skaberk et. al., 2009, p. 157). Allowing students with special needs to participate in decisions regarding service delivery and the IEP process fosters responsible learning, as participating in these matters, helps students with special needs to learn self-advocacy and independence regarding situations that are unsafe or have the potential to be unsafe.

In helping students with special needs to recognize “. . . potentially dangerous situations. . .,” schools should make sure that sexual abuse prevention programs . . . “for children with disabilities . . . include self-protection skills” (Muccigrosso; Sobsey & Mansell as cited in Skaberk et. al., 2009, p. 157). Schools should also make sure that sexual abuse prevention programs include behavior skills training. “Behavior skills training include components such as instructions, modeling, rehearsal, praise, and corrective feedback” (Morrison, Hardison, Matthew, & O’ Neil as cited in Skaberk et. al., 2009, p. 157). All of these collaborative program efforts are ways in which schools can collaborate to implement successful preventative childhood sexual abuse programs with children with special needs, as the collaborative program efforts give students with special needs the ability to practice responsible learning through helping the children learn the skills of assertiveness, self-advocacy, and independence within classroom environments that have the potentiality to be unsafe.

As educators continue to reflect upon the impact of childhood sexual abuse on special education, they should consider the impact that the trauma has on the children themselves, for in considering the impact of the trauma, they begin to understand the complicated struggles of students with special needs, as the trauma of childhood sexual abuse negatively impacts learning due to the fact that students who have been sexually abused are at risk of becoming emotionally disturbed because of the aftermath of abuse (Diamond & Jaudes, 1983). Those who have been severely traumatized “. . . have problems being able to trust and establish healthy relationships, have low self-esteem, and are often prone to depression” (Feiring & Lewis; Herman as cited in Little, 1998, p. 369). Furthermore, “problems with dissociation, flashbacks, and identity fragmentation are common sequelae of severe childhood abuse” (Ellason & Ross; Kluft; Latz, Kramer, & Hughes; Wind & Silvern as cited in Little, 1998, p. 369). Other struggles of those who have been severely traumatized include “. . . difficulty from learning from experience . . . [developing] faulty beliefs about the world, [experiencing] extreme helplessness, and . . . revictimization” (Tackett, Meyers-Williams, & Finkelhor as cited in Little, 1998, p. 369). Understanding the struggles of those who have been severely traumatized helps educators to begin to create successful intervention and prevention programs, for in understanding the emotional struggles resulting from childhood sexual abuse helps educators to develop teaching strategies to reach the whole child so that when working with children who have special needs, they are able to effectively address their academic and life skills struggles because they are seeking to reach the children’s hearts as well as their brains.

Educators who ensure that the learning environments of children with special needs are constructivist learning environments help give students with special needs a safe and caring place in which to encourage responsible learning that assists them with the interconnected struggles of academics, life skills, and childhood sexual abuse. Educators must rethink the classroom environments of children with special needs in order to meet “. . . their social, emotional, and cognitive needs. . .” resulting from the impact of childhood sexual abuse (Brown, 2003, p. 277). Rethinking the classroom environments of children with special needs helps to create a therapeutic learning environment that assists in preventing and in combating the trauma from childhood sexual abuse through helping the children to feel secure enough so that they can receive the love that helps them understand that they are free enough “. . . to . . . ‘play’ with learning. . .” (Evanshen & Faulk, 2011, p. 88).


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