Dealing with disclosures: guidance for staff

The full return to schooling is likely to result in more safeguarding disclosures being made. Make sure all your staff are prepared and reminded of key principles with this 11 step plan

Author details

Adele Bates is a teacher, speaker, writer and educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She is a TEDx Speaker 2020 and forthcoming author of Miss, I don’t give a sh*t with Sage publishing. With over 17 years’...

In the wake of a global pandemic, our concerns for the safety of young people are at an all-time high. In addition, the signs and timelines we are accustomed to may well have changed too.

Here I want to provide a reminder on how to support disclosures in our schools, with additional consideration for the post-lockdown situation.

While there may be different requirements for the continued remote teaching that is taking place, this article focuses on safeguarding practice around disclosure in face-to-face learning environments.

1. Disclosure starts before it starts

For a pupil to arrive at the position where they feel safe enough to disclose sensitive information a lot has to happen first. During on and off lockdowns this has been one of the main concerns regarding the safeguarding of children: a disclosure begins with a trusting relationship – one of the major things to be disrupted this year in education.

Knowing that a trustworthy relationship is vital may feel challenging for staff this year

Speaking with staff at the Safeguarding Association, I discovered that in a typical school year there is a pattern of a ‘first round’ of disclosures in November. As an educator of SEMH pupils this makes complete sense – it is not until around this time that we really get to know our pupils. The Safeguarding Association’s concern is that clearly this pattern has changed, while at the same time so many vulnerable children are spending an increased amount of time in potentially unsafe environments.

2. Recognising unusual behaviours

In the last 12 months, schools have reported an increase in unusual behaviours – and not always from the pupils we would assume. It is vital to recognise at this time that behaviours that we may assume would fit a pupil going through something unsafe may not match. For those of us who work with SEMH pupils we know this well: a pupil suffering sexual abuse at home may hide in a corner at school and be scared to take their coat off; equally, they may be aggressive and display sexually threatening behaviour to others.

Trauma, abuse and neglect affect us in different ways. Never assume that a behaviour means something specific unless you know that to be true.

It’s important to remember this when giving sanctions or punishments – some of the pupils who challenge us the most behaviourally, are or have been going through some of the most extreme and negative environments themselves.

To what extent does punishing them solve the issue? Can punishing work alongside curiosity about what behaviour is communicating? How could this improve the behaviour (and safety) long term?

3. Building trust

Knowing that a trustworthy relationship is vital may feel challenging for staff this year. Some teaching staff will feel that they know their pupils less well than they ever have, or that the pupils have changed their behaviour significantly in a seemingly unpredictable way.

The NSPCC share some keys to supporting effectively (despite the obstacles):

  • showing you care, helping them open up
  • taking your time, slowing down
  • showing you understand, reflecting back.

In their research, the NSPCC found that while most people who work with children say that they know these things, the children reported that adults don’t always do them.

For a handy reminder for staff, share this short animation on responding to a child’s disclosure of abuse.

4. Show you care, help them open up

For some of our pupils, school may be the safest place they have in their lives, and you (or your staff) may be the safest adult they know. The children need to know we care. Even with all the stresses of a normal day during a global pandemic, the small signs and check ins to show that we do care, built up, could be the signal that convinces the pupil that telling you will be a safe thing to do.

Accept that some disclosures may happen over a series of conversations

Supportive body language, pausing on the multi-tasking and really listening, even to seemingly unimportant things, can be those signals that support the pupil to open up. If they do begin to share something with you that you think may be a disclosure, repeat back what you have understood (maybe in the pupils’ own words), to demonstrate that you have understood correctly.

  • How do you show your pupils you care each day, each lesson?
  • How do they know that you have heard them?

5. Take your time, slow down

We need to tell our stories in our own time. For some, particularly when the story feels hard, this may take a long time. It is challenging as an adult: we know that if certain things are said then action and support can follow, but it is important that we let pupils go at their own pace – this will increase the trust and prevent a retreat if they feel they have overshared and things are moving too quickly for them, making them feel unsafe and out of control.

Instead, let there be pauses, avoid interrupting and accept that some disclosures may happen over a series of conversations.

This approach also helps us regulate any difficult emotions that may come up for us – staying calm is key for the pupil to feel safe.

6. Reflect back and reassure

If a pupil does begin to share something with you that you think may be a disclosure, repeat back what you have heard (maybe in the pupils’ own words), to demonstrate that you have understood correctly.

Reassure the pupil that they have done the right thing in telling you. Avoid using ‘why’ questions or any language normally associated with pupils being in trouble.

7. Reporting, not investigating

The Kent County Council guide to supporting disclosures emphasises how important it is for us to report and not investigate when disclosures are made. In fact, if we pose probing questions about a situation it may be that we nullify the conversation if needed later in court.

The basic rule of thumb is that staff should ONLY ask enough questions of the child to clarify whether there is a child protection concern. Once the child has clarified that they are being harmed or are at risk (or the staff member is reassured that the child is safe), no further questions are required.

8. Do not promise confidentiality

It is our duty of care to look after our young people’s safety. It can be very challenging when a pupil looks about to disclose something to you and begins with 'But you won’t tell anyone else will you?'. But it's important that you don't promise this – the safety of the pupil is paramount.

Regularly signpost to pupils who they can go to for support

In one sticky situation I received a disclosure from a young person we suspected of being groomed by an older, adult, boyfriend. The pupil pleaded ‘But please don’t tell Ms Mott’, who the pupil knew was related to safeguarding and would action concerns. I repeated clearly that, depending on what she said, I may well have to tell Ms Mott. The fact that the pupil continued to disclose confirmed to me that she did want help in the situation and didn’t feel safe.

Sometimes, however, the pupil will pause in their disclosure as you are unable to make the promise they desire.

9. Record

There’s a lot going on in our daily school lives. After a disclosure ensure that the first thing you do is record the conversation in as much detail as you can, if possible, quoting phrases that were said directly.

We can be overconfident and think we will remember – but other events will happen. Make this a priority and ask other staff to temporarily cover if needs be.

10. Schoolwide structural and cultural support

Regularly signpost to pupils who they can go to for support. An assembly at the start of term is likely to be forgotten three lessons later, let alone next week.

Also, many disclosures are made to ‘peripheral’ staff – lunchtime supervisors, caretakers, part time mentors and so on. This is because pupils may perceive them to be less intimidating, less connected to authority and therefore safer. As such, it is vital that all of your staff are trained on disclosure and safeguarding issues.

11. Look after yourself

Some disclosures may be triggering for the adult. The discovery of what some of our pupils are going through can be heart-breaking, and if an adult has particular experiences or triggers around a similar topic, then additional support may be required too.

The more we look after ourselves, the better placed we are to support our young people in managing the challenging situations they find themselves in.

Useful resources

Last Updated: 
17 Jun 2021