Protecting Children in Virtual Learning Environments: Warning Signs of Abuse for Teachers

Guest Post By Noah Rue

As a teacher, it’s not necessarily difficult to pick up on obvious signs of abuse when you’re in the classroom. You may have even gone through training to look out for the warning signs. If a student has obvious physical symptoms, complains about being hungry, tired, or even confides in you about problems at home, you can take action.

But, those signs of abuse are even less prominent or obvious when it comes to virtual learning.


The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the face of learning over the last year. In the early stages of the pandemic, 45 states ended up closing schools for in-person learning. Even some childcare centers were forced to shut their doors. K-12 students had to learn to use technology and transition to virtual learning. While some have gone back to in-person school, many parts of the country are still under strict rules to keep everyone safe, so virtual learning is likely to be in place for a while.


You already know teaching your students through a webcam or looking at them on Zoom isn’t the same as guiding them in-person. There are several hurdles to overcome. But, one of the biggest is recognizing potential problems. So, what can you do in a virtual learning environment to notice any warning signs of abuse?


Limited Access

Children who are struggling with problems in their home may give off a variety of warning signs when they’re coming to school virtually. Neglect, for example, is often considered a form of abuse. There are different types of neglect, including:


● Physical

● Psychological/Emotional

● Medical


There is also educational neglect, which refers to a caregiver not being there to ensure their child is attending school, getting homework done, or engaging in their classes. Neglect could also be due to unreasonable expectations put on the caregiver, so they don’t have “time” to give the child what they need. If you notice that one of your students seems to have limited access to a computer, or the Internet, they may not want to bother their caregiver for fear of what may happen.


It’s also important to look at concentration habits. Children who are victims of abuse often have a hard time staying focused. They might also struggle with general learning and applying the concepts you’re talking about in class. While you might not be able to see any physical marks on a computer screen, if they don’t seem fully “present” or they’re struggling more than they ever did in-person, you may want to consider it a red flag.


Frequent Absences

It’s not uncommon for students to be a little late to virtual classes or to have Internet issues from time to time. But, if you start to notice frequent absences adding up, it could be a sign of something more going on at home.


Abusive caregivers are typically all about control. They may not be allowing the child to sign on or even use the computer. That isn’t just a case of “unplugging” from too much screen time. It’s an exercise in abusive power.


If you try to contact the caregiver about those absences, pay close attention to their response. They may try to make excuses, or they may try to justify the missing days. Thankfully, in these circumstances, there may be rules in place within your district that allow a truancy officer to go to the child’s home and make sure everything is okay. That can offer you some peace of mind, either knowing the child will be taken somewhere safe if something suspicious is found or if their absences are not the result of abuse.


When It Could Be Something More

While it’s essential to be diligent when considering signs of abuse, it’s just as crucial to make sure you aren’t jumping to conclusions. The last thing you want is to point the finger at a caregiver when nothing sinister is going on at home.


In some cases, the signs you might see could be the result of an unproductive home environment. You can talk to the child or their caregiver about creating a more productive work zone for school with just a few simple tips, including:


● Finding a quiet space

● Removing clutter and getting organized

● Having supplies at the ready

● Using adequate lighting

● Making sure the student is comfortable


A student might also not be as focused as they should due to the lack of a routine or schedule. Attending school in-person makes developing a routine easy. When they are attending online and don’t have to go anywhere physically, it can be harder to get out of bed in the morning at a specific time and easier to stay up late watching television or playing video games.


There is a good chance their caregiver may be struggling with the same routine issues. It’s just as important for adults who are stuck at home to have a schedule, whether working remotely or simply helping their children adopt healthy routine habits. Talking with your student’s caregiver and suggesting a schedule that maintains regular hours might help encourage them to build a better routine for everyone in their household.


These might seem like small details, but they can make a big difference in a student’s ability to learn online effectively.


It’s impossible not to feel invested in the well-being of your students, whether you’re seeing them in-person or through a computer screen. So, keep these warning signs in mind, check in with them often, and trust your instincts if you feel like something is wrong. Sometimes, school is the only safe place a student can go during the day. Just because they aren’t there at the moment doesn’t mean you have to stop looking out for them.


For more information about childhood abuse, please check out our Domestic Violence on-demand training course. Not only does domestic violence impact the victims, but it also impacts their children. Child care providers need to know how to spot the signs, protect, and support the children in their care that have been exposed to domestic violence.


Noah Rue is a journalist and content writer, fascinated with the intersection between global health, personal wellness, and modern technology. When he isn't searching out his next great writing opportunity, Noah likes to shut off his devices and head to the mountains to disconnect.

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