Supporting young survivors
How can schools best support young people affected by gender-based violence?
The role of individual staff members in supporting a young person will depend on their position and the nature of their relationship to the young person. A number of staff members are likely to be involved in coordinating a supportive response to a young person, with certain staff members taking a lead for assessing child protection concerns.
The following two key principles will help young people feel supported, and promote their recovery and ability to engage at school:
Listening, believing and taking a child-centred approach
Young people who have experienced gender-based violence often blame themselves for what happened to them, fear not being believed by those who they disclose to and worry about being judged. By listening to young people and talking to them about their needs, believing them when they disclose and facilitating access to appropriate support, schools can relieve some of the harm and help support their recovery. In particular they can help young people understand and make sense of what has happened to them, recognise that it was not their fault and that responsibility for abuse always lies with the person who perpetrated it.
Institutions are sometimes worried about taking an approach of believing those who disclose violence or abuse if the reported perpetrator is also a member of that institution (eg. a staff member or a student) before there has been any investigation. This can be managed however by ensuring any investigation is conducted by someone separate – so that staff members involved in directly supporting the young person can focus entirely on their wellbeing and safety needs.
Taking a trauma-informed approach and promoting recovery
Gender-based violence will often be experienced as traumatic. In response to traumatic events, people often develop adaptive responses intended (often unconsciously) to help them survive – such as avoidance, disengagement, lack of trust, dissociation (‘tuning out.’) These might help in some ways in the short term but can often lead to longer-term problems. It’s important for schools to be aware that young people affected by gender-based violence might display some of these kinds of behaviours, and seek to show understanding and gradually build trust - and rather than automatically treating behaviours as disciplinary issues, helping the young person to develop more positive strategies and behaviours over time.
Many people heal from gender-based violence and learn to cope with what happened to them in their own way. There is no set time for healing, so it’s important to adopt a non-judgemental approach and go at the young person’s pace. Above all, ensure young people are involved in any decisions affecting them.
What do young people feel about school responses to gender-based violence?
- Read about one young survivor’s very positive experience of how her school supported her, and the difference it made.
- Everyday Heroes Findings
Key steps schools can take to put these principles into practice
1. Explain procedures
Explain procedures and enable the young person to have as much say as possible in decisions affecting them. There may be decisions that the school has to make against the wishes of the young person. If a young person is worried about a decision, explore their concerns to make sure you have a full understanding of these. Emphasise that the reasons for making such decisions are because the young person deserves to be safe – so that they are not experienced as punitive. At every stage, question whether there is a way for the young person to be involved in the decision. For example, a decision may be made to report to the school child protection officer, might it be possible to give the young person the choice about if they’d like to come along to the meeting with the child protection officer and explain things in their own words?
2. Ask about their needs
Talk to the young person about what they feel
they need. What would help them cope with how they’re feeling, any relationship
difficulties at school or at home, managing school work etc. Work with them to create a plan for their
safety and wellbeing. This might involve identifying a quiet space the young
person can go if feeling overwhelmed and things they can do to ground
themselves (to bring themselves back to the ‘here and now’) – as well as
identifying adults they feel comfortable speaking to.
If the person who is reported to have perpetrated the violence is also a student at school, it is important to include measures to minimise and manage contact between the students in a way that prioritises the safety of the survivor, and avoids unfairly restricting their activities or requiring them to make all the accommodations necessary.
3. Outline support options
Outline and explore appropriate support options e.g. from support from your local rape crisis centre, the school counselling service, or Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Find more support services here.
4. Share limited information
Share only the information required with other staff members to enable them to take a supportive approach, in discussion with the young person so that they know what information you have shared and with whom. It’s important to protect young people’s confidentiality as far as possible, in the same way that we would for adults accessing services in relation to distressing personal experiences. Other staff members do not need to know the full circumstances in order to be able to be understanding about any behavioural issues, difficulties with concentration or completing work, or mindful of any safety risks or relationship issues.
5. Appropriate adjustments
Put in place appropriate adjustments in order to boost engagement with education and access to support. Young people are affected by gender-based violence in different ways, so any adjustments should be tailored to a young person’s particular needs, but some ideas for consideration might be; timetable flexibility to attend support appointments, permissions to leave class and go to quiet space when overwhelmed, young person to be informed ahead of any lessons on gender-based violence and given a choice about attendance.
For more information on local support services for young people affected by gender-based violence and how to make a referral, see our services for gender-based violence page.
Support Resources for Young Survivors
You may be supporting a young person who has experienced sexual violence. Below are some supportive resources you may wish to share with them. The blue and green booklets are created by Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre and refer to Edinburgh based support services. If passing to a young person in another local authority, please ensure they have the contact details for their own local centre.