Call to Action: The Case of Maltreated Children and the Role of Education Policy by Raquel Muniz

Within the school setting, children who have experienced maltreatment often exhibit lower academic performance relative to their non-maltreated counterparts (Johnson-Reid,, 2007). Challenges in academic performance are often compounded by or result from decreased school engagement such as increased absenteeism and behavior problems. The picture painted may bring about images of disengaged students who are purposely indifferent to the material taught in the classroom or are unable to concentrate. However, consideration of these children’s traumatic histories have to be taken into account because their attention may be focused on the life circumstances and their own safety related to abuse and neglect. Considering these difficult life circumstances could potentially shift policies and practices away from blaming the child towards a more understanding and supportive approach to academic challenges. Current school policies addressing these problems are punitive in nature (e.g., grade-retention, suspensions, detention, and arrests). The challenges for educators and educational researchers, therefore, will be to shift current policy and practice away from these punitive approaches and move forward toward becoming more trauma-informed. To move in this direction, evidence-based education policy should be implemented in all states to address the educational and behavioral needs of maltreated children. Current efforts are not enough as they solely target identification and prevention of future perpetration of child abuse. For example, teachers across the nation are mandated reporters who may submit a child abuse report. The appropriate social services agency will then conduct an investigation and proceed accordingly. These efforts are necessary but not sufficient to address the repercussions of child maltreatment, which are often evidenced at school.

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines child abuse and neglect as, at a minimum: “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serous physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation;” and “An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm” (42 U.S.C.A. § 5106g). Research suggests that maltreatment affects a child’s brain development across multiple domains. For example, experiencing toxic stress impacts brain development through changes in brain architecture. This in turn has long-term negative effects on children’s learning, behavior, physical health, and mental health (“Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development,” 2016). Recent research elucidates the detrimental effect that maltreatment has on a student’s academic achievement. Rouse and Fantuzzo (2009) examined the impact of multiple risk factors (birth risk (i.e., premature birth, low birth weight, and inadequate prenatal care), low-maternal education, poverty, homelessness, and child maltreatment) on the educational outcomes of a second grade class in an American urban school district. The researchers found that “[c]hild maltreatment evidenced the highest level of risk across the greatest number of outcomes” (Rouse, 2009, p. 11). Moreover, out of the five risk factors, child maltreatment “was the strongest indicator of poor reading and mathematics outcomes” (Rouse, 2009, p. 11). Studies on older children show similar findings. In 2007, Jonson-Reid and colleagues evaluated collaborative efforts between school social workers and child welfare social workers when addressing child maltreatment cases. Not surprisingly, the maltreated high school students had lower academic achievement, more attendance problems, and more behavioral problems than their non-maltreated counterparts. Numerous studies have similar conclusions: child maltreatment generally has a detrimental effect on student academic success.

Despite the negative impact maltreatment has on a child’s ability to concentrate and learn in the classroom, the education system has largely failed to address the issue (McInerney& McKlindon., n.d.). This is an issue that we cannot continue to ignore because the scale is staggering. The Department of Health and Human Services reported a three percent increase in substantiated child maltreatment cases, from 682,307 in 2013 to 702,208 in 2014 (Crary, 2016). The federal government has not offered a solution but few states have introduced legislation to combat the problem. These states are moving forward, and this momentum will hopefully spread.

The Massachusetts Advocates for Children, Harvard Law School, and the Task Force on Children Affected by Domestic Violence promote a policy that encourages schools to adopt a “flexible framework” that supports trauma-sensitive practices (Cole,, 2005). In 2005, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill supporting these trauma-sensitive school practices, issuing school grants to public schools that adopt a trauma-sensitive framework in school. Washington State has also taken steps to address the educational needs of children who have suffered trauma, including maltreatment by promoting Compassionate Schools and The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resilience, and Academic Success handbook. This handbook offers background information on the effects of trauma and suggestions about how to interact with children who have suffered trauma (Wolpow,, 2011). Similarly, the Pennsylvania legislature introduced and adopted House Resolution 191, “[d]eclaring youth violence as a public health epidemic and supporting the establishment of Statewide trauma-informed education” (Pa. House, 2013). The purpose of the resolution is to underscore the urgency of the issue, declare legislative support for trauma-informed education, and urge action of stakeholders. However, the legislature has not taken any further action, falling short of adopting an actual law or establishing a grant to implement trauma-informed education across Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania legislature is not alone. With the exception of few state legislative efforts, education policy addressing the learning needs of maltreated children remains dormant.

Moving forward, researchers across the nation can contribute to the solution by researching and identifying evidence-based practices. These practices can then inform current and future education policy at the state level. The education field lacks research highlighting school practices that may assist maltreated children in their day-to-day school interactions. For states where no models or frameworks exist, such research can serve as evidence to support policy adoption and implementation. In states where models or frameworks are in place, research could begin to evaluate whether the current models are effective in meeting the needs of maltreated children in school. Evidence-based education policy promises the best results in schools.

We cannot continue to ignore this problem. While identifying and reporting abuse cases is of utmost importance, through research the education system can and should contribute to a larger extent. The education system can implement education policy that holds the children accountable for their academics and behavior in school, while implementing trauma-sensitive practices. Our children spend a large portion of the day in school, and research suggests that maltreated children need additional support. Our children’s well-being cannot wait. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Educators, psychologists, educators, researchers, community leaders and any other key education stakeholder must come together and collaborate to find the best approach to solving this issue, and evidence-based education policy reform can play a pivotal role.


Cole, S.F., O’Brien, J.G., Gadd, M.G., Ristuccia, J., Wallace, D.L., & Gregory, M. (2005). “Helping Traumatized Children Learn: Supportive School Environments for Children Traumatized by Family Violence.” Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

Crary, David. (2016). “New Federal Data Shows Nearly 3 Percent Rise in Child Abuse.” Associated Press.

Jonson-Reid, Melissa, Kim Jiyoung, Michael Barolak, Barbara Citerman, Cindy Laudel, Angie Essma, Nancy Fezzi, Deborah Green, Dot Kontak, Nancy Mueller, and Cheryl Thomas. (2007). “Maltreated Children in Schools: The Interface of School Social Work and Child Welfare.” Children & Schools, 29 (3): 182–191.

McInerney, M. & McKlindon, A. (n.d.) “Unlocking the Door to Learning: Trauma-Informed Classrooms & Transformational Schools.” Pennsylvania Education Law Center.

Pa. House, Health. 2013. (Waters, Fabrizio, Kortz, Youngblood, Donatucci, Pashinski, et al., Authors) [H.R. Res. 191 from 2013 sess.].

Rouse, Heather and Fantuzzo, John. (2009). “Multiple Risks and Educational Well Being: A Population-Based Investigation of Threats to Early School Success.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 24 (1): 1–14

Toxic stress derails healthy development. (2016). Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. Retrieved from

Wolpow, R., Johnson, M.M., Hertel, R., & Kincaid, S.O. (2011). The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success. State of Washington, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Raquel Muñiz is pursuing a dual degree, JD and PhD in Educational Theory and Policy, at Penn State University. Her research interest focuses on how education policy affects abused and/or neglected children and how education policy can propel abused and/or neglected children to a safer, successful future. She currently works as a graduate assistant with the Upward Bound and Upward Bound Migrant Programs (UB/UBMS).


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