9 Behavioral Signs of Neglect Teachers Should Recognize

Carolina Jacobs

Feb 12, 2023
behavioral signs of neglect

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You care about your students as a teacher. You don’t want to think of one of your class members enduring neglect, but you know it’s a statistical likelihood. Would you recognize the signs? 

Teachers are mandated reporters, meaning they must report suspected child maltreatment as a matter of law. Neglect consists of ignoring a child’s physical and mental health needs, including failure to supply adequate food and clothing for inclement weather, but it isn’t always obvious. Here are nine behavioral signs of neglect teachers should recognize. 

1. Poor Hygiene 

Any teacher who has brought their class indoors after a particularly damp gym session knows that little kids sometimes smell a bit ripe. However, there’s a difference between the occasional sweat stink and a lingering pervasive odor that invades the student’s clothing and makes other children avoid, even bully them. 

Hygiene issues can strike when students lack access to running water to bathe. With more and more families forced to reside in their vehicles among soaring rents and stagnant wages, this problem will increase severity. Teachers can help by unobtrusively bringing soap and towels for students to wash up in the school restroom, as they may lack any other place to do so. 


2. Underachievement 

Students who are neglected are often living in survival mode. All their energy and resources determine how they will get enough to eat and stay warm on cold days. That doesn’t leave much energy left over for attending to academics. 

Pay attention if formerly performing students start to slack. Gently take them aside and tell them you’re concerned about their progress and ask if something happened that is affecting their interest in school. Many students will be reluctant to offer information about parental job loss, divorce or other hardships affecting their ability to focus. Still, others will welcome any help or advice they can get. Do you have access to resources that may help? 

3. Lack of Energy and Drive 

Your body needs calories to produce energy. If your students aren’t getting enough nutritious food to eat, they won’t be able to focus in class. They may seem distracted or disinterested, but the problem isn’t their attitude toward academia in general as much as their growling tummy. 

Schools can help by providing free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of income. Attend board meetings and advocate for such measures. Arm yourself with research, such as that from the Food Research and Action Center, that shows such programs reduce food insecurity, obesity rates and poor health while helping students make wiser eating choices that include plenty of vegetables. 

4. Inconsistent Attendance 

Younger neglected children may frequently miss school if parents lack sufficient gas money to get them there on time or are too intoxicated from alcohol or drugs to drive. Older children may start skipping classes to work to help their families and provide food for themselves. Unfortunately, this behavior often traps them in poverty as they miss out on valuable opportunities to advance and demand higher wages. 

Report all attendance programs to the appropriate office and take intervention measures. Is there a transportation solution your district can implement to help younger learners without a reliable way of getting to class? Can an official from the district talk to student employers about scheduling their shifts after the school rings the final bell?

5. Stealing or Begging for Food

Hunger is one of the most damaging, insidious aspects of child neglect. It can stunt their growth and halt their academic progress. Some students get adequate calories but struggle because healthy, nutrient-rich food like fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t within their parents’ budgets. They may consume little but empty, overly processed ramen and other choices that promote obesity while leaving nutritional gaps. 

Depending on the situation, there may be things you can do. Sometimes, a bit of education on selecting and preparing healthy foods on a budget is all a young family needs to nurture their little ones better. Referring families to the appropriate social service agencies where they can get nutrition help can result in hungry mouths fed. 

Teachers can also provide food, although doing so can get prohibitively expensive. However, if you have the means and can provide a healthy snack like a granola bar to a needy child, your act of kindness won’t go unremembered. 

6. Acting Out Behavior 

Some students suffering from neglect have an acute fear of abandonment triggered by home life. As a result, they’ll do anything to get attention, including acting out — being seen in a negative light is preferable to going unseen. 

Acting out behavior can be tough for teachers but serve as a necessary cry for attention. If possible, arrange an intervention with other team members, the child and their parents to work on a plan and provide access to outside resources that may help beyond what your team can do. 

7. Sullen, Withdrawn Mood 

Children suffering from neglect may go the opposite direction, withdrawing into themselves. Part of their seemingly sudden shyness may stem from embarrassment. For example, they might not want their peers to find out that they are recently homeless. It’s easier to keep people at arms’ length, even though it deprives them of valuable social support. 

Teachers may overlook withdrawn children, as most of their attention goes toward those acting out or engaging in the class discussion. Pay attention, especially if a child’s behavior changes and you notice them isolated from former friendly peers. Taking them aside to privately ask if something is bothering them could offer them a much-needed outlet to share their feelings. 

8. Substance Abuse 

Children who are neglected feel an enormous void in their lives where their parent’s love and care should be. Unfortunately, some of them seek to fill that space with substances. 

Sometimes, your nose alerts you to signs of trouble. For example, even some young children started smoking when someone told them it suppresses appetite. A neglected child living with chronically empty cupboards might filch a smoke not to try and escape reality but take the edge off their hunger. 

Other signs of substance abuse you might notice are skipping classes, especially early ones, hanging out with a different crowd, frequent mood changes from highly energized to withdrawn or exhausted and excessively using gum and eye drops to mask signs of intoxication. Your school should have a protocol in place for intervening with students with suspected issues. 

9. Threats of Self-Harm 

Neglected children often feel like nobody genuinely cares about them. As a result, they may become depressed, even suicidal. 

Please take all threats of self-harm seriously, not harmless ploys for attention. Monitor such students closely and treat them compassionately, taking them aside to talk privately. Notify school personnel, including the school psychologist and guidance counselor. Contact the parents and provide them with resources where they can get their child help. 

Behavioral Signs of Neglect Teachers Should Recognize

As a teacher, you are a mandated reporter, meaning you have a legal obligation to report suspected child neglect. You need to know what to look for to perform your role. 

Pay attention to the above behavioral signs of neglect teachers should recognize. You could make a significant difference in the life of a struggling student. 


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