little boy talking with teacher at table

Topic 1: Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect—Definitions and Indicators

Physical Abuse

All children get bumps and bruises. Recognizing when those bumps and bruises may be indicative of physical abuse is part of your task as a mandated reporter.

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Runtime: 4:14 minutes

Legal Definition

Physical abuse “causes or threatens to cause non-accidental physical injury.” For instance, physical abuse can include bruises, lacerations, fractures, or internal injuries.

Operational Definition

An act of physical abuse involves two things:

  1. An action on the part of a caregiver (e.g., parent, person acting in the stead of a parent, other person responsible for a child), and
  2. An effect upon a child, such as a physical injury or a particular behavior.

Physical abuse is any act that, regardless of intent, results in a non-accidental physical injury to a child.

Inflicted physical injury most often represents unreasonably severe corporal punishment. This usually happens when the parent is frustrated or angry and strikes, shakes, or throws the child. Physical abuse may also be an intentional, deliberate assault, such as burning, biting, cutting, and the twisting of limbs.

Physical Indicators (physical injuries)

Though as a teacher you may witness parental behaviors that seem abusive, you are much more likely to see the after-effects: injuries that suggest abusive parental/caregiver behavior. Injuries that have the following characteristics may indicate abuse has occurred:

Questionable bruises and welts, or other injuries

Questionable burns

Questionable fractures

Questionable cuts and scrapes

Remember, in all cases, consider the context. Look for a combination or pattern of indicators. Consider indicators along with the child’s explanation of the injury, the child’s developmental and physical capabilities, and any behavioral changes you notice in the child.

Behavioral Indicators

Physical abuse is frequently accompanied by certain child behaviors. These may include:

Discussion and Issues

When you are deciding whether to report, you will most likely deal with two main issues. First, how do you draw the line between abuse and corporal punishment? And second, how do you tell the difference between abuse and accidental injury?

How do you draw the line between abuse and corporal punishment?

In reality, physical abuse is most often caused by unreasonably severe corporal punishment. It’s easy for an adult to cross the line between corporal punishment into abuse because:

Corporal punishment is not illegal in Virginia, but when it results in injuries to the child, it becomes abuse. Corporal punishment is prohibited in schools (Code of Virginia Section 22.1-279.1—will open in a new window). Confusion between corporal punishment and abuse is very common. To help you distinguish between the two, keep the following points in mind:

How do you tell the difference between abuse and accidental injury?

Abuse and accidental injury can look similar, but there are important differences:

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Read the scenarios below. In each, look for physical and behavioral indicators of physical abuse, and identify the indicators that make you suspicious. Point to the gray box to compare the indicators you identified with those we identified.

Scenario #1

You overhear your student Johnny telling some other children about how he was caught shoplifting over the weekend and his father gave him a beating with his belt for it. You take Johnny aside and tell him what you overheard. You ask if the nurse can examine him, and he agrees. The nurse finds no bruises or marks on Johnny. You call Johnny’s father and he confirms that he did indeed hit Johnny with a belt, as punishment for shoplifting. Johnny’s father picks him up from school as usual, and Johnny seems happy to see his father.

What are the indicators?

Point Here for Analysis of Indicators

Scenario #2

You notice that Eric has been shifting in his seat all day. When you ask him what’s wrong, he tells you that he fell down and hurt his butt. You take him to the nurse. Eric has strap-shaped welts and bruises on his butt and his lower back in various stages of healing. When you question him about it again, he admits that he sometimes gets “spanked” by his father when he makes a mess in the house. He is very afraid that you might call his father.

Point Here for Analysis of Indicators

Scenario #3

Susan, a six-year-old girl, has a bruise on her cheek, her upper arm, and her torso. She tells you that over the weekend she fell down the stairs. Susan often has bruises on her upper arms. Her mother confirms that she fell down the stairs—she says Susan is a tomboy and is always falling down.

Point Here for Analysis of Indicators

Scenario #4

Craig has arrived at school with bruises on his elbows and a bad scrape on his knee. When you ask what happened, he tells you that he was riding his bike on a busy street where his father had told him not to, he swerved to avoid a car, and he fell off. When you ask how he got hurt, he says it was in the fall.

Point Here for Analysis of Indicators


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