How schools can support young people with a disfigurement

Schools have trained teachers to combat bullying based on race, gender and creed. We must do the same with disfigurement, says Alexis Camble

Most teachers have at some point spent an evening worrying about whether they handled a situation in the classroom quite as well as they could. As a former teacher myself, I know that anxiety around how to deal with a difficult situation can be overwhelming.

When it comes to supporting pupils with a disfigurement, one of the most common questions I get when I go into schools and talk to teachers is “what if I say the wrong thing?” This fear can stop teachers from starting those conversations, or make them nervous about responding to a question about a pupil’s appearance. Many teachers also want to know how to tackle bullying incidents in which a pupil has been targeted because of how they look.

While we have made progress in supporting teachers to recognise and address bullying based on personal characteristics such as race, religion or sexual orientation, there is still much more work to be done to raise awareness of disfigurement. We need to build teachers’ and heads’ confidence so that they can support pupils who look “different”.

Their visible difference is often seen by others as their sole defining characteristic

Around one in every 124 pupils in the UK’s under-16 school population have a mark, scar or condition that affects the appearance of their face or body, which includes skin conditions such as eczema and acne. A recent survey by Changing Faces found that half of all school children with a disfigurement have experienced discrimination because of it, and the vast majority report that their school was unsuccessful in stopping the bullying.

One of the young people we supported recently was Marcus, who was born with an unusual facial cleft, and was bullied because of his appearance; he was called names such as “scar-face”, “two-face” and “Joker”.

Marcus recalls overhearing his teacher referring to him as “Marcus with the face” to a teaching assistant, as there were two boys called Marcus in the class. This illustrates one of the concerns that many of the young people we support express, that their visible difference is often seen by others as their sole defining characteristic.

So what can teachers and heads do?

• Use matter-of-fact, non-judgemental language when discussing disfigurement. For example, use “severely burned” and “burns survivor” instead of “horribly burned” or “burns victim”.

• Respond appropriately to questions from other pupils using “explain-reassure-distract”. For example: “Michaela’s got scars from a fire but she’s fine now. Maybe you’d like to go and introduce yourself as you’re both new here.”

• Deal with any appearance-related bullying incidents in the same way as any other bullying incident.

• Be aware of, and challenge, negative stereotypes of disfigurement, especially in media portrayals of people with a visible difference.

Having a good understanding of the pupil’s individual needs, both in terms of their learning and social interactions is also really important.

Pupils may need support to develop their social skills and to respond confidently to questions or comments about their appearance from other pupils. Age-appropriate advice guides can be found on the Changing Faces website, including advice on supporting successful transitions to secondary school, which is another common concern.

There are also some great resources out there to help get those classroom discussions started. The novel Wonder by RJ Palacio, which has a young boy with a craniofacial condition as its main character, has been used successfully by primary and secondary schools across the country to raise awareness of visible difference and appearance-related bullying.

We hope the release of a film of the book this month may also help prompt discussions in class and raise awareness. Young people are under such pressure to look a certain way; we want to move towards a society that values difference so that everyone can live confident and happy lives.

Alexis Camble is a schools outreach officer at Changing Faces

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