Spotting and tackling low-level neglect

Written by: HTU | Published:

Based on recent research evidence, Caroline Sharp offers some practical advice on how schools can identify and support pupils who are suffering from low-level neglect.


Child neglect is a serious problem in this country. It is the most common reason that children are made subject to a child protection plan and it features as a main or contributing factor in 60 per cent of all Serious Case Reviews (1) . Yet it can be difficult for primary teachers to know how to spot neglect and what to do next. 

According to Action for Children (2013): “Neglect can take different forms, ranging from obvious physical signs such as being severely under or overweight, to children being left alone in the house or on the streets for long periods of time. Children may lack parental support to go to school, miss health appointments, have no opportunities to have fun or be ignored when distressed.”

NFER and Research in Practice recently reported the results of a collaborative research study by nine local authorities into early intervention in cases of low-level child neglect. It is based on interviews with more than 105 multi-agency practitioners (including headteachers, teachers, support staff, SENCOs and education welfare officers from both primary and secondary) and 40 parents, children and young people.

How do you identify neglect? 

Practitioners say that there is a lack of agreed definitions to help them identify neglect, so they tend to rely on their professional judgement. 

One explained that they relied on the “knowledge of the staff within the school and visual and verbal indicators from parents and children”. They added: “That’s how you pick up on it, there’s no matrix set up to say this is what you’re looking at and watching. It’s a gut instinct and it’s knowing your families.”

In practice, staff tend to identify child neglect in relation to four areas: physical neglect, emotional neglect, parental behaviours, and meeting children’s educational needs.

  • Indications of physical neglect might be issues with a child’s health, nutrition, poor hygiene or inappropriate clothing. 

  • Signs of emotional neglect include poor interaction between children and parents, inconsistent parenting, a failure to establish appropriate boundaries, a lack of family routines, children staying up late or roaming the streets, and social isolation.

  • Parental behaviours associated with neglect include parents prioritising their own needs over those of their children, behaving inappropriately in front of their children, leaving children without adequate supervision, exposing their children to substance abuse, domestic violence or risk of harm. 

  • Educational indicators of neglect include children with poor attendance, a poor home learning environment and parents who appear indifferent or unsupportive of their children’s achievement.

How to respond to signs of neglect

So what should a teacher do if he or she spots one or more of these warning signs? First, there should be someone on the school staff with responsibility to monitor all child safeguarding concerns, usually called the “designated child protection lead”. Teachers should report their concerns to that person and reach agreement on what to do next. 

Of course, if a child is at risk of harm, schools have a duty to report it immediately to the relevant services under child protection procedures. It may be that the concerns fall below this threshold but do require a multi-agency response – in this case the school should consider involving the relevant agencies, for example by starting a formal CAF process (the Common Assessment Framework is for frontline services to use to assess, engage with and holistically support a child or family).

For those cases that do not warrant social care intervention, there is a range of things that teachers can do. In situations where neglect is low-level (for example, where the impact of the neglect appears minor and most of the child’s needs are met, most of the time), it may be appropriate for a class teacher or another member of staff to have an informal meeting with the parents to make them aware of the concern and find out what’s going on. 

Child neglect can be a sign that parents are dealing with on-going issues, or have recently found themselves in a particularly challenging situation. School staff are in a good position to gain a family’s trust, suggest solutions and signpost them to other sources of help, as necessary.

If no-one takes an interest and offers support at an early stage, families are likely to keep quiet and struggle on. The research emphasises that parents and children are much more likely to let a professional know of their difficulties if that person seems approachable and trustworthy. 

Important personal qualities in dealing with families facing difficult circumstances are openness, honesty and not rushing to judgement. Many parents say they want help, but are frightened to ask because they think their children will be taken into care. Teachers can help to reassure parents that this is not the case as long as children are not in danger of serious harm. 

One parent support worker told the research: “From reception to primary, being a familiar face all the time. Everyday, I am the lady on the gate … and knowing that they see you there, they haven’t got to wait ‘til next week or a three-month waiting list.”

Some children’s centres and schools already provide basic and much-appreciated help for parents on a range of topics, such as providing advice on home safety, potty training, securing children safely in the car, and dealing with head lice.

Others offer more extensive evidence-based parenting programmes, such as Triple P and The Incredible Years. If you know of parents who have attended parenting classes or benefited from other forms of support, you can encourage them to pass on the recommendation so other parents can benefit too.

Another important message from the research is that transition can be particularly challenging for vulnerable families. They may have formed a good relationship with a member of staff at a primary school, resulting in the family feeling more supported, only to be faced with a whole new set of challenges when their child moves to a different school. 

Schools can help by focusing support on vulnerable families in the run up to transition, ensuring that parents and children have the best possible preparation, introducing them to a contact in the new school and making sure they pass on crucial information that will help their new school provide on-going support. 

Teachers, not social workers

One of the clear messages from the research was that teachers wanted to teach and not be social workers. This sense of frustration at being asked to do too many things that take you away from your main role is quite understandable, but it has to be balanced by the fact that teachers are working on the “frontline”, which puts them in a position to identify neglected children. In addition, children who are not having their developmental needs met are highly likely to find it harder to learn, which means that neglect is an educational issue.

Teachers shouldn’t feel the need to act alone. Research by the NSPCC (2) has shown that teachers feel most supported in schools which take a pro-active approach to safeguarding issues, if they have attended training, and if their school has clear processes in place.

It is also important for local authorities to put the principles of multi-agency working into practice, so that the people and services who are best placed to address safeguarding issues can take the lead. You don’t have to be a social worker, but by being alert to signs of neglect and doing something about it straight away, you can make a real difference to the lives of vulnerable children. 

  • Caroline Sharp is a research director at the National Foundation for Educational Research.

Further information


  1. Brandon et al. (2011) cited in Action for Children, 2013. The State of Child Neglect in the UK: Recommendations for the UK Government:

  2. NSPCC report by Mortimer et al. (2012) on outstanding safeguarding practice in primary schools:

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