What Is Polyvictimization, and Why Is It Important?

Children in the United States suffer higher rates of victimization and crime than adults. Recent research shows that over 60% of children younger than 18 years had experienced 1 or more direct or witnessed past year victimizations. (Finkelhor, et. al., 2009). In fact, 1 in 4 students will experience some type of trauma or victimization before they reach the age of 16. This widespread victimization is responsible for a variety of physical and mental health related consequences affecting children well into their adult years.

Current efforts to help victimized and traumatized children are fragmented and typically focus on one type of trauma; for example, interventions and prevention programs focusing on bullying, dating violence, sexual abuse or internet safety. However, research on polyvictimization now suggests that it is time for these fragmented fields, services and programs to incorporate an integrated, holistic approach to child victimization.

Polyvictimization refers to the experience of multiple victimizations of different kinds, such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, bullying and exposure to family violence, not just multiple episodes of the same kind of victimization. By focusing on polyvictimization, teachers, counselors, child advocates and other professionals who work with children can provide the best interventions and prevention practices.

David Finkelhor, Ph.D.

Director, Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire

Consequences of Trauma and Victimization

1 out of 4 children will experience some sort of traumatic event during their youth.

Children are resilient and often easily overcome the negative consequences associated with violence and trauma. However, some children exposed to traumatic events will suffer from traumatic stress and develop reactions that persist and affect their daily lives long after the trauma has ended.

Ongoing reactions to child traumatic stress can include:

  • Emotional symptoms including depression and anxiety, behavioral changes and problems and learning difficulties, including attention problems.
  • Physical symptoms including sleeping and eating problems, and nightmares are also frequent.


The need for prevention education is critical, as abuse and bullying affect far too many children:

The Importance of a Broad Spectrum Approach

The goal of schools is to educate students, making them a natural place to implement a prevention program, especially in light of the fact that trauma directly impacts the academic achievement of children.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, one out of every four children attending school has been, or will be, exposed to a traumatic event. Trauma is the greatest cause of underachievement in schools with students suffering from decreased reading ability and lower grade point averages, as well as increased school absences, suspensions and drop out rates. However, not all schools and communities are currently implementing an effective comprehensive prevention program.

When communities face child victimization, the usual outcome is heightened awareness, typically through media accounts and sometimes through action demanded of lawmakers, schools and service providers. After high profile cases of bullying, cyberbullying or digital abuse, the implementation of safety programs is often highlighted by the media. The same holds true for sexual abuse and exploitation. However, it is important to understand that these types of victimizations do not occur in isolation.

Recent research supports the funding of child safety and prevention efforts that focus on the broad spectrum of victimizations that children suffer, rather than those that are isolated toward one type of victimization over another.

MBF Child Safety Matters is one program aligned with the implications of polyvictimization research.

Comprehensive Prevention with MBF Child Safety Matters

MBF Child Safety Matters, powered by the Monique Burr Foundation for Children, is a comprehensive, research-based, primary prevention program that educates and empowers students and all relevant adults with information and strategies to prevent bullying, cyberbullying, digital abuse and all types of child abuse and exploitation.

The program, currently implemented in Kindergarten – 6th grades by trained facilitators (usually school counselors or teachers), is taught in two developmentally appropriate, interactive classroom lessons per grade. These lessons last from 30 minutes in Kindergarten, up to 60 minutes in 5th and 6th grades.

Student, parent and school reinforcement materials are included with the program to foster adult/child communication, reinforce the Safety Rules and keep parents the ultimate authority in the child’s life. Reinforcement lessons and activities are also provided to participating teachers through the Certified Facilitator. These consist of classroom lessons and activities that are aligned with Education Standards and reinforce concepts learned in the two classroom lessons.

The 5 Safety Rules are the primary prevention strategy taught in the program:

5 Safety Rules

step1  Safety Rule #1 - Know What’s Up.

The first thing kids and adults can do to help adults keep them safe is to Know What’s Up. This means kids know how to dial 911, they know the safety procedures at home and at school, and know their personal information. Adults Know What’s Up by understanding the dangers to kids and how they can help keep them safe.

step2  Safety Rule #2 - Spot Red Flags.

Spotting Red Flags means that kids and adults can see the warning signs that might alert them that a situation is not safe. Red flags are clues that they, or someone they know, might be in danger.

step3  Safety Rule #3 - Make a Move.

When kids find themselves in an unsafe situation, it can help to know that they have choices to help them be safe. Kids can Make a Move, such as Get Away or Stay Away, to help keep them safe. Adults can also use Safety Rule #3 to Make a Move on behalf of kids to help keep them safe.

step4  Safety Rule #4 - Talk It Up.

Kids and adults can Talk It Up. They can talk to safe adults and each other when they are faced with an unsafe situation, need help, or to stand up to someone harming others. Kids can also use Safety Rule #4 to use their voice to say no to harmful touches or bullying.

step5  Safety Rule #5 - No Blame | No Shame.

Safety Rule #5 tells kids there is No Blame | No Shame if something bad happens to them. It also tells them if they have been hurt in the past and didn’t tell, it’s still okay to tell. Safety Rule #5 tells adults if a child has been hurt, they are not to blame and there is no shame in seeking help.

The program is available at a minimal cost, and at no cost to Florida’s public elementary schools, through an appropriation from the Florida Office of the Attorney General.

The program is RESEARCHED. It uses the best theories, guidelines and practices from prevention research.

The program is PRACTICAL. It was developed with schools, not for schools, and makes the best use of existing resources. This ensures schools have a usable program that will reach and protect children, rather than sit on classroom shelves.

The program is SUPPORTED. It is supported by state and national subject matter experts, leaders and agencies in the education and prevention fields including the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Healthy Schools, Office of Safe Schools and Student Support Services, and is supported by the Attorney General’s Office, as well as the US Department of Justice; therefore it can be TRUSTED by parents, schools and administrators.

It is aligned with Education Standards, as well as the American School Counseling Framework and Standards. It also helps schools meet statute and policy requirements for bullying and abuse prevention and health education.

Other programs may claim efficacy and high numbers served; however, MBF Child Safety Matters has outcome data showing more than 1,300 Facilitators trained and more than a million students reached in Florida’s 56 out of 67 approved counties since the program began in 2010, indicating a true partnership with schools.