Early Childhood Education

Child Abuse and Neglect, Prevention of

 

Early childhood professionals and programs play an important role in preventing—not just reporting—child abuse and neglect. Most child abuse is perpetrated by family members (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003); much less frequently, abuse also occurs in out-of-home settings such as schools, child-care settings, foster care, or organized youth activities. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)—the nation’s largest organization of early childhood professionals and others dedicated to improving the quality of early childhood programs—clearly outlines in numerous publications early childhood programs’ and professionals’ roles, responsibilities, and strategies to prevent abuse and neglect both in early childhood settings and in the home. Early childhood programs and professionals are advised to undertake the six actions described below.

1. Promote standards of excellence for early childhood programs. High-quality care and education helps to strengthen families and promote healthy social and emotional development, as well as preparing children for later school success. Programs should use developmentally appropriate practices and pursue NAEYC accreditation, which requires a rigorous self-study process and an independent external assessment to determine whether high standards are met. Early childhood professionals should also inform the public about the need for and benefits of high-quality early childhood programs (NAEYC, 1996).

Staff-child ratios for groups of infants, toddlers, preschoolers, kindergartners, and primary-grade children recommended by developmentally appropriate practices and NAEYC accreditation criteria are examples of how these standards of excellence help prevent abuse. Limiting the overall group size helps staff to better meet the individual needs of each child, and teachers are better able to recognize signs or changes in behavior that may indicate the possibility of abuse. Smaller groups may be necessary for children with certain emotional or behavioral problems who require more intensive and direct supervision.

These standards of excellence also provide recommendations about the design of indoor and outdoor program environment to reduce the possibility of private, hidden locations. Young children need opportunities for solitude and quiet play throughout the day, but all early childhood program spaces should be regarded as public. Both indoor and outdoor space can be set up to provide opportunities for solitude while allowing for unobtrusive adult supervision. Likewise, the program environment should be designed to reduce the likelihood that adults have opportunities for hidden interactions with children.

2. Adopt policies and practices that promote close partnerships with families. Close partnerships with families can reduce the potential for child abuse by family members and misunderstandings about staff actions. For example, programs should continue to value touch in children’s healthy development. No-touch policies are misguided efforts that fail to recognize the importance of warm, responsive touch, especially for infants and toddlers. Careful, open communication between programs and families about the value of touch in children’s development can help achieve consensus as to acceptable ways for adults to show their respect and support for children.

Communicating with families, especially about difficult topics, is crucial if educators are to provide support to families. Early childhood programs can provide information and support to families regarding child development and effective strategies for responding to children’s behavior (NAEYC, 1996, 2003). This kind of communication is much easier when a supportive, reciprocal relationship already exists. Early childhood professionals should also do the following:

• acknowledge and build upon family strengths and competencies;

• respect the dignity of each family and its culture, language, customs, and beliefs; and

• help families understand and appreciate each child’s progress within a developmental perspective;

• help family members enhance their parenting skills; and

• build support networks for families by providing opportunities for interaction with program staff, other families, community resources, and professional services (NAEYC, 1997).

3. Provide a variety of supportive services to families. In addition to knowing the signs of abuse and neglect, early childhood professionals should be able to recognize situations that may place children at risk. When working with families who are in those situations, professionals should provide appropriate information and referrals to community services, and follow up to ensure that services have been provided (NAEYC, 1996, 1997). Families’ access to health care, housing, income support, and other social services may help protect children from abuse and neglect.

4. Advocate for children, families, and teachers in community and society. Early childhood educators, as individuals and as a profession, should participate in the policy-making process by doing the following:

• advocating for well-designed, sufficiently funded, and effectively implemented public regulations, programs, and community support services that meet the individual needs of children and families and promote their well-being;

• cooperating with other individuals and groups in advocacy efforts; and

• opposing policies that impair child and family well-being (NAEYC, 1997).

5. Collaborate with other helping professionals in the community. The early childhood community should work with other professionals concerned with the welfare of young children and families (NAEYC, 1997). Collaboration with other agencies and disciplines promotes understanding of child development, supports and empowers families, and strengthens advocacy efforts (NAEYC, 1996).

6. Understand the ethical obligation to recognize and report suspicions of abuse. All program staff, substitutes, and volunteers should receive preservice and refresher training regarding the appropriate discipline and guidance of children and child abuse and neglect. Early childhood professionals should do the following:

• be familiar with the symptoms of child abuse and neglect, including physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional abuse;

• know and follow state laws and community procedures that protect children against abuse and neglect; and

• report suspected child abuse or neglect to the appropriate community agency and follow up to ensure that appropriate action has been taken. When appropriate, educators should inform parents or guardians that a referral has been made (NAEYC, 1997).

In 2002, NAEYC embarked on Supporting Teachers, Strengthening Families, an initiative to help early childhood professionals and families prevent abuse and neglect. Additional information about this effort and the roles and responsibilities of early childhood programs and educators to prevent child abuse and neglect is available online at www.naeyc.org/profdev/support_teachers/default.asp. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation generously supports this work. See also Domestic Violence; Families.

Further Readings: NAEYC (1996). Position Statement. Prevention of child abuse in early childhood programs and the responsibilities of early childhood professionals to prevent child abuse. Available online at www.naeyc.org/resources/positiomstatements/pschab98.pdf;NAEYC (1997). Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment. Rev. ed. Brochure. Washington, DC: NAEYC. Available online at www.naeyc.org/resources/position_statements/pseth98.pdf;NAEYC (2003). Early childhood educators and child abuse prevention: NAEYC’s perspective, research findings, and future actions. Washington, DC: NAEYC. Available online at www.naeyc.org/profdev/supporCteachers/ddreporta.pdf;U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families (2003). Child maltreatment 2001. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Maril Olson