Skip to main content

Protecting Children from Harm in Your Program

Family child care homes should, first and foremost, be safe and comforting places for the children they serve. Policies and procedures must be in place to protect children and providers from harm. This lesson will help you understand policies that protect children from mistreatment. You will also learn about ways to structure your family child care program to protect you from false allegations of abuse or neglect.

  • Distinguish between child abuse or neglect and poor care-giving practices (violations of policy).
  • List the policies and procedures in your program that prevent child abuse and neglect.



Most of us become child development professionals because we love working with young children. It is difficult imagining anyone in our profession intentionally harming a child. Unfortunately, abuse and neglect has occurred in child care and other youth-serving organizations. Your program has policies in place that help protect you and protect children. This lesson will help you learn about these policies.

Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect in Family Child Care Settings

Your family child care program should have policies and procedures in place to prevent child abuse and neglect. Some of these policies are mandated by state licensing laws for child care providers or by service mandated policies and procedures.  Here is an overview of ways your program prevents child abuse and neglect:

Screening and Background Checks

All family child care providers and their household members are carefully screened before children can be cared for in their home. Background checks are conducted and records are maintained.

Maximum Group Size and Accountability

Your program follows standards for high-quality early care and education settings. Guidelines for group sizes and adequate adult supervision minimize the risk of child abuse and neglect. You will learn more about adult-child ratios and maximum group size in the Safe Environments course.

Adult-child ratios have two parts: (a) the number of children per provider and (b) the maximum number of children allowed in a family child care home.  As discussed in the Safety course, these ratios may vary by state, but in general a safe ratio for a small family child care home (with one provider) is no more than six children, including the provider's own children under the age of 8 years, with no more than two of these children being under the age of 2 or in need of significant assistance (i.e., with significant developmental, physical, or behavioral needs).

Guidance and Discipline Policy

Your family child care program should have a guidance and discipline policy that represents best practices in the field. In the Explore section of this lesson, you will work with your trainer, coach or family child care administrator to get example copies of guidance and discipline policies from other exemplary family child care programs to construct what is best for your family child care home. Your policy statement should describe acceptable and unacceptable forms of guidance and discipline in your program. It should be part of the handbook you share with families and any back-up providers who help you.

For young children, guidance should be based on relationships. You help children learn positive skills and ways to interact. Here are a few examples of acceptable and unacceptable practices:

Acceptable Guidance and Discipline Practices

Unacceptable Guidance and Discipline Practices

  • Say and show what children should do. You might say, “Tasha, be safe. Sit on your bottom,” while patting the chair or sitting down yourself.
  • Recognizing, reinforcing, and encouraging appropriate behavior (“You helped your friend pick up the toys. Thank you.”)
  • Redirecting a child to an alternate behavior (“It’s not safe to jump here, but you can jump on the carpet. Let’s turn on some music.”)
  • Providing a nurturing and supervised environment for a child to calm down (“Let’s take a deep breath and sit down for a minute”).
  • Offer simple choices (“Do you want to hold my hand or ride in the wagon?”).
  • Guiding a child gently by the shoulder or hand (“I’m going to help you walk to the bathroom.”)
  • Corporal punishment (spanking, paddling, whipping, hitting, etc.)
  •  Belittling or shaming
  • Isolation in a locked room, closet, box, etc.
  • Withholding food, water, or physical activity
  • Binding or restricting a child’s movements (e.g., strapping a toddler into a chair so she or he cannot leave group time)


Touch Policy

Your family child care program should also have a policy regarding acceptable forms of touch. Make sure that all those who work with you in caring for children (including back-up providers) know and follow the policy. Touch is healthy and necessary as part of a nurturing relationship. Touch can help children and youth feel emotionally secure. A pat on the back or a friendly hug can make a child feel welcome and encouraged. Sometimes touch is necessary. For example, you may need to lift a child down from playground equipment. However, some touch can be dangerous. Touch can make a child vulnerable to maltreatment, and it can place you at risk of false allegations. Touch should be:

  • Respectful of privacy and personal space
  • Reassuring and nurturing
  • Paired with calm and respectful language and tone of voice

It is a good idea to ask permission before touching a child (“Can I move your fingers to help you play that guitar chord?”). You should also describe what you are doing (“I’m going to hold your hand to help you calm down”). Read the table below for examples of appropriate and inappropriate forms of touch between adults and children.

Touch that is Appropriate

Touch that is Inappropriate

  • Reassuring touch: Pat on the shoulder or upper back, tousling hair, holding the hand of a young child, gently rubbing the upper back to calm a child
  • Hugging gently if the child is comfortable or initiates
  • Holding the hand of a child for safety or reassurance (i.e., as you cross the street)
  • Moving a child’s fingers to help him hold a musical instrument or play a sport (asking first)
  • Helping a child stand up who has fallen on the playground
  • Tending to an injured child’s wound
  • Patting on the buttocks or any touch to a child’s genitalia or “private parts” (including fondling and molestation)
  • Hugs that are romantic, intimate, or forced upon the child
  • Forcing goodbye kisses
  • Tickling for prolonged periods
  • Any behavior that is done with romantic, intimate, or flirtatious intent, which can include holding hands romantically, sitting on laps, cuddling on furniture, or lifting or carrying youth as part of roughhousing
  • Touching any child or youth who does not want touched
  • Any touch that satisfies the adult’s needs at the expense of the child


Child Accountability and Supervision: Admission and Release

Your family child care program should have standard operating procedures for the admission and release of children. Children should only be released to:

  • Parents or legal guardians
  • Individuals the parents or legal guardians have authorized in writing
  • In emergencies, legally authorized individuals such as emergency medical responders, police, or child welfare workers

Unknown individuals who arrive to pick up a child should be asked for photo identification and you should verify that the individual has authorization to pick up the child. Communicate with parents and caregivers at drop off, who will be picking up child. It is best practice to maintain documentation of the approved persons for pick-up for each child. 

In addition, maintaining active supervision that is appropriate for the ages and development of the children in your care will help decrease risk. If you have school-age children in your family child care, it is common for them to move independently from room to room. You want to promote responsibility and independence but make safety a priority. Make sure that you are always able to see or hear when a child needs help, is frightened, or is in danger. For older school-age children who have permission to be out of your direct visual supervision, check in every 15 minutes. Be sensitive about hard-to-supervise areas like the restroom. Maintain children’s privacy, but be alert for signs or sounds that indicate a problem.

Open-Door Policy

Parents and families should have access to your home while their child is in your care. This does not mean strangers can roam your home. Rather, you should must provide controlled access (sign-in, secure entrances). Providing an open door to families makes your program more family-friendly, encourages partnerships between families and staff, and makes your family child care operations more transparent. There should be no “secret” spaces.

Field Trip Procedures

You will learn more about keeping children safe on field trips in the Safe Environments course. In this lesson, you will learn about ways to prevent child abuse or neglect from occurring when you leave the facility. You should have specific procedures to keep children safe on field trips. These procedures may include:

  • Obtaining signed permission slips from parents and guardians.
  • Recruiting volunteers as needed.
  • Preparing for emergencies: emergency contacts, first aid kit, and signed permission slips are taken on the trip.
  • Maintaining a list of adult volunteers and any assistants on the trip. Assign adults to specific supervision roles and make sure ratios and adequate supervision are maintained.
  • Providing a “visual identity” for your group: identical T-shirts, bandannas, or hats. Do not put names on shirts or badges. These can be used by strangers to lure children into dangerous situations.
  • Reviewing safety rules before and during the trip. Safety rules should include policies that prevent abuse and neglect, such as those below.

Common Safety Rules for Trips

  • Use the buddy system and stay with your buddy at all times.
  • Always speak with and get permission from an adult before traveling to a new area or using the restroom.
  • Stay with the group.
  • Avoid people you do not know. Do not go near cars to give directions or offer help. Do not accept gifts. Do not give your name, address, or information. Do not go to secluded areas with anyone.
  • Try to get away if a stranger approaches you. Tell an adult from the group.
  • If you get lost or separated from the group go to ______ (provide a specific location). If you are in the woods or do not know where you are, stay in one place until we find you.
  • Teach children about safe adults to approach if they are separated from the group such as police officers, firefighters etc.


Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect in Family Child-Care Settings

Caring for children can be a stressful job. There can be a fine line between inappropriate care-giving practices and child abuse. When in doubt, talk to your family child care administrator. In the course on Preventing Child Abuse in Family Child Care Settings, you will learn more about positive guidance strategies. Sometimes, caregiving practices cross the line into maltreatment and even abuse. You will learn more about that in the next course. This lesson focuses on clear examples of child abuse or neglect in family child care settings. If you see a pattern of any of these signs or behaviors from a provider, a back-up provider, or another adult member of the household, you might suspect child abuse or neglect in the setting:

Abuse Type Signs of Abuse


  • A provider becomes frustrated by a child’s crying and shakes or swings the baby roughly.
  • After a biting incident, a provider tells a child to “bite him back hard, so he remembers how it feels.”
  • A provider grabs a child by the arm and leaves bruises.
  • A child seems frightened of a provider.


  • A provider takes pictures of a child’s genitalia or graphic images of children toileting.
  • A child refuses to go to the bathroom with a particular provider.
  • A 19-year-old member of the household exchanges sexual text messages within an 11-year old girl enrolled in the family child care home.


  • A provider calls a child names like “evil” or “spoiled.”
  • A provider screams at a child to “stop crying.”
  • A back-up provider belittles or shames a child by saying things like, “Why are you such a baby?” or “You’re just a mean bully.”
  • A provider threatens a child.


  • A provider takes more than five minutes for personal needs or does not assure children’s safety before attending to personal needs. 
  • A provider leaves her home, leaving children alone.
  • A provider walks away from a child on a changing table and leaves the baby unsecured and unsupervised.
  • A provider withholds food from a child as “punishment.”
  • A provider withholds medicine because he or she thinks the child “doesn’t really need it.”
  • A provider tells a toddler with soiled pants he’ll have to “just sit in his dirty pants” until he learns to use the toilet.

Institutional Abuse and Neglect 

Learn about reporting institutional abuse and neglect in a family child care program.


  • Create a Guidance and Touch policy for your family child care program, so that all back-up providers and families know what your program's expectations are for everyone’s interactions with children.
  • Communicate the value of facility security features like outdoor fencing and security check-in procedures. 
  • Observe children for signs of abuse or neglect in the program. When you have a concern, make a report to child protective services. They will investigate.


Take some time to learn about other programs’ policies and procedures around guidance and touch and think about how you want to structure these policies in your family child care program. Talk to your trainer, coach or family child care administrator to get copies of other programs’ guidance, discipline, and touch policies. Read them. Then, read and review the Guidance Activity below. Discuss your answers with colleagues and your family child care administrator.


Read and review the Prevention Checklist. Use it to monitor how well you protect children and yourself.


Which of the following features of your facility help prevent child abuse and neglect?
True or false? Parents shouldn’t be allowed in your home because they are strangers and might hurt a child.
Why do you need to have a Guidance and Discipline Policy?
Which of the following is not a sign of abuse or neglect?
What should you do if you suspect child abuse or neglect?
References & Resources

Eccles J. S., & Gootman J. A. (Eds.). (2002). Community Programs to Promote Youth Development. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth (2013). CHILDHOOD SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network in partnership with the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth. Sexual Development and Behavior in Children. 

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Strategic Direction for Child Maltreatment Prevention: Preventing Child Maltreatment Through the Promotion of Safe, Stable, and Nurturing Relationships Between Children and Caregivers. 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2013). Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide.