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An Introduction for Support Staff

You may encounter child abuse and neglect in your child care program, and all staff members, regardless of their roles, need to be aware of the definitions for and signs of abuse and neglect. In this lesson, you will learn about types of child abuse and neglect, risk factors, and how protective factors minimize risk and promote healthy relationships.

  • Learn about different types of child abuse and neglect.
  • Describe the importance of relationships in preventing child abuse and neglect.
  • Define institutional child abuse and neglect.
  • Understand how protective factors prevent child abuse and neglect in programs.



Think back to your own childhood and your experiences in child care, school, and youth programs. Were there adults who worked in those programs who made you feel supported and welcomed? While you may first think of your favorite teacher or leader, school and program communities have many other staff members who support daily operations. Though front office, kitchen, and maintenance personnel do not directly care for children and youth, these staff members all contribute to high-quality child care programming and are important members of child care communities. All center personnel have a responsibility to be knowledgeable about child abuse and neglect and to do their part in creating program environments that promote family and child resilience and prevent abuse and neglect. As a support staff member in an early childhood or school-age program, you have opportunities to connect with children, youth, and families, and you may be privy to information or you may observe things unknown to direct care staff or program leadership. Consider this scenario:

Abigail’s Story Abigail is a 4-year-old child in the child development center where Leslie, a front office support staff member, works. Leslie greets Abigail and Ryan, her father, each day during drop off. Ryan is always in a hurry, and he has mentioned that his new boss is, “a real stickler for making sure I show up exactly when my shift begins.” Leslie frequently observes Ryan yelling at Abigail, telling her she is “too slow.” Though it seems he has the best of intentions, Ryan can be a little physically rough with Abigail and will tug at her arm when they walk down the hallway. Ryan seems to be under a lot of pressure and has high expectations of his 4-year-old.

Abigail’s story is a reminder that stressful circumstances can make it difficult for adults to provide nurturing interactions and may put children at risk of abuse or neglect. Remember that no gesture on your behalf, such as saying hello, smiling, or giving a high-five, is too small to make a difference and build a connection with a child, family member, or coworker. These positive interactions help you build relationships and help children see you as a trusted adult they can seek out if they are in need. Research suggests that children who have a formal or informal “mentor-like” relationship with an adult outside their home are less likely to struggle with depression or bullying. Further, children with mentor-like adults in their lives are more likely to participate in activities and engage in school. Relationships also help you understand each child’s uniqueness and help you act in each child’s best interests. This includes taking important steps to prevent child abuse and neglect in the program where you work.

What is Child Abuse and Neglect?

The U.S. Federal government defines child abuse and neglect as:

Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

Source: Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-320), § 3.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child abuse and neglect generally falls into one of these four categories:


Neglect includes the failure to provide for a child's basic needs despite being financially able to do so. Neglect may be:

  • Physical, when an adult fails to provide necessary food, shelter, or appropriate supervision
  • Medical, when an adult fails to provide necessary medical or mental-health treatment
  • Educational, when an adult fails to educate a child or attend to special education needs
  • Emotional, when an adult fails to provide attention to a child's emotional needs, fails to provide psychological care, or permits the child to use alcohol or drugs

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is defined as non-accidental physical harm to a child by actions such as:

  • punching
  • beating
  • kicking
  • biting
  • shaking
  • throwing
  • stabbing
  • choking
  • hitting
  • burning

Emotional Abuse

This includes a pattern of behaviors that have a negative effect on the child’s psychological well-being, including constant criticism, threats, and rejection. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, emotional abuse may occur when a child is:

  • Ignored: An adult may not look at or respond to a child
  • Rejected: An adult actively refuses a child by denying their needs or ridiculing them
  • Isolated: A child is prevented from having interactions with peers, family members, or other adults
  • Exploited or corrupted: A child is taught or encouraged to engage in illegal or inappropriate behaviors like stealing
  • Verbally assaulted: An adult constantly belittles, shames, ridicules, or threatens a child
  • Terrorized: An adult threatens or bullies the child and creates a climate of fear; the child or a loved one may be placed in a dangerous situation or threatened with harm

Sexual Abuse

This includes sexual activity toward or involving a child. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, it may include:

  • Fondling or groping a child's genitals
  • Making a child touch an adult's sexual organs
  • Penetration of any kind that does not have a valid medical purpose
  • Incest, rape, and sodomy
  • Exposing one's self to a child
  • Exposing children to pornographic material
  • Deliberately exposing a child to the act of sexual intercourse
  • Masturbating in front of a child
  • Involving a child in prostitution
  • Involving a child in the production of any sexually explicit images

Who Commits Child Abuse and Neglect?

People who commit child abuse and neglect can come from all walks of life. Some risk factors are associated with an increased likelihood that someone might commit abuse or neglect. These include:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Difficulties controlling emotions, words, or behaviors
  • Harsh approach to discipline
  • Mental health issues
  • Little knowledge of child development
  • History of maltreatment as a child

Familial and Institutional Abuse and Neglect

When a child is abused or neglected by a parent, guardian, or family member, it is called familial abuse. This type of abuse typically happens in the child’s home.

Institutional abuse or neglect occurs outside the home in community or private settings. This type of abuse or neglect is also known as out-of-home or extrafamilial abuse or neglect. This type of abuse typically involves a child and an adult in a supervisory role, like a teacher, caregiver, or volunteer.

Protective Factors

Protective factors are conditions or qualities that strengthen families, foster child development, and reduce the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. The table below provides an overview of the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework that guides efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect.

Strengthening Families Protective Factors (Figure 1)

  1. Parental Resilience

    Families are able to manage stress and bounce back from challenges.

  2. Knowledge of Child Development and Parenting

    Adults know what to expect as children grow and are able to meet their child's needs at each stage of development.

  3. Social Connections

    Families know there are people who care about them and who they can call on for help.

  4. Concrete Supports in Times of Need

    Families can get the help they need when crises strike: food and shelter, medical and mental health services, social, legal, and educational resources.

  5. Social and Emotional Competence of Children

    Social and emotional development promotes healthy relationships with others. Children with strong relationships, who can regulate their own behavior, express their emotions, and relate to others are at lower risk of maltreatment.

The same protective factors that help families cope with challenges apply to all of us. Let’s explore each of the protective factors and how they might apply to your work in a child care program. This material has been adapted from the Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Adult resilience: You likely encounter unexpected situations and difficulties in your work, and your resilience helps you cope with the stress of these situations and effectively manage how to problem-solve or move forward. For a staff member who works in food service at a child care program, news that the weekly shipment of food will arrive two days late, would likely be very stressful. A resilient staff member in this situation will work with the program administrator to assess available resources and food to problem-solve what needs to happen to ensure that children receive meals and snacks, with adherence to licensing and other regulations.
  • Knowledge of child development: Understanding typical child development and behavior is critical for all staff members. Unrealistic expectations for children’s behavior are major risk factors for child abuse and neglect. A support staff member who works in building maintenance may notice that when fixing a leaking toilet in a preschool classroom that the children are very curious. They ask a lot of questions and want to touch the tools. Knowledge of child development allows a support staff member in this situation to recognize that this is very typical for preschoolers, and that direct and simple guidance, “You can look at my tools, but it's not safe for you to touch them” is most effective.
  • Social connections: Child care programs are busy places, and there may be times when a direct supervisor is unavailable. Get to know other staff members and what they do in the program. This way, if you have a need or question, you have a good idea of the best person to turn to for help.
  • Concrete supports: We all encounter situations at work where we need someone to help us. Depending on your role, you may be asked to briefly step in during an emergency to help a classroom maintain ratio. While it is not your primary goal to provide direct care to children, use this opportunity to help the staff in the classroom, help your administrator address the need, and ensure children are safe and appropriately supervised.
  • Social and emotional competence of adults: You continue to develop social and emotional competence into adulthood, and it’s never too late to learn new skills that help you work with others. For specific strategies, review the Social Emotional Learning for Teachers Focused Topics course.  Though that course is intended for teachers, the information and strategies apply to everyone.


Programs can prevent child abuse and neglect by having a well-trained staff that understand the signs of abuse and neglect and promote the five protective factors. Reflect on some of the ways that your program promotes the protective factors:

  • Facilitates friendships and mutual support for families. Does your program provide opportunities for families to interact with one another?
  • Strengthens parenting. Does your program offer families learning experiences? For example, your program could offer programs on kindergarten readiness, responding to tantrums, or healthy eating tips.
  • Responds to family crisis. Is your program a place where families can connect with resources around food, housing, employment, parent support programs, mental health services, and medical services?
  • Facilitates children’s social and emotional development. Does your program help children develop social and emotional skills? You will learn more about how you can support children’s social emotional competence in this course.
  • Observes and responds to early warning signs of abuse and neglect. Does your program help staff to understand and recognize signs of abuse and neglect?
  • Values and supports parents? Does your program make efforts to engage with families and offer them leadership opportunities in the program?

Watch the video to learn more about ways your program prevents child abuse through supportive and healthy relationships with children and families.

The Role of Support Staff Personnel

Learn about your role in strengthening families and program practices that promote protective factors


Although you do not work directly with the children in your program, there are things you can do to support children, families, and coworkers that promote protective factors. As you reflect on your role, think about how you can have positive interactions with each person you encounter at work. Consider the following relationship-building strategies:

  • Initiate positive and friendly interactions with all children and adults in your program. Use their name, say hello, and ask how they are doing.
  • Maintain a sense of calm, even during challenging moments. A calm demeanor can defuse uncomfortable or difficult circumstances.
  • Offer to lend a hand when someone is in need. This thoughtful gesture goes a long way, even if the help needed is outside your role.
  • Speak with someone from program leadership if you observe a concerning interaction or behavior, even if it is not abuse or neglect.

Completing this Course

To view a list of accompanying Learn, Explore, and Apply activities, review the Child Abuse Prevention for Support Staff Course Guide. Please note that the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines sources and resources for additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Think about the protective factors that you learned about in this lesson and complete the Protective Factors for Children, Families & Staff activity. Reflect on the questions provided for each protective factor and discuss your responses with a coach, trainer, or administrator.


To learn more details about and read examples of protective factors, review the Protective Factors Framework brochure from the Center for the Study of Social Policy.


Protective Factors:
Conditions or attributes in individuals, families, or communities that promote health and well-being


Shelby, a mother of 6-month-old twins, seems to always have a smile on her face. Some days it’s difficult just to get the twins dressed and in the car, but Shelby always seems to bounce back from every challenge. This is an example of which protective factor? 
Mel’s husband lost his job at the local restaurant. Although Mel works full time in your program, they need her husband’s income to pay the bills and feed the family. Mel and her husband go to a local employment office and talk to the staff there about ways to improve his applications and interviewing skills. She also receives information about how to get assistance with the family’s utility bills. This is an example of which protective factor?
Desmond is a single dad. He serves in the military and is stationed far from his extended family. He participates in all the family events at the school-age program and often gets together with other families from his daughters’ school on Saturdays. When Desmond needs to work late or go out of town, he has a close group of neighbors who care for his daughters. This best describes which protective factor? 
References & Resources

Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2018). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Violence Prevention. Retrieved from

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau. Retrieved from

Felitti, V. J. et al. (1998) Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14, 245-258. doi:10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8 also

Harris, N. B. (2014). Nadine Burke Harris: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime [Video file]. Retrieved from

Military Family Advocacy Programs. Retrieved from

Seibel, N. L., Britt, D., Gillespie, L. G., & Parlakian, R. (2006). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2012). Child Maltreatment 2011.

Murphey, D., Bandy, T., Schmitz, H., & Moore, K. A. (2013). Child Trends. Caring Adults: Important for Positive Child Well-Being. (Research Report #2013-54). Retrieved from: