Skip to main content

Child Abuse Prevention, Identification, and Reporting

Because you spend a significant amount of time with infants and toddlers, you are in a position to see possible signs of abuse. If you do, you need to report suspected abuse.

  • Identify your role in identifying, preventing and reporting child abuse.
  • Apply the information from this lesson to ensure that you are following your program’s requirements for identifying, preventing and reporting child abuse.


Child abuse and neglect is a serious issue for early care and education. A single lesson cannot teach you everything you need to know. You will learn more in the courses titled, "Child Abuse: Prevention" and "Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting." This lesson will give you a basic introduction to the topic.

As a teacher or caregiver, you are a "mandated reporter." This means that you are legally bound to report your suspicions of child abuse or neglect. It is your job to know the signs and make the call that could save a child's life. This lesson will give you information to help you do your job.


Infants and toddlers are at higher risk for abuse. Because the early years set the stage for emotional and social development, infants and toddlers are in the greatest danger of long-term damage. Language and cognitive skills and a child's physical health can all be affected.

Causes of Abuse

There is no excuse or reason for a child to be abused. Abuse often happens when adults are under stress or believe children can do more than they are capable of doing. Abuse can also happen when adults think threats and punishments are the only way to get children to do what the adult wants. When adults don’t take the child’s age or situation into account when applying discipline, what adults perceive as fair consequences can be defined as abuse. 

What is Child Abuse and Neglect?

At its most basic form, child abuse and neglect is defined under federal law as:

  • Any recent act or failure to act which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation of a child
  • An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm to a child

Child abuse includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. The American Academy of Pediatrics has brief definitions of each:

  • Physical Abuse: Child is physically harmed.
  • Sexual Abuse: Child engages in a sexual situation with an adult or an older child.
  • Emotional/Psychological Abuse: Child is regularly threatened, yelled at, humiliated, ignored, or otherwise emotionally mistreated.
  • Neglect: Child's basic needs are not met, including nutritious food, cleanliness, love and affection, education, and medical care.


Introduction to Child Abuse and Neglect

This video defines child abuse and neglect.

Child Abuse and Neglect: Infants and Toddlers

Learn why infants and toddlers are especially vulnerable to abuse and neglect.

Physical and Behavioral Indicators of Abuse

Each type of abuse has signals that abuse may have occurred. Indicators of abuse can be physical signs, such as unexplained bruises or injuries, untreated illness, chronic hunger, or significantly low weight. Indicators can also be emotional. Examples of emotional indicators include excessive crying, excessive fear of parent or responsible adult, extreme behavior (withdrawal, aggression), and habit disorders (rocking, head banging).

Shaken Baby Syndrome

Shaken baby syndrome describes the signs and symptoms resulting from violent shaking or shaking and impact on the head of an infant or small child. According to the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, violent shaking results in brain tissue and blood vessels being torn and blood pooling around the brain. 

Brain damage associated with shaking can have lifelong consequences, such as cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, behavior and physical disabilities, language and hearing impairments. All these can be severe and life altering. Shaken baby syndrome also can result in death.

Common Symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome

Shaken baby Ssndrome has various signs and symptoms. It is important to know the symptoms and seek immediate medical attention if you think a child has been shaken. It could save a child's life. Signs and symptoms listed by the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome include:

  • Lethargy
  • Decreased muscle tone
  • Extreme irritability
  • Decreased appetite, poor feeding, or vomiting for no apparent reason
  • No smiling or vocalization
  • Poor sucking or swallowing
  • Rigidity or posturing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
  • Head or forehead appears larger than usual or soft-spot on head appears to be bulging
  • Inability to lift head
  • Inability of eyes to focus or track movement
  • Unequal size of pupils
  • Grab-type bruises on arms or chest are possible but rare.


Preventing Abuse

Everyone experiences stress but everyone handles stress differently. It is important to help build awareness about child abuse and neglect in your program and community. It’s when stress is handled inappropriately that the risk of abuse increases. At the family level, abuse is most likely to occur in families that are socially isolated. It is also most likely to occur in families that have experienced other forms of domestic violence, like violence against a spouse or partner. Children of families experiencing stress from frequently moving around, poor parent-child relationships, and other negative interactions are at greater risk.

You and your coworkers may also be experiencing the same stressors as families. If you encounter an adult who appears as though he or she is losing control, you should immediately make sure the child is in a safe place and encourage the adult to step away and take a few deep breaths. The adult shouldn’t interact with the child without first calming down. It is OK to put a crying infant in a crib while an adult calms down. Remember that children must always be supervised to be sure they remain safe. If you or someone else needs help in a moment of distress, call someone for help: a coworker, a friend or neighbor if you are home, your local child abuse prevention hotline, or 911.

If you think a parent, family member or any adult responsible for care of a child is having trouble coping, is overly frustrated, or is visibly angry with a child, don’t ignore the situation. Share your concerns with the person if you feel comfortable doing so or contact your administrator. As a teacher, you are legally required to make a report even if you are not sure there has been abuse. Your job is not to investigate, but rather report your suspicions. Be careful about making assumptions; your job is to report so qualified personnel can do the rest.

Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect in Your Program

It is likely that your program already has processes in place to prevent child abuse. Many newer facilities are built with vision panels so individuals can see into the classroom from the hallway and outside. Restrooms are built with low barriers rather than doors. Closed-circuit surveillance cameras, visitor sign-in procedures, and daily health checks are all part of a comprehensive system for preventing child abuse.

Your program's child guidance and touch policy helps keep children safe. Never use harsh discipline practices. The following practices should never be used:

  • Hitting, spanking, or other physical means
  • Isolation from adult sight
  • Confinement, binding, humiliation, or verbal abuse
  • Deprivation of food, outdoor play, or other program components

There is also a lot you can do in your classroom. Good room arrangement and design is your first step. Make sure there are no blind spots in the room. You need to be able to see all children at all times. Be aware of the behaviors you heard described in the video. If you notice an adult acting strangely, act on your suspicions. Use the checklist provided in the Apply section to make sure you are doing all you can to keep children safe.

Reporting Suspected Abuse

All professionals working with children are mandated reporters. You have a legal responsibility to report signs of possible abuse or maltreatment and known abuse. If you are not sure abuse has occurred, but you suspect it, you must contact legal authorities. You are responsible for reporting even if an administrator indicates you don’t need to or says someone else will do it. An important reason for letting your administrator know of your suspicions is so they can report it to their chain of command. When you report in good faith, you may do so confidentially and you are protected by law.

If you suspect abuse or neglect, you can call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). This line is always available and can help you find emergency resources.

Follow all procedures required at your place of employment.

What to Expect after the Call

Reporting suspected child abuse or neglect can be a stressful event for teachers. It is important to mentally prepare yourself for what happens after the call.

In most states, your report will be evaluated by Child Protective Services. If there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation, a caseworker will initiate the investigation. Children, families, and caregivers may be contacted and interviewed. Child Protective Services will determine whether the claim is substantiated and whether the child is safe in the home. If the report of abuse involves alleged criminal acts, law enforcement will be contacted and the investigation will be conducted jointly.

It can be especially difficult to report suspected cases of abuse and neglect when the alleged perpetrator is one of your coworkers. You might doubt yourself or question what you saw. You might worry about how that individual or other staff will treat you. You might be afraid of negative publicity or damaging the reputation of your program. You might even be discouraged from reporting by coworkers or leaders. Remember, it is your job to keep children safe and to speak for children. Trust your instincts. If you suspect abuse or neglect, make a report.

It is important to prepare yourself emotionally for what follows a report. First, understand that you may never hear back about the results of your report. Second, some families remove their child from the program after a report of child abuse or neglect. Both of these events are normal and can be expected. Some teachers fear that making a report may get the child in trouble and may lead to more abuse. Remember you have done the right thing. Do not let fear of what might happen next stop you from doing what you can to protect the child.

Finally, take care of yourself. Protecting a child who is experiencing trauma can be an exhausting and emotionally draining experience. You are likely very invested in this child's health and safety. You may have spent hours worrying about this child's well-being and wondering what to do. You can seek the help of a mental-health specialist in your program. Seek out time with friends and family. You should also be sure to keep healthful habits like eating well, exercising, and sleeping.

When it comes to child abuse and neglect, always do the following:

  • Know the signs of child abuse and neglect in the home.
  • Know the signs of child abuse and neglect in your program.
  • Protect yourself from allegations of child abuse.
  • Provide resources to families with the goal of preventing abuse and neglect.
  • Know the procedures for reporting child abuse in your workplace or community.


Making a child abuse report can be emotionally difficult for adults. Adults wonder, “What if I am wrong about the abuse?” “What will happen to the child, the family or me, whether the claim is true or not?”

It can be helpful to explore your feelings about discovering possible abuse and filing a report. Read the following vignette and reflect on the questions. 


When considering whether to file a child abuse report, it may be helpful to reflect on questions designed to help you assess the situation. Remember, if you suspect or know of abuse, you must report it.


Unusual sleepiness or low activity level
Cruel or violent treatment
Mandated reporters:
Individuals required by their state laws to report concerns of child abuse and neglect


True or False? As a mandated reporter you are only legally bound to report confirmed cases of child abuse or neglect.
Finish this statement: Shaking a baby can cause…
What age group of children are at a higher risk for abuse?
References & Resources

American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. (2019). Caring for our children: National health and safety performance standards; Guidelines for early care and education programs. (4th ed.). American Academy of Pediatrics. 

American Academy of Pediatrics, Healthy Children. (n.d.). 

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2014). Child maltreatment 2012: Summary of key findings. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. 

National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome. (n.d.). 

Ohio Department of Health. (2018, November 9). Babies cry a lot. It’s normal. Shaken Baby Prevention. 

Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. (2007). Program guide for keeping Ohio's children safe and healthy. Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.'s%20Children%20Safe%20and%20Healthy.pdf

The National Children's Advocacy Center. (n.d.).