- Provide leadership as your organization recovers from an allegation.
- Recognize and respond to the emotions associated with reporting suspected child abuse and neglect.
There are few professional experiences as stressful as suspecting and reporting child abuse or neglect. Before and after the report, reporters feel a range of emotions. Read these quotes from professionals who have experienced this situation. Reflect on how you might feel and how the staff you work with might feel.
The emotions can be even more complicated when the suspected child abuse or neglect occurred in your own program. The perpetrator may be one of your colleagues or friends. You may be neighbors or attend the same community events. The individual making a report might worry that she will be judged or socially excluded because of the report. Individuals may feel compelled to “cover” for someone they know or like. You all may feel pressure to protect the reputation of your program. All of these emotions are natural, but you must help staff members remember their obligation to protect children from harm. As a program leader, you must do all you can to create a climate in which staff members feel safe and supported in making a report.
The stress of this type of event is immense. It can feel overwhelming when you add your own very real life stressors and those of the staff—child rearing, marital conflict, housing issues, financial concerns. It is important that you take care of yourself and to help staff members take care of themselves.
The same protective factors that help families cope with challenges apply to all of us as adults. Let’s explore each of the protective factors and how they might apply to your work with staff members. 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.
Strengthening Families Protective Factors (Figure 1)
We all need the ability to cope with the stresses of everyday life. In the context of this particular course, let’s think about the stresses associated with suspecting and reporting child abuse or neglect. The stress might make a staff member feel less capable of doing their job or less capable of protecting children. The stress may reduce their capacity to cope with the stresses of their own family lives. Each one of us has strengths we can draw upon: faith, flexibility, humor, communication skills, problem-solving skills, mutually supportive caring relationships, or the ability to identify and access outside resources (https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/preventing/). We can take the time to make sure we nurture and expand these strengths in ourselves and others. Build some time for fun into your program. Encourage one another.
Knowledge of Child Development
It seems obvious, but understanding typical child development is critical for staff members. Unrealistic expectations for children’s behavior are major risk factors for child abuse and neglect. Make sure you help staff know what to expect from the children in your care. When you see unrealistic expectations, step in and counsel staff. In a stressful situation, this knowledge helps staff remain calm, recognize child development in action, and create a teachable moment. You will learn more in the course about preventing child abuse and neglect.
Social connections: Research suggests that strong social connections promote health, wellness, and longevity. Help staff members build strong relationships with one another and with families. Plan staff events: celebrations, meals, outings. Spend time getting to know one another and building trust. Also make sure there is some time during the day when staff members can talk to other adults. Make sure everyone gets the breaks they need and that there is time for relaxation and connection at some point each day. This will help you all do your jobs better.
Concrete supports: We all need tools to help us do our jobs. It is OK—and important—to ask for help when it is needed. You are a resource for the staff members in your program. You know the curriculum or programming, you know the community, you know the families. Provide the supports staff members need when they need it. Maybe they need help planning learning experiences, or maybe they need connected to a disability specialist. Know your staff members and help meet their needs. Also remember that they are not immune to stress outside of work, too. They might be experiencing any number of stressors at home. Seek out and use community resources, whether it’s assistance with filing taxes, finding quality health care, or job assistance for a spouse or partner.
Social and emotional competence of children
Social and emotional competence of children: This is the foundation of the work we do every day in child development programs. You will learn much more about this topic in the Social and Guidance courses. For now, understand your role as one of helping staff promote healthy relationships, communication skills, and self-expression.
Observe Staff for Signs of Stress
Making a report of child abuse and neglect is a stressful event. As a manager, make sure you are aware of the stress your staff members are facing. Be emotionally connected to them. Observe staff members for signs of stress. When you see signs of stress following a report of abuse or neglect, be prepared to help the staff member process their emotions. When you see signs of stress at other times, realize that stress can make it difficult for staff members to do their jobs well. You will learn more about this in the Child Abuse Prevention course. Staff members who are experiencing stress are at a greater risk of using inappropriate guidance or discipline practices. If a staff member is experiencing stress, you might see the following:
- Changes in mood or behavior. The staff member seems upset, angry, or more quick-tempered than usual.
- Changes in work attendance or attitude. A stressed staff member may stop coming to work, come to work late, or do as little as possible at work.
- Problems with drugs or alcohol.
- Problems sleeping or talking of restlessness.
- Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness. Staff might say things like, “We’re just spinning our wheels. Nothing’s going to change for this kid.”
- Depression. Staff may lose interest in things they used to enjoy, have changes in appetite, or other symptoms.
When you see these signs, it is important to take action. Talk to the staff member. Help them process the emotions they are feeling. This can be challenging for you professionally and personally. After all, you are not a trained counselor and no one should expect you to be. You can open lines of communication, though. You can be a kind person to talk to, and you can help staff members feel more confident about their work. Here are additional strategies recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists (2009) to support staff during times of stress:
- Validate the staff members’ current feelings without judging or comparing to your own experiences. Simply say, “It sounds like things are really stressful for you right now.” This can open the conversation. Avoid saying things like, “We’re all stressed out” or “This is the same thing I went through.”
- Provide emotional support. Recognize staff for their hard work. Share positive feedback you hear from families. Simply say “Thank you.”
- Emphasize the need for consistency. Help staff members maintain a consistent schedule and routine in the program. This builds a sense of security and can reduce stress.
- Help staff members focus on positive accomplishments. Encourage staff members to identify at least one positive action each day from a child and from a fellow staff member.
- Provide activities that help staff and children connect with one another. Organize a field day or a social event for the program. Make sure there are staff-only social events, as well, to help prevent burn-out and build camaraderie.
- Help provide directed and realistic expectations. When staff members feel overwhelmed, they tend to try to do too much. This can lead to feelings of frustration and failure. Help them identify 3-5 manageable goals to work towards during the stressful time.
There is a lot you can do to help staff take care of themselves during and after making a report of child abuse or neglect:
- Make sure it is always ok to ask for help. You know your role is to support staff. Make sure they know that, too. Be available for them. Show vulnerability yourself: admit when you don’t know the answer to something. Learn alongside the staff.
- Anticipate stressful events. In the context of child abuse and neglect, the stress rarely ends once the report is made. After a report, staff might be anxious about angry parents, damaged relationships, or a child’s safety. You need to know in advance that these feelings are going to occur. Help prepare the staff for “day 1” after a report and every day after. Talk to the staff about what might happen, reflect with them on what they might feel or experience, and role play together how to respond to difficult situations.
- Advocate for staff. You know how hard your staff work every day. Be an advocate for them and their needs. Find the resources that can help them grow and recover from difficult situations.
Use Reflective Supervision Strategies
One way that you can help staff process the emotions of a report is by using reflective supervision strategies. Watch this video to learn more.
According to Zero to Three, an agency on the forefront of developing and refining reflective supervision practices, there are three essential components of reflective supervision. You can learn more at http://www.zerotothree.org/about-us/areas-of-expertise/reflective-practice-program-development/three-building-blocks-of-reflective-supervision.html . This section will provide a brief overview of the components.
Reflection: During reflection supervisors and staff members are able to step back and wonder about the deeper meanings behind their experiences. Staff members have the opportunity to think about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a way that supports their professional growth. Reflection takes place in a conversation or dialog. As relates to child abuse and neglect, a supervisor might review observation notes or anecdotal records together with a staff member. The supervisor can provide a safe place for the staff member to wonder about events.
Collaboration: Collaboration is teamwork. In a collaborative partnership, some power and responsibility is shared. Staff members have a chance to make decisions about their work and their experiences. This collaboration is characterized by trust and honesty. In the context of child abuse and neglect, collaboration within reflective supervision might be characterized by a staff member taking interest in learning how to facilitate family events or requesting a specific space or time to work through issues.
Regularity: Time for reflective supervision must be protected. Staff and supervisors must meet regularly—not just when problems occur. To build trust requires time. In the context of child abuse and neglect, staff members and supervisors must meet regularly during good times so the staff member feels supported when he or she needs it.
The Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (CECMHC) was funded as an Innovation and Improvement Project by the Office of Head Start in 2008. Although the materials were developed for Head Start, they are relevant to a variety of audiences. Look over the materials offered on the Center’s website and think about how they could be used in your work with centers and school-age programs. You can find resources at http://www.ecmhc.org/relaxation.html
Download and print the CECMHC Activity. Review the list of the materials available and a brief description of each item and visit the website to explore the materials. Then describe how you could use the resource in your work with staff and families.
A reflective supervisor is skilled at inviting staff members to share information. This is done through open-ended questions that spark reflection. Download and print the Conversation Starters Guide below for ideas to help you begin conversations or facilitate reflection with staff members.
Karageorge, K. & Kendall, R. (2008). The Role of Professional Child Care Providers in Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect. Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children’s Bureau.
Kipps-Vaughan, Debi. (2013). Supporting Teachers Through Stress Management: School psychologists can help promote healthier schools by providing stress reduction programming for teachers, which helps reduce teacher absenteeism, turnover, and burnout. Principal Leadership. 13(5). Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/assets/documents/Resources%20and%20Publications/Handouts/Families%20and%20Educators/January_13_Teacher_Stress.pdf
National Association of School Psychologists (2009). Supporting Teachers’ Ability to Teach in Stressful Times: Tips for Administrators and Teachers.
Parlakian, R. (2001). Look, listen, and learn: Reflective supervision and relationship-based work. Washington, D.C: ZERO TO THREE.