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Protecting Children From Harm in Your Program

Child development programs are complex places. Policies and procedures must be in place to protect children and staff from harm. This lesson will help you understand the policies that protect children from mistreatment. You will also learn about ways your facility and program policies protect you from false allegations of abuse or neglect. 

  • Distinguish between child abuse or neglect and poor caregiving 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, it 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 Center Settings

The Department of Defense makes every effort to ensure the safety and well-being of children involved in DoD facilities, such as schools and child-development centers, or DoD-sponsored activities, such as youth sports or recreation programs. This includes conducting thorough background checks and training all staff and volunteers involved with these facilities and programs.

Facility Operations

Your building has been designed and furnished to prevent opportunities for child abuse. Watch this video to learn more.

Facilities that Protect Children from Harm

Learn how your facility has been designed to keep children safe.

Your program also has policies and procedures in place to prevent child abuse and neglect. Take some time to learn about your program’s specific procedures. Below outlines the ways your program prevents child abuse and neglect.

Hiring & Staffing Procedures

All staff members are carefully screened before hiring. Background checks are conducted and records are maintained. While your background check is in process, you will not work alone with children. All children must remain under the supervision of an employee who has passed the background check.

A staff member who has been accused of child abuse or neglect in the program will be reassigned to a position without contact with children while the case is investigated. Records will be maintained, so individuals with a record of committing child abuse or neglect are not re-hired at different facilities or installations.

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.

Staff-to-child ratios have two parts: (1) the number of children per staff member and (2) the maximum group size.

NAEYC program standards (2007), the American Academy of Pediatrics (2011), and the National Early Childhood Accreditation (NECPA) provide guidelines for ratios and group sizes. For example, NAEYC recommends a maximum group size of 20 for children ages 4 and 5 (ratio 1:10). If the majority of the class is 3 years old, the maximum recommended group size drops to 18 (ratio 1:9). The group sizes and ratios are guidelines. Your specific program may have different standards based on level of staff support, training, and monitoring such as video or closed circuit television.

In Army Child Development Centers the maximum group size for this age range is 20 unless the room has been designed for 30 preschool children. Staff-to-child ratios are maintained at 1:10.

In Air Force Child Development Centers, the maximum group size is 24 children. Staff-to-child ratios are maintained at 1:12 for preschool classes.

In Marine Corps Child Development Centers, the maximum group size is 24 children. Staff-to-child ratios are maintained at 1:12 for preschool classes.

There are several important strategies for ensuring all children are accounted for at all times (Caring for Our Children, 2011, p. 65).

  • Count children by matching name to face.
  • Count on a scheduled basis, at every transition, and when leaving one area and arriving at another. You should count children approximately every 15 minutes.
  • Be sure you can state the number of children in your care at all times.
  • Record the count on an attendance sheet or pocket card.
  • Note any children who leave the group (i.e., go with another adult to get the breakfast cart, those who are picked up early).

Your program may have additional requirements to maintain accountability. Talk to your T&Cs about your specific program requirements.

Guidance and Discipline Policy

Your program has a guidance and discipline policy (or Service equivalent) that represents best practices in the field. In the Explore section of this lesson, you will work with your administrator to get a copy of the Guidance and Discipline policy for your program. This policy statement describes acceptable and unacceptable forms of guidance and discipline in your program. Here are a few examples of acceptable and unacceptable practices:

Acceptable Guidance and Discipline Practices

  • 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 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.”
  • Guiding a child gently by the shoulder or hand (“I’m going to help you walk to the door.”)


Unacceptable Guidance and Discipline Practices

  • Corporal punishment (spanking, paddling, whipping, hitting, etc.)
  • Belittling or shaming
  • Isolation in a locked room, closet, box, etc.
  • Withholding food, water, or physical activity

Child Accountability and Supervision: Admission and Release

Your program has standard operating procedures for the admission and release of children. Learn about your program’s policies related to releasing 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

Parents should periodically review and update the list of people approved for pick up. Unknown individuals who arrive to pick up a child should be asked for photo identification before proceeding to the child’s classroom. Front desk staff will verify the individual has the authorization to pick up the child and then notify the classroom that someone other than the parent is picking the child up. Also, it is best practice to discuss with parents at drop off, who will be picking up their child and be sure to communicate that information with staff who will be present at the time of release.

Open-Door Policy

Parents and families should have access to all parts of the building while their child is in the program’s care. This does not mean strangers can roam the building. Rather, programs must provide controlled access (sign-in, secure entrances). Providing an open door to families makes the program more family-friendly, encourages partnerships between families and staff, and makes the program’s 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 Safety course. In this lesson, you will learn about ways to prevent child abuse or neglect from occurring when you leave the facility. Your program has specific procedures for keeping children safe on field trips. Know and follow them. Procedures may include:

  • Obtaining your administrator’s approval for trips.
  • 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 staff members on the trip. Assign adults to specific supervision roles and make sure ratios are maintained by staff members.
  • Providing a “visual identity” for your group: identical t-shirts, bandanas, or hats. Do not put names on shirts or badges. These can be used by strangers to lure children into dangerous situations.
  • Count children prior to leaving, during, and returning from field trips.
  • Reviewing safety rules before and during the trip. Safety rules should include policies that prevent abuse and neglect such as:

Common Safety Rules for Trips

  • Use the buddy system and stay with your buddy at all times.
  • Stay with the group.
  • Never get in a car or go with an adult you don’t know.
  • If you get lost or separated from the group, go to the designated meeting place. 
  • Teach children about trusted adults such as a police officer, fire fighter, and others who they can ask for help if separated from the group.
  • Tell an adult from our group if a stranger approaches you. 
  • Do not accept gifts from strangers. 
  • Do not give your name, address, or information to strangers.

Institutional Abuse and Neglect

Learn about the tensions and procedures for reporting institutional abuse and neglect.


Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect in Center Settings

Caring for children can be a stressful job. There can be a fine line between inappropriate caregiving practices and child abuse. When in doubt, talk to your administrator or FAP. In the course on Preventing Child Abuse in Center 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 center settings. If you see a pattern of any of these signs or behaviors, you might suspect child abuse or neglect in your setting.

Signs of Abuse

  • A staff member becomes frustrated by a child’s crying and shakes or swings the baby roughly.
  • After a biting incident, a staff member tells a child to “bite him back hard, so he remembers how it feels.”
  • A staff member takes pictures of an infant’s genitalia or graphic images of toddlers toileting.
  • A staff member picks up a crying child and calls him names like “evil” and “spoiled.”
  • A staff member screams at an infant to “stop crying.”
  • A staff member takes an unscheduled break and leaves the classroom out of ratio.
  • A staff member walks away from a child on a changing table and leaves the baby unsecured and unsupervised.
  • A staff member refuses to feed a hungry infant because the baby needs to “learn a schedule.”
  • A staff member tells a toddler with soiled pants he’ll have to “just sit in his dirty pants” until he learns to use the toilet.


  • Read your program’s Guidance and Touch policy. Make sure you understand it. Ask your administrator any questions you might have. Follow the guidelines in the policy in all your interactions with children.
  • Communicate the value of facility security features like closed-circuit television, vision panels, 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 FAP (or your reporting point of contact (RPOC) in Army programs) following your Service and installation policy. They will investigate.


Take some time to learn about your program’s policies and procedures. Talk to your administrator and get a copy of your program’s guidance, discipline, and touch policies. Read them. After you have finished reading your program’s policies, answer the questions in the Reviewing the Guidance and Touch Policy activity. Make sure you understand the policies and what they mean for your work.


Complete the Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect Checklist. Use it to monitor how well you protect children and yourself.


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

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

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

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.