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Protecting School-Age Children From Harm in Your Program

School-age 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 join the staff of school-age programs because we love working with children. Perhaps you have a passion for music, art, or sports that you enjoy sharing with children or youth. Perhaps you enjoy knowing that you have made a difference in a child’s life. It is difficult imagining anyone in our profession intentionally harming a child. Unfortunately, it has occurred in school-age programs 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.

Protecting 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. Here is an overview of 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 that have abused or neglected a child are not re-hired at different facilities or installations.

Maintaining Accountability: Maximum Group Size, Supervision, and Admission and Release

Your program follows standards for high-quality school-age settings. Guidelines for group sizes and adequate adult supervision minimizes the risk of child abuse and neglect. You will learn more about adult-child ratios and maximum group size in the Safety course. The following procedures help you maintain accountability in your program:

  • Record attendance carefully and make sure each child is accounted for. Ensure all children are signed in by parents for before-school care and full-day programs. For after-school care, ensure that all children are accounted for in the transition from school to the school-age program. Communicate with the child’s school if a child is absent unexpectedly.
  • Make sure adults follow procedures for checking children out of the program at the end of the day. Children should only be released to parents, guardians, older siblings over the age of 14 if approved in writing by the parent, or adults designated in writing by the parents. Children should never be released to unknown adults or older siblings. Parents should periodically review and update the list of people approved for pick 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. Talk to your manager to learn about your program’s standard operating procedures related to admission and release of children.
  • Maintain active supervision that is appropriate for the ages and development of the children in your care. In school-age programs, it is common for children to move independently from room to room. You might be assigned to supervise a certain area or to move between areas and supervise children’s transitions. 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.

Your program will have additional requirements with regard to maintaining accountability. Talk to your T&Cs about your specific program requirements.

Guidance, Discipline, and Touch Policies

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 manager 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.

Your program also has a policy regarding acceptable forms of touch. Make sure that you understand and follow the policy. Touch is healthy and necessary as part of a nurturing relationship. Touch can help children and youth feel emotionally secure. For example, a pat on the back or a friendly hug can make a child feel welcome and encouraged. Sometimes touch is necessary. For example, a volunteer yoga instructor may touch a child’s foot to help him learn a pose or a staff member might lift a child down from playground equipment. Some touch can be dangerous, though. 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 school-age children.

Touch that is OK

  • 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
  • Helping a child stand up who has fallen on the playground
  • Tending to an injured child’s wound

Touch that is not OK

  • 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
  • Corporal punishment
  • Slapping, striking, or pinching
  • Tickling for prolonged periods
  • Any behavior that is romantic, intimate, or flirtatious: holding hands romantically, sitting on laps, cuddling on furniture, lifting or carrying youth as part of roughhousing, etc.
  • Touching any child or youth who does not want touched
  • Any touch that satisfies the adult’s needs at the expense of the child

Open-Door Policy & Family Engagement

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 manager’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.
  • 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.
  • Try to get away if a stranger approaches you. Tell an adult from our group.
  • Avoid strangers. 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.



Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect in School-Age Settings

As you read about in Lesson 2 and throughout this course, child abuse and neglect can occur in school-age settings and programs. This information is repeated from Lesson 2 because it is critically important. 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 manager or the FAP. In the course on Preventing Child Abuse in Center Settings, you will learn more about positive guidance and discipline strategies. Sometimes, discipline 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 school-age programs. 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 hits or strikes a child.
  • A staff member uses corporal punishment like spanking or whipping.
  • A 19-year-old staff member exchanges sexual text messages with an 11-year-old girl.
  • A staff member publicly ridicules a child for having an accident and soiling his pants.
  • A staff member posts insulting things about a child on a social networking site.
  • A staff member takes an unscheduled break and leaves the program out of ratio or children unsupervised.
  • A staff member withholds food as “punishment.”
  • Staff members leave children unsupervised on a field trip and a child is assaulted in a restroom by a stranger.
  • Staff members ignore a fight between two children, and a child is seriously injured.
  • A staff member leaves children unsupervised while using dangerous equipment, or the staff member does not stop dangerous behaviors while using the equipment.

Institutional Abuse and Neglect

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


  • Read your program’s Guidance, Discipline, and Touch policies. Make sure you understand them. Ask your manager 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, CPS, your reporting point of contact (RPOC) in Army programs and law enforcement following your Service and installation policy. They will investigate.


Take some time to learn about your program’s policies and procedures. View and complete the Reviewing the Guidance and Touch Policy activity. 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 this 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?
Your co-worker constantly takes unscheduled breaks, leaving the classroom out of ratio compliance.  You have talked to her and your supervisor about this problem, but she still continues to do it.  What should you do?
What should you do if you suspect a co-worker of 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.

Pennsylvania Early Learning Keys to Quality (2012). Keys to Quality Afterschool.

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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2007). Preventing Child Sexual Abuse within Youth-Serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures.

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