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- Recognize the emotions associated with suspecting abuse and reporting child abuse or neglect.
- Identify the protective factors that can help you manage the stress related to child abuse and neglect in homes and programs.
- Teach strategies for promoting staff wellness and building resilience.
- Observe staff members for signs of stress and provide appropriate supports.
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. If a child has been harmed or is in imminent risk of harm, a report must be made . 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 suspecting and reporting abuse or neglect 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. Staff may feel stress that they are unable to protect a child. They may feel stress over their relationship with the family. They may feel stress about their reputation in the program or the program’s reputation in the community. The emotions staff feel may make them feel less capable of doing their jobs. Stress can reduce their capacity to think creatively, be patient, problem solve, and try new skills – all strategies that are necessary in child and youth programs. 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 work and 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.
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.
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 dis/ability 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
This is the foundation of the work we do every day in child development and school-age programs. You will learn much more about this topic in the Social and Guidance courses. You will also learn about it in the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention course. For now, understand your role as one of helping staff promote healthy relationships, communication skills, and self-expression.
Protective factors are not just something that you talk about with staff. They are something that you live every day. You should be a role model by building your own well-being through the protective factors framework. Consider the following strategies adapted from Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Building Your Resilience:
- Build trusting relationships with the families you serve and the co-workers you see every day. Take the time to get to know these people. The time spent investing in relationships through conversations and celebrations can help you enjoy your job more and do better at it.
- Find out about mental health support resources in your program MIL or in your installation . Mental health professionals should be part of your team. Talk to them whenever you feel the need, and make sure families can access their services.
- Watch for early signs of stress in families and children. Step in early by providing encouragement, support, and help in solving problems.
- Seek out professional development opportunities for yourself and staff members on strategies that reduce stress: goal setting, anticipating difficulties, problem-solving, communication, and self-care.
- Remember that mental health and physical health are interrelated. Take the time to exercise, eat well, and seek out opportunities for relaxation, meditation, or prayer.
Knowledge of Child Development
- Complete the courses on the Virtual Laboratory School. These courses will help you understand how to support staff as they promote social, cognitive, and physical development. It will also help you learn and use effective practices in your work with staff members, children, and families.
- Seek out resources in your community and online. There are a variety of tools available from reputable agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has compiled easily accessible information about developmental milestones. You can also find information at educational resource centers. Share what you find with staff members when they need it.
- Take advantage of professional development opportunities. Attend conferences and workshops. Participate in coaching or mentoring opportunities to build your own skill as a leader.
- Work with management to create a relaxing space in your program where staff can take a break. If one already exists, make sure staff have a chance to use it.
- Attend social events, like potlucks, at your program. Talk to families and co-workers.
- Develop a new hobby or expand an old one. Take a class on a topic that interests you. Community colleges, local retailers, and community recreation departments offer inexpensive courses around a variety of topics like cooking, technology, foreign languages, exercise and knitting.
- Build or retain strong connections with your neighborhood, place of worship, or other community institutions.
- Admit when you need help. All families struggle sometimes with finances, unemployment, divorce, or child-care issues. As a Training and Curriculum Specialist, you might feel your job is to “fix” everyone else’s problems. You don’t have time for your own! Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed. Be a role model for the families and staff you serve and get the help you need.
- Learn about health-care options, child care subsidies, and other benefits that might help you and the families you serve.
- Observe for signs of stress in yourself and talk to someone who can help. If you have a history of trauma yourself, you may be especially vulnerable to stress.
Social and Emotional Competence of Children:
- Learn all you can about the curriculum or strategies your program uses to promote social and emotional competence. Advocate for making social and emotional competence a program priority.
- Identify the key social skills children need during early and middle childhood. Create and post a chart of developmental milestones as a reminder for yourself, staff members, and families.
- Remember each staff member can be a safe and stable influence in a child’s life.
There is no doubt that working in child and youth-serving programs is challenging. Adults are susceptible to stress, and that stress can make it difficult to do their jobs. Observe staff members for signs of 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 to support the staff member. 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.
Watch the next two videos to reflect on different ways to support staff members.
There is a lot you can do to help staff take care of themselves and bounce back from the challenges of reporting 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.
You have learned a lot in the past few lessons about the Miller family. Take some time to reflect on the stories you have read. Download and print the Case Study Reflection activity. Reflect upon the questions. Then, review the suggested responses for additional reflections.
Take some time to think about how to handle your own stress. Download and print the Stress Tip Sheet and reflect on the areas of your own life that could be strengthened or supported. This tip sheet is reproduced from the American Psychological Association. For more information and links to the original tip sheet, please visit: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-tips.aspx. For:
- Tips on managing your workplace stress, visit https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/work-stress.aspx
- Stress Facts and Tips, visit https://www.apa.org/topics/stress
You can also take some time to explore internet resources related to mental health. 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 (https://www.ecmhc.org/relaxation.html) and think about how they could be used in your work with centers and school-age programs. In the attachment below, Resources Available from the Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation, review the list of materials and a brief description of each item.
|Protective factors||Attributes of individuals, families, communities, or society that decrease or eliminate risk and increase the health and well-being of children and families|
|Resilience||The ability to solve problems and bounce back from life’s challenges|
|Stressor||An experience or event that causes stress|
Center for the Study of Social Policy (2020). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. https://cssp.org/our-work/projects/protective-factors-framework/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.. Violence Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/
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). https://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. https://www.nasponline.org/
Parlakian, R. (2001). Look, listen, and learn: Reflective supervision and relationship-based work. Washington, D.C: ZERO TO THREE.