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Protecting Children From Harm In Your Program

Child development and 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.

  • Teach staff standard operating procedures related to child abuse and neglect.
  • Distinguish between child abuse or neglect and poor caregiving practices (violations of policy).
  • Observe and provide feedback on staff members’ adherence to program policies and procedures that prevent child abuse and neglect.



Most of the staff you work with are incredibly hard-working and love children. It is probably difficult to imagine any of them 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 staff and protect children. This lesson will help prepare you to teach, model, and observe these policies in staff members.

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. You will need to help staff become aware of the features of your facility that protect children and staff. The Infant and Toddler, Preschool, and School-age courses on child abuse reporting contain information about the features of facilities that keep children and staff safe from allegations of abuse. (They are also available in this track, Child Abuse: Prevention, Lesson Five.) If you are not familiar with the features of your facilities that are designed to prevent abuse, we encourage you to review the direct care coursework and watch the video entitled “Facilities that Protect Children from Harm.”

Your program also has policies and procedures in place to prevent child abuse and neglect. You will need to work with management to teach staff members about these policies and procedures. Here is an overview of what staff will need to know:

Hiring & Staffing Procedures

All staff members are carefully screened before hiring. Background checks are conducted and records are maintained.MIL 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.

Maximum Group Size and Accountability

Your program follows standards for high-quality early care and education settings. Small group sizes and adequate adult supervision (with at least two staff members supervising children at all times) minimize the risk of child abuse and neglect. As a T&CS, you should already be familiar with the maximum group sizes and ratios for your program. You will learn more about enforcing adult-child ratios and maximum group size in the Safety course. For now, understand that maximum group sizes, safe ratios, and adequate supervision minimize the risk of institutional child abuse and neglect.

Guidance and Discipline Policy

The program leaders have worked MILclosely with the Family Advocacy Program (FAP) to develop a guidance and discipline policy that represents best practices in the field. In the Explore section of the direct care lessons, staff members are asked to work with their manager to get a copy of the Guidance and Discipline policy for your program. You might be involved in helping staff members read and understand the policy. This policy statement describes acceptable and unacceptable forms of guidance and discipline in your program. You might be responsible for ensuring staff members receive and understand the policy. You will be responsible for making sure staff members follow the policy at all times, so make sure you are very familiar with the policy yourself.

Make sure staff members know and follow guidance and discipline policies. Your policy may include guidelines such as:

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

Make sure you communicate with staff about the boundaries for touching children or youth. Touch is an important part of nurturing relationships between adults and children. It is also an opportunity to teach children the language of consent. Staff members should ask children before engaging in touch (“Would you like a hug?”, “Are you ready for a diaper change?”). Touch can be harmful when used inappropriately. Make sure staff members understand and follow these guidelines:

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

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

Individuals who arrive to pick up a child should be asked for photo identification before proceeding to the child’s classroom.

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

The risk of injury increases when children leave the facility. Your program has specific procedures for keeping children safe on field trips. You will need to make sure staff know and follow these procedures every time they leave the facility. You will learn more about keeping children safe on field trips in the Safety course. Make sure staff know the importance of:

  • 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.
  • 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.


  • Enforce your program’s Guidance and Touch policy. Make sure staff members understand it. If you see a staff member violate the policy, act immediately. Ignoring violations sends the message that these behaviors are OK. Talk with the staff member and help him or her reflect on appropriate guidance strategies. Spend time in the classroom or program modeling for the staff member. Follow-through to make sure the staff member uses appropriate strategies consistently.
  • Communicate the value of facility security features like closed-circuit television, vision panels, fencing, and security check-in procedures. Do not allow staff members to block cameras, cover vision panels, or in any other way diminish the value of these features. Help staff know that these features of the facility protect them as much as they protect children.
  • Observe children for signs of abuse or neglect in the program. When you have a concern, make a report to Child Protective Services (CPS) to FAP, law enforcement, (your Reporting Point of Contact (RPOC) in Army programs) and CPS, following your Service and installation policy. They will investigate.


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 other program leaders or the 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 and would make a report:

Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect in Center Settings

Infants & Toddlers

  • 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 grabs a child by the arm and leaves bruises.
  • A staff member uses corporal punishment like spanking or whipping


  • A staff member hits or strikes a child.
  • A staff member uses corporal punishment like spanking or whipping.

Infants & Toddlers

  • A staff member takes pictures of an infant's genitalia or graphic images of toddlers toileting.


  • A child refuses to go the bathroom with one particular employee.
  • A child says, "Mr. Jay's pee-pee is bigger than mine."


  • A 19-year-old staff member exchanges sexual text messages with an 11-year-old girl.

Infants & Toddlers

  • A staff member describes an infant as "evil" or "spoiled."
  • A staff member screams at an infant to "stop crying."


  • A staff member shames a child for soiling her pants or forces her to sit on the toilet.
  • A staff member tells a child he needs to "learn some respect" and "someone needs to teach him a lesson."


  • 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.


Infants & Toddlers

  • 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 the child falls.
  • 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.


  • A staff member takes an unscheduled break and leaves the classroom out of ratio.
  • A staff member withholds food from a child as "punishment."
  • A staff member withholds medicine because she thinks the child "doesn't really need it."


  • 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.

When you have a concern, make a reportMIL following your Service Guidelines to your reporting point of contact (RPOC) and manager. They will investigate. 

Ensuring Staff Adhere to Program Policies and Procedures

You will learn much more about how to help staff promote child development and use appropriate guidance strategies in other Virtual Lab School courses, such as Child Abuse: Prevention and Positive Guidance. For now, focus on observing and providing feedback on staff’s adherence to the other policies and procedures you have read about in this course. Reflect on the following scenarios and make sure that you promote consistency in your program.

Staff Policy Adherence Scenarios

Big Brother


Scenario A: Arvind & Big Brother

Arvind tells you he does not like "Big Brother" watching him at work, so he does everything he can to avoid the closed-circuit cameras. He said he has even gone so far as to put tape over the screens to see if anyone would notice.

You Say

Say to Arvind:

  • "Arvind, I noticed that the cameras make you uncomfortable. Can we talk about their purpose?"
  • "The cameras are part of our program's policy, and they must be functional at all times. Would you share with me what concerns you about the cameras?"

You Do

Take Action:

  • Talk with Arvind about his concerns. Do what you can to acknowledge his discomfort and to reassure him that his privacy is taken seriously.
  • Review the cctv footage regularly to make sure the cameras are not being tampered with.



Scenario B: Supervision

The team in the toddler room is very lax about staff members coming and going in their room. As long as the children are comfortable and happy, they don't care if a staff member steps out to go to the restroom or take a phone call. Sometimes when Amber is the only adult in the room, she'll even step out to talk to the teacher across the hall. She says the kids are busy and happy, and no one has gotten hurt yet. She says it's silly to worry; kids have been surviving for millions of years with far less supervision than they have now.

You Say

Say to the Staff Member:

  • "What is your ratio right now? I will stay in here until the other staff member returns. This is something we need to take seriously."
  • "I hear you say it's silly to worry, but families trust us with their children. If one child gets hurt, it is our responsibility."
  • "Children can never be left unsupervised. Our entire program is at risk when that happens. We need to sit down and make a plan to make sure that never happens again."

You Do

Take Action:

  • Do unannounced spot-checks on all classrooms. Each staff member should be able to state how many children are in the classroom at each moment.
  • Develop a supervision and staffing plan with the team and make sure it is followed.

Background Checks


Scenario C: Background Checks

Jack's background check was completed and cleared when he was hired two years ago. All staff are required to inform the program if they have a conviction or if any information changes after the background check is completed. Jack has never said anything, but you have just seen Jack's name in the local paper about an assault that would invalidate him for work with children.

You Say

Do not speak with the staff member:

  • It is not likely you would speak directly to the staff member in this situation.

You Do

Take Action:

  • Call the Program Manager right away and inform her or him about what you have read.

Although we can never be 100% certain that children will be safe at all times, following the procedures and practices outlined in this lesson and in the course you have just completed is a good first step towards protecting children from child abuse and neglect in your program.


At this point, your program’s guidance and touch policy probably feels very familiar to you. You might even take it for granted. It can be a very valuable exercise to focus on reading and reflecting on the policy and what it means for your staff members. Get a copy of your program’s policy. Read it carefully. Then answer the questions on the Reviewing the Guidance and Touch Policy activity. Use this time to think about common concerns you experience about staff members’ guidance practices. Are there particular parts of the policy that staff members tend to struggle with? Are there certain staff members who struggle more than others? Think about how you typically respond and how you might respond to situations you have not encountered yet. Begin to think about how you can promote positive guidance in your program. You will learn more about this in the next course.

A similar activity, Guidance Policy: Guiding Questions can be used during staff meetings or trainings to help staff members read and reflect on your program’s policies.


A skilled training & curriculum specialist is good at inviting staff members to share information. This is done through open-ended questions that spark reflection. Use the Reflective Supervision Conversation Starters guide below for ideas to help you begin conversations or facilitate reflection with staff members.


Treating a child in a hurtful or abusive way


Which of the following features of your facility prevents child abuse and neglect?
True or false? Families shouldn’t be allowed in the building because they are strangers and might hurt a child.
Why do you need to enforce 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 co-worker of child abuse or neglect?
References & Resources

Koralek, D. G. (1993, Nov). Preventing child abuse and neglect in center settings. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc. Department of Defense Contract #MDA 903-91-M-6715 for Office of Family Policy Support and Services, Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Koralek, D. G. (1994) Preventing child abuse and neglect: A training module for youth program staff. Double H Productions. Department of Defense Contract #DAE08-94-5011. 

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 (2020). Protective factors to promote well-being and prevent child abuse & neglect.