Putting children first this National Child Protection Week

Published on Tuesday, 08 September 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 08 December 2021

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This week (6-12 September) is National Child Protection week. We interviewed National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN) National Manager for Child Safe Organisations, Sammy Bruderer, to learn more about the role of early childhood services in protecting the wellbeing of our children.

What are the consequences of abuse and neglect for young children?

The basic architecture of our brains is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Like building a home, the process begins with laying the foundation, framing the rooms and wiring the electrical system - all in the right sequence. Early experiences shape how the brain gets built; a strong foundation in the early years increases the probability of positive outcomes. A weak foundation increases the risk of difficulties later in life. 

Chronic stressful conditions such as violence, abuse or neglect — what is sometimes called ‘toxic stress’ — can also disrupt the architecture of the developing brain. This can lead to lifelong difficulties in learning, memory and self-regulation. Children who are exposed to serious early stress develop an exaggerated stress response that, over time, can affect their physical and mental health.

In particular, if abuse occurs and a child is not supported by safe and trusted adults, they are at a higher risk of having these long-lasting impacts through their adult life.

Optimistic new research from the Brigham Young University (October 2019) suggests that positive childhood experiences – like having good neighbours, regular meals or caring adults around you – have the potential to lessen the harmful health effects caused by adverse childhood experiences. The list of positive factors in the study includes having:

  • friends
  • a school that you like, with teachers who care
  • adults and caregivers who you can trust
  • opportunities to have fun
  • good self-esteem
  • regular meals and routines
  • friendly neighbourhoods. 

We can also help to build these positive protective experiences for children.

What are mandatory reporting requirements for suspected cases of abuse in Australia?

Children thrive when their families are well supported and everyone in the community understands that they have a role to play. Ideally, we want to create a community where everyone is looking out for the safety and wellbeing of all children, and where all citizens are willing to speak out to help children, regardless of their job or legal obligations.

Regarding the legal obligation to report, there is no nationally consistent legislation. Differences exist in who has to report, when they are required to report (i.e. having a concern, suspicion or belief on reasonable grounds), what types of abuse and neglect have to be reported, and who the report is made to.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies offers a comprehensive overview of the mandatory reporting requirements in each state and territory.

It's also important to be aware of your organisation's child protection policies and procedures, as while you may not be a mandatory reporter by law, your organisation might require you to report suspected cases of abuse and neglect.

How can early childhood educators identify abuse and neglect?

Children are safest when they are surrounded by a team of trusted adults. The more we engage and keep children and families at the centre of practice decisions, the better we are able to identify early warning signs and support families before abuse occurs.

Indicators of child abuse and neglect can present in various ways. It's important to get regular training and information regarding early warning signs and best ways to support children and families. Organisations like NAPCAN offer professional development workshops on topics such as Mandatory Reporting/Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention and Creating Child Safe Organisations.

Importantly, we all need to keep child protection at the forefront of our minds. Having ongoing discussions is a great way to do this. Including child wellbeing as an ongoing agenda item at staff meetings or having people take turns researching and presenting findings back on particular topics is a great way to keep the conversation going.

What should educators do if they suspect abuse or mistreatment but are not certain?

If there are suspicions that a child is being abused we need to take action. Not doing so can understandably place the child at serious risk of ongoing abuse and can prevent the child's family from getting the help they need.

It's always good to seek advice if you suspect a child is being mistreated or abused, especially if you're not sure what to do. You can talk to a supervisor or contact a local specialised service for advice. Many states and territories have set up services where you can call to discuss a concern, and they can help determine the best response. There are also decision-making guides available from state and territory child protection services which can assist to determine reporting pathways. 

It's important to note that mandatory reporting is only one piece of the puzzle in protecting children. By the time we reach this level of intervention, children have often already experienced a number of negative effects. We know that the only way to truly keep children safe and help them thrive is to stop the abuse before it occurs. 

Research tells us that building strong connected communities is a protective factor against abuse and neglect and essential to helping children thrive. Early childhood educators play an important part of a child's community and can make a huge difference in a child's life, especially when a family is having a tough time.

How can early childhood educators support children they suspect are being abused or neglected in their daily work?

If a child is experiencing any negative situations, it is likely that early childhood educators will play a role in being a trusted adult for the child, and possibly the family. 

Some tips from NAPCAN’s resources include: 

  • Remind children that they can talk to you or a trusted adult about anything, no matter how big or small their worry might be. 
  • Talk to children about how they know when they feel safe or unsafe. Help them to listen to their early warning signs (how their body feels), and to trust their feelings and instincts. 
  • Be open to talking about all kinds of feelings, including anger, joy, frustration, fear and anxiety. This helps children to develop a ‘feelings vocabulary’. Show children that you can respond sensitively to negative emotions as well as positive ones when they express their anger, embarrassment, sadness or fear. 
  • Help children to identify trusted adults (both within the family and outside) they can talk to, if they are worried, upset, or don’t feel safe. Create a list together. Make sure the trusted adults know they are on the child’s list. 
  • Sometimes supporting the family is the best way to support a child. This may mean find out about, and helping the family to connect with, other types of support. 

What educational resources are available to support the early education sector and how can educators get involved in National Child Protection Week?

Under this year’s theme of ‘Putting children first’ we invite all Australians to look at how they can prioritise children in their lives and communities and to engage in National Child Protection Week (6 - 12 September). 

Putting children first means prioritising the safety and wellbeing of children. To grow up well children need to feel safe and loved, have a chance to play and explore, have a say in decisions that affect them, and access to essential things like food, shelter and healthcare. 

This year’s theme of Putting Children First is central to the work of early childhood educators. 

To find out more and get involved visit the Get Involved page. Educators are invited to:

  • Display posters (this year’s Keeping Children Safe and Well is Everybody’s Business poster is perfect for early childhood settings)
  • Register for events including the Putting Children First webinars designed to share knowledge and stimulate discussion about how we can best work together to enhance child wellbeing in Australia. The Wednesday sessions are particularly relevant for early childhood with speakers from CoLab, ARACY and Thrive by Five Foundation.
  • Add your logo and a few words to our Pledge page (many early childhood centres have already done this)
  • Use our Children’s Voices resources to find out what children value in their community and what they would like to change. Display these in a prominent place or consider sharing the outcomes with your local Councillor so they can see what children want. Maybe they could display the pictures in their office to highlight the importance of children having a say.
  • Use the week as an opportunity to talk to staff about child wellbeing including how to be a child safe organisation. Visit this website for more information.

NAPCAN also offers a wide range of general brochures to support parents and carers on topics including:

  • Ways to support and encourage a child’s right to speak and be heard
  • Domestic violence hurts children too!
  • It’s not okay to shake babies
  • Alternatives to smacking
  • Listening to babies
  • Listening to children
  • Listening to young people
  • Keeping children safe from sexual abuse
  • 30 ways to boost a child’s confidence
  • Use words that help not hurt
  • When a child feels sad
  • The importance of play
  • Being a dad

How has COVID-19 impacted child wellbeing?

We know that COVID-19 is increasing risks for Australian children in a number of complex ways. For instance, many families are experiencing increases in stress (financial, social, emotional, physical), children may be missing their usual face-to-face services and interactions (including school), and many are feeling anxious about what is happening around them. 

The pandemic is certainly a recipe for increased abuse and we need to all be looking for ways to support families as much as possible. 

Emerging Minds recently created a toolkit for supporting children's mental health during the pandemic. It contains resources that will assist practitioners and parents and carers to support children’s mental health during COVID-19, including information about what to expect and how to help children and families cope.

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