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3 Ways Early Childhood Educators Can Help Prevent Child Neglect

August 24th, 2021 | 3 min. read

By Lisa Williford

When it comes to neglect, the most common type of abuse children experience, teachers literally can be lifesavers.  Teachers and care providers who can recognize and respond to the signs of neglect often can mean the difference between life and death for a child. Laura Wilhelm, EdD, coauthor of The Neglected Child: How to Recognize, Respond, and Prevent, shares what early childhood professionals can do to help.


The global Pandemic has been especially stressful on early childhood practitioners and the families that we serve. I'm Laura Wilhelm. I'm co-author of the book, The Neglected Child. 

So what is child neglect and what does that have to do with the stresses that families are facing?  It's a very hopeful topic. Some people think, "Oh, I don't want to think about that. It's depressing.” But actually, there's a lot we can do as early childhood professionals. And we can absolutely bring hope because we can respond appropriately. When we educate ourselves, we can sometimes prevent child neglect or child abuse and child maltreatment from happening.

So what is child neglect? It's really a neglected part of maltreatment, but we know that child neglect constitutes over half of all of the substantiated cases of abuse and neglect. And over one third of maltreatment fatalities.

As early childhood practitioners, we have a significant role in preventing child abuse and neglect. We are well positioned, but we're not always well-prepared. We're well-positioned because we are on the front lines. We are sometimes the only adults outside of a family that will see a child from day to day.  We know what's normal for that child. And we know when something's just not right. 

So what do we do? 

We can help build protective factors in families. 

We can help build parental resilience. We can help them make social connections. Sometimes urban families in apartments may not know their neighbors. They may not know other families and we can help make those connections by having social activities in our centers, or even at a park or at a lake nearby our centers where families can make those connections, make friends and get those social supports. So that's true in urban areas. It's also true in rural areas where families may be isolated, where houses may be set wide apart and sometimes even suburban areas. So we can provide that as early childhood professionals. 

We can teach parenting skills. 

We can do that through newsletters. We can do that through the materials that we provide for our parents. We can have workshops for families and our centers and in our schools. We can provide concrete support in times of crisis. We can help them know what to do when they don't know what to do, and we can point them to community supports. We can model appropriate interactions with children. We can help parents see how their child is special and unique. And we can help them understand child development so that when they see a two-year-old become very negative ("No!," as two year olds do), we can help them see that's actually very positive because that child is just beginning to see themselves as a person separate from you. And one of the ways you establish yourself is to stand up for what you believe or what you want. And that's a good thing. So we can help parents see some of these things that may look negative are actually developmentally appropriate for the age of their child. And we can empower children in our classrooms.

We can teach advocacy. 

Advocacy can be as small as speaking to one parent about one child. Or it can be as large as speaking to Congress on behalf of all children. Advocacy is speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves or are afraid to speak for themselves. 

As early childhood providers, we need to be able to recognize risk factors. We need to know our families and the children that we serve. We need to enlarge our frame: get beyond that child and the behavior we see in front of us and look at them in the context of their life world and what's going on. We need to support parents and point them to community supports, and help parents understand the behaviors and the strengths of their family and their child.

Neglect can be chronic (meaning it's happening over time) or it can be acute (maybe a single instance.) We can look at ourselves in our centers . Our schools can include personality and work style assessments so that we're not putting people into jobs that are making them overly stressed. We can help people find the jobs that are going to bring them joy and hopefully bring them some energy. We can teach a variety of instant daily and regular coping habits. And we can encourage teachers to address their own biases and beliefs and traumas.

 Through all of these things. We really can make it better. Thank you.

The Neglected Child by Ginger Welch, PhD, Laura Wilhelm, EdD, and Heather Johnson, MEd, shares everything educators and caregivers need to know to identify and intervene in neglectful situations while also creating a safe, nurturing, and protective environment for young children.  Filled with helpful information from expert psychologists and educators in the field, this book defines the different types and levels of severity of neglect, as well as provides tips on establishing suspicion and reporting neglectful situations.  Each chapter includes a brief quiz to assess learning, along with “Notes from the Field” that represent real-life stories the authors have encountered in their work.  The appendices include reproducible handouts, sample statements for parent handbooks, self-assessments for teachers, and important contact information to use when reporting neglect.

Author(s)Laura Wilhelm

Lisa Williford

Lisa Williford, an experienced marketing event coordinator, served with Kaplan Early Learning Company and Gryphon House from 2020 - 2023.