Youth Services Law

Child Protection Policies: Behavior Guidelines

Teacher helping a student

Rules for behavior is what most people think of when they hear child protections policies—the guidelines for interaction among children and between children and adults. Of course you need to prohibit harsh treatment and actual abuse, but you also need to address “boundary” issues. In other words, decide where to draw the line on behavior that, while not actually abusive, may lead to more inappropriate interactions. Consider the following areas when developing your rules.

Physical Contact

Many of these rules depend on context and the age of the children. Pre-schoolers, for example, crave (and need) hugs from adults. The same behavior with teenagers is rarely appropriate. On the other hand, teenagers often are affectionate with each other in ways that are not necessarily sexual or aggressive.

There also is a difference between rough play and aggression. The former can be a very important way for children to test their limits and learn about the physical world. Too much emphasis on safety can lead to increased anxiety and lower resilience among children. We don’t want to allow unsafe behavior, but neither do we want to create more problems by turning normal developmental behavior into pathologies.

Limits on One-to-One Contact

Every policy needs to consider this question. Federal law requires interstate sports programs, for example, to have “reasonable procedures to limit one-on-one interactions between” adults and minors. There is no rule that will work for every group. Mentoring organizations, for example, often contemplate one mentor working with one child or teenager. Some groups resolve this issue by requiring that a parent or another volunteer always be in sight, while others emphasize group activities with mentors and mentees. The policy must work for your program, but you must have limits that protect children.

Bullying

You need to develop policies that prevent both physical and emotional bullying among peers. Bullying is a serious problem, and your program needs to protect children from that experience.

Not everything that hurts a child’s feelings, however, is bullying. Sometimes the problem is simply conflict, which is a part of life that a child needs to learn how to handle. You need to distinguish between simple rude behavior and actual bullying, as the two have very different solutions. Children need to learn how to handle conflict without adult intervention, whereas they need adult help to stop bullying.

Appropriate/Inappropriate Boundaries

Finally, you need to be clear about what behavior your organization allows and what it doesn’t. Encourage positive interactions, such as praise and positive reinforcement. Deal with trouble spots that will be unique to your organization. For example, child care centers must determine rules about responding to hugs from children. Groups that work with teenagers rarely have that problem, but must decide when public displays of affection between teenagers are appropriate. It is never appropriate for adults to tell risqué jokes to minors, but those jokes are a staple of middle-school children testing their boundaries. Again, there are few hard and fast rules, and even fewer that will apply to all organizations. Work through the situations that your group faces, and decide what policies can protect the children in your care.

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