Dr Michele Peden and Rene Perry
National Child Protection Week was launched in 1990, with the aim to increase the awareness of child abuse and neglect, to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of children on a national agenda as well as highlight that keeping children safe is everyone’s responsibility. This year, National Child Protection week celebrates 30 years, and will run from 6-12 September under the theme of “Putting children first”.
Research highlights that as a child develops and grows, they need to feel loved, safe and secure at all times.1 This is important for a child’s developing brain, as well as for a child’s ability to develop physically, emotionally and socially. Furthermore, a child’s capacity to form and maintain healthy and positive emotional relationships with others is dependent on a child’s exposure to loving, caring and supportive relationships during infancy and early childhood. As a result of experiencing predictable and consistently nurturing and positive loving relationships, children develop strong and secure attachments to their main caregivers (parents/carers and even educators within ECEC services). However, children who experience their primary caregivers (parents/carers/even educators) as frightening, intimidating, dangerous, unpredictable or inconsistent are highly likely to develop disorganised or insecure attachments.2
Keeping children safe and advocating for their rights, is a particular focus during COVID-19. Unfortunately, due to many family and community based stressors (fear, anxiety, psychological distress), the risk of children’s safety and well-being is heightened with the possibility of increased exposure to domestic violence, neglect and abuse from parents/carers. National Child Protection Week is an opportunity to raise our communities’ awareness and encourage people to have open conversations about better protecting our children.
As a leading early child provider, our educators advocate for each child’s right to safety and wellbeing in alignment with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 11, Article 19, Article 34, Article 37, Article 39).3 In addition, Big Fat Smile endorses and advocates for the National Principles of Child Safe Organisations. These principles aim to provide a National approach to “embedding a child safe culture across all sectors of Australian Society in which children are involved”.4
Two of Big Fat Smile’s values are child-centric and safety. This means children’s safety, wellbeing and development are central to all our organisational and services based decisions. Within our services, we are continually supporting a child’s sense of agency and building upon their awareness and feeling of safety in our care. In building positive relationships with children, we increase the trust and sense of safety felt by children, and thereby form a part of that child’s safety network. Children will often disclose worries to educators with whom they trust and this may include disclosures of abuse or neglect. Educators therefore are entrusted to be the voice and advocate for children and to take action when there are concerns relating to harm or wellbeing concerns for a child. Under our National Quality Learning Framework, ‘agency’ recognises the importance of educators acknowledging and respecting a child’s ability to make choices and about educators listening with respect to children to support a child’s sense of belonging and independence.
So the big question is, how do educators advocate for a child’s sense of agency? Below are a number of guidelines that support how educators take into account the views and perspectives of young children in decisions pertaining to their safety, well-being and development.
Consider age, stage and development ability of children- Young children need to feel safe, loved and secure with their surroundings and with adults they know. Building trusting relationships between a parent/carer and educator is an essential element for a child so they feel confident and comfortable with expressing their thoughts and feelings openly. This may look different across various age groups.
Support children’s participation and contributions- Give children opportunities to actively participate in decision making around routines, educational experiences or decisions pertaining to fairness and equity among relationships and friendships. Educators also need to take on children’s feedback and complaints seriously, and adjust the learning environments and program to reflect their voices. It is also critical for children to be involved in discussions about their rights and feelings, including recognising early warning signs, feelings of safety or discomfort, and identifying trusted people within their networks who they can reach out to if they are worried.
Physical learning environment- To support a child’s ability to make decisions and choices, the indoor and outdoor learning environment can provide opportunities for children to independently explore and investigate a variety of learning spaces (e.g. construction, visual arts, literacy, STEM, dramatic play). Open-ended experiences that encourage creatively, problem solving can increase a child sense of agency.
The inclusion of a child’s voice-Encouraging children to express their thoughts/ideas around a services indoor and outdoor learning environment. Capturing a child’s voice informs the design and implementation and learning spaces within a service. For example, children are given the opportunity to regularly provide information about what their interests are, what they like and dislike in an environment and offer suggestions around their perceived goals of learning and development.
Safe risk taking- Educators can support children to safely take cognitive and physical risks, as they try and develop new skills. For older children, this can involve assessing hazards and developing risk assessment strategies.
Viewing children as capable learners- Believing in children’s abilities and providing constant support, encouragement and acknowledgement as they learn and grow, builds a child’s self-esteem, identity, sense of belonging and an awareness of their own beliefs values. This empowers children to have the confidence to speak up if they ever feel unsafe, and empower children to be part of decisions pertaining to matters that affect their lives.
The importance of parent/carer partnerships- Children do well when parents/carers feel supported. Navigating the role of a parent/carer can be very daunting and confusing at times. Knowing and understanding how to best support a child’s safety, well-being and development can be challenging. Forming a strong partnership with educators can be beneficial as they may be able to offer advice around developmental milestones, information about the importance of play-based learning, how to talk about safety with your children (e.g. e-safety, protective behaviours) child development (physical, cognitive, sexual, emotional, social and language), and the service’s educational programs.