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Module Cover

Through a New Lens

Strategies for the Child Classroom


This is an excerpt from:

Through a New Lens / Seeing Women Abuse in the Life of a Young Child: A Learning Module for Early Childhood Education Programs


Infants and young children have limited coping skills in their repertoires. They cannot seek out peers for support, talk about feelings, or instinctively sublimate anger through sports, for example. It is up to adults to create the conditions to help them cope. In the ECE setting, educators can provide a nurturing environment, develop strategies to support child adjustment when challenging behaviours manifest, provide support and referrals to caregivers, and be sensitive to the unique contingencies arising when a mother and her children are living in a shelter.

Provide a nurturing environment

While life at home may be chaotic and disorganized, life at school is nurturing and predictable. Young children resonate with the emotions expressed by those around them. They are comforted by a calm demeanor and reassuring tone of voice. An important component of this task is to create predictability through routines. The use of a high-quality childcare program is often recommended by child protection agencies to provide respite for a caregiver but also to provide daily contact for the children with community professionals.

Baker & Cunningham (2004: 34) suggest that general principles of healthy adult/child interaction are especially important for children living with woman abuse. Children benefit from adult role modelling of pro-social attitudes and behaviours, having clear expectations of rules and consequences, receiving praise (but focussing on the behaviour rather than the child), understanding the rationale behind requests, hearing requests voiced in a normal tone and volume, being clear on the givens of the day (e.g., it is nap time) but having choices when appropriate (e.g., shall we wear the green or the red shirt?), holding age-appropriate expectations, having clear boundaries around adult content in discussions, and receiving the supportive attention of adults.

For some children, the nature and extent of family problems will be immediately evident. For others, a sensitive and informed observer can discern when problems at home are affecting a young learner. O'Hara (1999) reminds us, however, that a proportion of children who face adversities at home will invisibly blend in with their peers. It is the general policies and daily operation of the classroom that will touch these children, not the special contingencies coming into play when family problems are identified. As someone who himself experienced family problems as a child, O'Hara (1999) reminds us that our best interventions are the attitudes, words and behaviours we use everyday:

I needed for my teacher to recognize my worth and to believe that I could and would be successful. I wanted to be free of the violence that I associated with my father. I needed a warm, caring, nonthreatening classroom. Rewards, stars, badges, and praise were wholly inadequate. Much more than that, I needed to be respected and valued by my teachers. I craved the briefest conversations with them, one that transcended curricular concerns. I wanted to have a meaningful relationship, although I could not have described it in that way then. I wanted my teacher to trust me and always to expect that I really wanted to do well in school. These needs are not so different from those of most children (O'Hara, 1999: 255-256).

Among the suggestions he provides to early childhood teachers are: model a positive outlook on life, model respectful attitudes and do not tolerate dialogue or behaviour that does not convey respect for every individual in the classroom, demonstrate to each child that they are valued and valuable, get to know each child personally, look for unique interests in each child, and as required by law report suspected cases of abuse and neglect to authorities.


It is often challenging for early childhood educators to determine what specific problem is causing a child's distress. It could be triggered by many factors including woman abuse. Providing a nurturing childcare environment benefits all children.


Strategies to support children's adjustment

Children manifesting distress may display a range of emotions and behaviours that present challenges in the setting. These may include severe separation anxiety at drop off, wandering or aimless behaviour, a powerful need to see siblings in other classrooms, recurring violent themes in play, controlling or aggressive play, inattention, avoidance behaviours, anxious behaviours (e.g., fidgeting, defiance), and troubling behaviours at departure such as refusal to leave or anger at the parent picking them up (Baker, Jaffe, Ashbourne & Carter, 2002). These authors outline strategies to consider:

  • if faced with severe separation anxiety at drop off, keep the child with you and do not push them to find an activity until they are comfortable

  • help the child find and master a simple activity, to give the child a sense of control

  • validate feelings and set clear limits when aggressive play is seen (e.g., "I know you are angry but it is not okay to hit")

  • model and teach problem-solving and age-appropriate conflict resolution

  • to engage a child in group activities, keep the activity short, sit the child close to an adult, praise all attempts to participate, and discuss topics of interest to the child

  • prepare children for transitions in the day by, for example, cuing them of upcoming changes or making a chart with pictures of the day's activities

  • do not force a sleep-avoidant child to take a nap, or have them start the nap after others have settled

  • if there is another staff member with you, you might let a child stay awake during nap time

As with most children, reassurance and a sense of security is provided by simple routines, clear expectations, explanations for things that worry them (e.g., noises), and by letting children express themselves through talk and play (Baker, Jaffe, Ashbourne & Carter, 2002).

Provide support to caregivers

In all age groups, eliminating exposure to woman abuse and child maltreatment is the most important strategy to benefit children. You can help by being familiar with local services should the need or opportunity arise to make a referral. Most communities have services to assist abused women achieve safety, including shelters and advocacy programs to aid safety planning and decision making. Police will lay charges where abuse contravenes the Criminal Code. Access to batterers' treatment programs may be helpful. While these programs are promising and necessary, program completion by a father with a history of abusive behaviour is never sufficient evidence, in and of itself, that he is ready to parent or have unsupervised contact with children.

While many helpful services exist, ultimately, it is usually a mother who helps most children cope with the effects of woman abuse and other challenges. Accordingly, a key intervention for this age group is to support abused women to meet the child's needs for nurturance, safety, and re-assurance. Young children benefit when caregivers help them develop emotional regulation and expression, model appropriate behaviour, set limits, and define and enforce age-appropriate consequences in a fair and consistent way (Hawley, 2000).

While counselling or parenting assistance may fall outside the purview of the setting, an early childhood educator can direct or refer women to appropriate resources in the local area. Some group or self-study programs are designed for mothers in shelter settings (e.g., Crager & Anderson, 1997) and Baker & Cunningham (2004) provide parenting material suitable for distribution to women. Referral to a parenting program or support group may be helpful for some women.

Some educators will be comfortable having a talk with a child's mother. The discussion can be framed around concern for the child. For safety reasons, it is best never to leave a telephone message or engage in such a conversation over the telephone. Baker, Jaffe, Ashbourne & Carter (2002) provide specific guidance on how to approach and assist a mother when you are concerned about woman abuse in the home. Included among their suggestions are to assure the woman that you will not speak with the alleged abuser about the violence. They also provide direction for responding to disclosures from children. Baker & Cunningham (2004: 51-57) summarize guidance for mothers of babies, children, and teenagers, suitable for use when they have left an abusive relationship. For babies and young children, the suggestions include finding other new mothers to spend time with, re-establishing familiar routines, and ensuring children believe that nothing which happened between adults was their fault.

Families in shelters

When a mother and her children are in a shelter, special contingencies will apply. Routines are important and preschoolers may adapt neither quickly nor willingly to changes in food, nap time, bathing, etc. which will be unavoidable during shelter stays or even when refuge is sought with friends or relatives. They may have lost treasured toys, pets, clothes, pillows, or videos and their favourite foods may be unavailable at the shelter. In this time of crisis and transition, the continuity of a school program can provide familiar routines and comforting predictability for the child. A child's attendance also affords the mother much needed respite from the on-going responsibilities of child care at a time of great stress.

Women and children may be at greatest risk of harm in the period immediately after a marital separation. Shelters have tight security and families can generally feel safe on site. This means that drop-off and pick-up periods at school offer an abuser an excellent opportunity to harass or assault a woman or her children. The possibility of child abduction is also of concern. The shelter will likely have helped the woman develop a safety plan that incorporates these issues. Ensure that all staff (and volunteers) are apprised of the situation and given direction on how to respond. Baker, Jaffe, Ashbourne & Carter (2002) also suggest developing an agency protocol for such cases, including assigning roles for important tasks (e.g., who will call the police?).

References Cited

Baker, L.L. & A.J. Cunningham (2004). Helping Children Thrive / Support Woman Abuse Survivors as Mothers: A Resource to Support Parenting. London ON: Centre for Children & Families in the Justice System.

Baker, L.L., P.G. Jaffe, L. Ashbourne & J. Carter (2002). Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: An Early Childhood Educator's Handbook to Increase Understanding and Improve Community Responses. London ON: Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System.

Baker, L.L., P.G. Jaffe & K.J. Moore (2001). Understanding the Effects of Domestic Violence: A Trainers Manual for Early Childhood Educators. London ON: Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System.

Crager, M. & L. Anderson (1997). Helping Children Who Witness Domestic Violence: A Guide for Parents. Seattle, WA: King County Women's Program.

DeVoe, E.R. & E.L. Smith (2002). The Impact of Domestic Violence on Urban Preschool Children: Battered Mothers' Perspectives. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17(10): 1075-1101.

Hawley, T. (2000). Safe Start: How Early Experiences Can Help Reduce Violence. Chicago: The Ounce of Prevention Fund.

O'Hara, H. (1999). Children and their Invisible Needs. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 20(3): 253-257.

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Nouvelle Perspective : Voir la violence faite aux femmes dans la vie d'un jeune enfant


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