Choosing a Safe Environment for Your Child

By Stephanie Johnson, LICSW

One of the most important factors to consider when choosing a school or activity for your child is whether the organization provides a safe and nurturing environment. Child safeguarding (also called child protection or child safety) is the action that adults and organizations take to prevent and protect children from harm and to support them in the unfortunate event that abuse or injury does take place.

Learn more at World Family Education about Keeping Your Family Safe While Living Internationally.

It can be hard to know whether a school or camp is a safe place for children, especially if you are in a country/culture that is different from your own. Unfortunately, the high mobility in many international settings along with differing safety standards and oversight can increase the risk to the most vulnerable members of our community. The good news is that by asking informed questions and knowing what to look for in an organization, you can be proactive in making sure you child is in a safe, caring environment.

Here are some guidelines about what to look for and what to ask:

  • Is there a clear child protection/safeguarding policy and procedure? Is safeguarding evident in promotional material (website, job descriptions)?

Schools and other organizations that work with children should have a child safeguarding policy that clearly defines the actions they will take to protect children from harm. Staff, parents, and students should know what to do if they have a safety concern. Organizations that place safeguarding in the forefront of their communication to the external world send two important messages:

  • they affirm their commitment to keeping children safe
  • they deter people with bad intentions from accessing the school

The message that child protection is everyone’s responsibility (not the job of one or two people) is an important part in establishing a culture of safety and vigilance. 

An important component of a school’s safeguarding policy is a clear code of conduct that addresses teacher-to-student and peer-to-peer interactions. Outlining the behavior that is/is not allowed at school helps to define school culture, establish norms of communication, and set consequences when someone does not adhere to the standards. This overall sense of safety in the school community increases when everyone understands the expectations.

  • Does the organization teach students how to keep themselves safe?

As parents, we want to protect our children from any situation that might cause them harm. However, we cannot be with our children at all times, and as they become independent, they need to know how to spot danger and make healthy choices for themselves. Schools and other organizations with specific programs in their curriculum that teach safety and abuse prevention provide students with vital skills — the ability to recognize, refuse, and report unsafe behavior. 

Bullying prevention and education about peer-on-peer violence is another important part of school curriculum and culture. Abuse can occur between students; adults do not always know the full extent of unsafe behavior. It is important for organizations to help children work out issues on their own while providing support and guidance when needed.

Ask potential schools about how they emphasize prevention and what they do to educate the community about peer-on-peer violence. 

  • Does the organization request background checks and provide safety training for all adults who interact with children?

Ensuring that people who have a history of mistreating children do not work or volunteer at your child’s school or camp is a vital part of safety standards. Child predators often exploit lax hiring and background check procedures to access children. But background checks are only part of the solution. All staff must be trained on how to spot abuse and neglect, what to do if they have concerns, and how to behave appropriately with children.

  • Does the school have security procedures that identify everyone who is coming and going?

Organizations need to have a process for determining who is entering the building(s) and the purpose of their visit, and a way to ensure visitors are clearly identified while on campus. Students should not be able to leave school during the day without permission (and an adult to accompany them depending on age), and there should be clear procedures for dismissal and pick up.

The cultural and political context of a school may require that it have more robust security systems and procedures. Some schools check car trunks/boots for dangerous items, others require that visitors leave a form of ID with security. The important factor to consider is whether school security is aligned with risks of the host country or city. As parents we can gather information about the country’s safety risks (the U.S. State Department Travel Information for example) and ask schools how they mitigate potential issues.

  • Is there adequate supervision?

One important way schools, camps, and sports programs protect children is to make sure the students are supervised and by matching supervision to the children’s needs and developmental stage. There should be realistic staff-to-student ratios, adults present during recess and lunch, and clear rules about student behavior. Independence should be promoted, and children should be given increasing responsibility as they get older. Children should not be left alone for extended periods of time and should not be expected to perform tasks they are not ready for (for example, a kindergarten student walking him/herself to the nurse after an injury). When you visit the school are there adults actively supervising the children (i.e., engaged with the students, not talking with other adults or on their phones). Does the school or camp feel safe and protective yet encourage independence?

Sometimes peer-on-peer abuse occurs when there is less supervision (lunch, breaks, after school). While students need time to interact with one another, there should be adults available to help if needed and to monitor student activity, even from a distance. If something does not look right, it is up to adults in the educational organization to step in, ask if everything is ok, or redirect troubling behavior. This gives students a sense of safety and containment in their environment.

  • Is safety on school trips given adequate attention?

While school trips offer unique educational opportunities, schools must be intentional in safety planning when students leave the campus. Does your school do risk assessments before and risk debriefing after trips? Are there plans in case of emergency? Are host families and agencies vetted and educated about the school safeguarding expectations?

There are several best practices for overnight trips in which students/staff stay in a hotel. It is optimal to cluster student rooms in an area away from other guests. If this is not possible, school staff should be strategically placed in rooms that are close to those of the students. Students should know where adults are and how to contact them in case of emergency. Staff and students should never sleep in the same room and should not be in a bedroom alone together at any time (either the staff or student room). Schools should have proactive policies for managing students who need to be monitored more closely (due to medical or mental health issues); again, adults sleeping with children should not be an option. It is ideal to have at least three students in a room to avoid any peer/peer abuse or accusations. Hotels with 24-hour reception desks are helpful to ensure unwanted guests are kept out of the hotel at night and students do not leave the hotel when chaperones are sleeping.

  • Is there an overall culture of caring and support?

Schools and camps that provide a positive environment for our children do more than just keep them from harm’s way. They nurture their growth and independence, they take an individualized approach to their strengths and areas of challenge, and they promote positive communication.

When you enter the school or sports organization do you see signs of a positive, caring culture? How do adults talk to kids? How do children talk to each other? Is diversity valued and celebrated? Is bullying managed appropriately (for both victim and instigator)? Do the children look happy and engaged? This gut feeling is about the overall environment of the school is often a good indication of a school’s commitment to the personal and psychological safety and well being of students.

Recently international schools have greatly increased the attention they pay to safeguarding standards, but many still have a long way to go in addressing the issues. Depending on your location, the local school system may have more relaxed (or even stricter) standards about child safety and behavior than you think is necessary. Parents may therefore need to take a more active role in assessing the safety at school and in implementing solutions to protect their children.

Using the World Family Education Family Safety Worksheets can help in anticipating and planning for possible gaps in safety due to differing local policies and expectations.

Remember that cultural differences are never an excuse to tolerate abuse. Follow your instincts and abide by your family belief system when assessing any educational setting.

Moving to a new school and interacting with children from all around the world can be a wonderfully enriching experience for children and their families. However, growth and learning cannot take place unless a child and his/her parents feel safe and secure in the new environment. Take time to visit the school, camp, or other child-centered organization before you enroll your child. Ask questions and consider whether what you see, hear and feel about the organization fits with your family’s values and philosophy. This will help everyone feel safe and secure as they embark on new challenges and opportunities.

Stephanie Johnson is a clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience working in international communities around the world.  She consults with schools and counsels expats to help build healthy systems and happy lives abroad. She currently lives in Croatia and can be found at http://www.stephaniejohnsonconsulting.com/.

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