How to prevent and report child abuse

Queensland early childhood teachers are well placed to report suspected instances of child harm. However, many educators are unaware of the legal and reporting frameworks in place, Bedrock Journalist Elise Cuthbertson writes.

In some states, there is no legal requirement for early childhood education services or their staff to report incidents of suspected child harm or abuse that are occurring outside the service. However, the overwhelming majority of child abuse takes place inside private residences.

Early childhood teachers, given their regular day to day interaction with children, are urged to report suspected incidents of child harm or abuse. Child protection laws enable any person to report such suspicions and protect any person making a report from liability, including defamation.

How to report suspect child harm or abuse

For children that teachers suspect to be in immediate or life threatening danger, teachers should contact emergency services by dialling Triple Zero.

For non life threatening instances of suspected child harm or abuse, teachers should make contact with their relevant state department responsible for child safety.

How to recognise and document suspected child harm or abuse

Warning signs that a child may be experiencing harm or abuse can be emotional and/or physical. Emotional behavioural warning signs may include: distrust of adults, behaviours like rocking, sucking or biting excessively or wetting or soiling the bed. Physical warning signs may include the child being seemingly accident prone and the presence of unexplained injuries such as welts, burns or bruising. The Queensland Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability has issued advice about how teachers can recognise and document the warning signs that a child may be experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, abuse or harm.

If you suspect a child has been harmed, or is at risk of being harmed, it is important to:

•be alert to any warning signs

•observe the child and make written notes as soon as you begin to have concerns—pay attention to changes in their behaviour, ideas, feelings and the words they use

•have gentle, non-judgmental discussions with the child

•not pressure the child to respond and not ask questions that put words into a child’s mouth

•assure the child they can come and talk to you when they need to, and

•contact the relevant department for expert advice.

Spotlight on prevention

Protective education programs are an important step in preventing child harm and abuse. Such programs place emphasis on establishing a safe culture for children and adults by encouraging communication and ensuring children are supported when they feel unsafe.

Children need to be persistent in addressing abusive behaviour because research shows children have to tell at least three people that they are being abused before they are believed.

Holly-ann Martin (pictured) is the Founder and Managing Director of Safe4Kids, an organisation supporting child abuse prevention through training in protective education programs. Holly-ann worked as a teacher assistant educating children with special needs for 25 years before founding Safe4Kids.

Holly-ann recently launched a protective education program tailored for the early years and said it’s critical for children to learn these skills as early as possible.

The 10-week program is linked to the Early Years Learning Framework and the National Quality Framework and aims to provide educators with the tools to educate and empower children around abuse prevention.

“The program is centred on a 10-week lesson plan for teachers which includes activities for every day in the week. That way, children who may only be at the centre one or two days per week will still benefit from the program,” Holly-ann said.

Holly-ann said that the program is structured but allows plenty of room for teachers to get creative and adapt the concepts to suit their particular needs. The program also encourages parents to become involved.

“The program includes a pre-written newsletter to send to parents at the beginning of each week, explaining the focus of the week and giving them an activity to complete at home. It can be difficult to get parents to attend workshops so this is a great way to help parents reinforce the concepts at home.”

Persistence and language

Holly-ann said two key concepts are at the heart of the program: persistence and language.

“Children need to be persistent in addressing abusive behaviour because research shows children have to tell at least three people that they are being abused before they are believed. We need to give children the tools and ability to be persistent,” Holly-ann said.

“Language is also a huge part of this. Children need to be taught to use correct anatomical names for their private body parts. If children are not using the correct terminology, it’s going to be that much harder for them to be understood.

“If we can start children off with these really good strategies and an understanding of the concepts of safe and unsafe, of public and private, then we will give them the knowledge and vocabulary they need to identify and report abusive behaviour.”

Holly-ann hopes that the 10-week program will provide educators with the tools they need to embed protective education in their professional practice.

“It’s about having a common language and being able to use it in every day practice. Our hope is that the program gives educators skills that can be used in any learning activity.

“For example, every book you read to a child has the potential to be a protective education exercise. You can talk about how Little Red Riding Hood experienced early warning signs or the Hungry Caterpillar showed persistence.

“We want to give educators a really good background that becomes part of their internalised language so it’s not something extra to be done but rather a part of their professional practice.”

The Safe4Kids early years protective education program and many other resources are available at

10-week protective education program for the early years
Week 1 Safe and Unsafe and “We all have the right to feel safe all of the time”
Week 2 Yes or Safe Touches and No or Unsafe Touches
Week 3 Feelings
Week 4 Early Warning Signs, and Dobbing versus Telling
Week 5 Risking on Purpose
Week 6 Safety Team and “We can talk with someone about anything”
Week 7 Persistence in Telling
Week 8 Public and Private
Week 9 Assertiveness: Saying ‘No’. Personal Space and Strangers
Week 10 Secrets