Lessons We Can Learn from the Ft. Myer Child Care Scandal

Panetta addresses child abuse scandal at Ft Myer CDCMilitary child care has been in the news recently, and not in a good way. In December*, the public learned of incidents of physical harm inflicted on toddlers by caregivers in a Child Development Center at Fort Myer in Virginia. Arrests of two toddler staff were made in September and a review was conducted of all personnel files at the Fort Meyer child care facilities. This review eventually resulted in the dismissal of additional staff members. When he learned of the situation in December, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta responded by ordering a thorough investigation of hiring practices at all DoD CDCs and youth programs in the U.S. and overseas. While news reports of the hiring practices at Ft. Myer indicate that this is indeed a serious issue to address**, other things can be done to help prevent child maltreatment. Harsh treatment of young children is hardly limited to individuals with shady pasts. Anyone who has worked in a group setting with young children can attest to the stressful nature of dealing with children’s challenging behaviors, especially in a group setting.

Although we don’t know the specific situations in which the mistreatment of the toddlers took place, often, caregivers may be responding to what they perceive as misbehavior of the children – defiance, disobedience, not paying attention, not following the “rules.” The fact that the incidents occurred in a toddler classroom isn’t surprising to me. Defiance is part of the developmental agenda of typical toddlers. But, even when caregivers know that fact, it can be frustrating to deal with.

Let’s be honest – working with young children can be rewarding and fun but it’s also very hard at times. Even well-trained caregivers can feel anger or frustration at a child’s behavior. Being able to stop a gut-level (or more accurately, limbic-level), angry response and reactivate our rational brain to come up with a thoughtful response is HARD WORK! (There is a reason that “guidance and discipline” is always the most highly requested training topic.)

Nevertheless, caregivers can respond to even the most frustrating child behavior with sensitive, positive guidance rather than angry, controlling physical or emotional power. Caregivers are more likely to respond in positive ways when:

  • They have training in developmentally appropriate expectations for children’s behavior and effective guidance and discipline strategies;
  • They have stronger “executive function”*** (i.e. brain processes that regulate thinking, behavior and emotion; for example, the ability to stop oneself from acting impulsively)
  • They receive ongoing coaching and supportive supervision, especially when they are newly hired;
  • They work in a program that actively implements written policies and procedures related to staff response to challenging child behaviors;
  • Their classroom environment is relatively calm, structured, and engaging to children;
  • And the program has a culture in which the stresses of dealing with difficult behavior is openly acknowledged and where staff are committed to supporting, and if necessary reporting, one another when frustration overrides better judgment.

All of these can and should be addressed by programs in the aftermath of this very public failure. The fact that repeated abusive behaviors evidently occurred within the military child care system, recognized as a model of high quality care, tells me that ALL of us in the early care and education field need to do a better job of understanding how and when caregivers respond to children’s behavior in harmful ways. We need to do a better job of diligently and effectively ensuring that our vulnerable young charges are well cared for. And we need to address the issue at all levels – personally, with the people with whom we work, and in our profession as a whole.

Responding well to challenging behavior is a difficult, complex aspect of caregiving that has no easy fixes. Bolstering the hiring procedures is a good first step to ensuring competent child care staff but it’s also the easiest. Ongoing training, monitoring and support of all staff is much harder. But it is our ethical responsibility as a profession to do the hard work of making sure that those to whom parents entrust their young children are able to do so.

Note: the original post of this article was edited on January 23, 2012.

* http://www.armytimes.com/news/2012/12/ap-army-myer-day-care-scandal-officials-say-31-fired-121912/
**http://www.military.com/daily-news/2013/01/10/military-daycare-centers-hire-first-screen-later.html
***Recent research with parents shows that mothers who used harsh responses to their children’s challenging behavior tended to have poor executive function.

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