Choosing to send your child to daycare is a risk to their physical safety. I know no parent wants to hear that truth, but it’s a cold hard fact. Life is not a cushioned, (or sterile, for that matter) bubble of harmlessness, even if we want to hope from our deepest hope that our child will make it out of daycare unscathed. If you put a toddler in a room with a piece of wooden furniture, they will somehow crash into it. If there is pavement, they will somehow fall on it. If two or more kids coexist in the same room all day long, a squabble is inevitable; and some of them do physically hurt others. They’re toddlers. And this is real life.
I have worked with toddlers since 2006. It’s now 2020. Even with all my years working with toddlers, having to deal with the fact that children get hurt at daycare remains one of the most stressful parts of being a professional Montessori guide working in the school setting. Every time I have to field parental communication around children going home with any kind of “hurt” or mark that raises parental concern, it genuinely makes my day suck. It gives me anxiety, and I hate it. Half the reason anxiety arises is because of the unknown. “What mark are they possibly asking about?”, I can’t help but wonder from my home at 7pm, when I should be focused on anything but work. It’s not fun for parents, and it’s not fun for me as the teacher.
Your kids WILL get hurt in any group care setting, I assure you. Just as they can and do get hurt at home. My goal through this post is to offer my insider perspective to help everyone involved better navigate and approach this reality with a little more insight. As we know, there is just something different about your child getting hurt when you’re not around, versus getting hurt when you’re present. It’s a similar feeling like when the kids at work destroy my personal belongings when I’m not there, versus when they destroy the school’s property when I’m not there. Why are parents so emotional when your kid gets hurt? Because it’s your kid.
School and daycare have been around forever. You probably went to one yourself and you probably got hurt at some point. The sting of your kid getting hurt at school is not necessarily because they’re at school, not because you’re not the one taking care of them (if it was a grandma or auntie, I assure you your feelings wouldn’t necessarily be as intense). It’s not because kids will be kids (because we all know how siblings treat each other). It’s because it’s your kid receiving the hurt in a setting that you as parents have no degree of control over whatsoever. And maybe because the modern parent is somehow always laden with guilt over the decision to put your child in daycare.
I’ll be the first to say, right now– group care is just not the same as children interacting in a family setting. Children behave differently in different environments. They behave differently when there’s only two other kids around, versus when there are, say, 11 other kids or more, around. And they behave differently when they know their parents aren’t the ones in charge. Every parent is different from a child’s teacher or assistant teachers. Hell– even the teacher is different from her assistants a lot of the time. And kids aren’t dumb. They know who will allow them to get away with what.
So here is the advice I have to offer for any parent who has chosen to send your child to daycare, and is currently facing, has ever faced, or feels uncomfortable about the reality of your child getting hurt there. This is also a great read for any parent considering the question “should I send my child to daycare, or should I homeschool my child?”.
So let’s start with the most fundamental truth: Your child WILL get hurt at daycare. It is literally unavoidable. It is humanly impossible for 2+ toddlers to coexist in the same space, and not get hurt. If no one else hurts them, they will hurt themselves somehow. The most common way of getting hurt at daycare is trips and falls. So consider it a rite of passage if your kid comes home with scraped knees. Scraped knees are one of the most mild forms of daycare injury. Assume you will check this one off the list at some point.
Daycare directors do have some control over whether or not the risk of scrapes from falls is higher or lower based on how they choose to design and cushion the outdoor environments. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee heads of school have the wisdom to design environments safely, have the funds to design as they wish they could, or have any degree of control over the outdoor environment (maybe they rent from someone). Some heads of school straight up don’t care enough to institute the changes that could minimize fall risk. So there’s that, too.
I once had this boss who everyone thought was kind of a jerk, and he was like “Life isn’t all soft”. He had a point. It is technically a basic human life lesson to know that not all ground coverings are soft in this world. So getting rid of all pavement is not necessarily the answer. One way you can really help your child learn to fall less is to help them learn the instruction “walk”. The more experience they have heeding this critical safety instruction, the more likely they are to walk and not fall. Otherwise, they run everywhere and trip all the time. Another thing you can do is send your child to school in longer pants so that when they inevitably do fall on pavement, they don’t get scraped up. But weather will factor into their clothing choices.
There is a continuum of “hurt risks” for toddlers as a result of choosing to put your child in care outside of the home, and it is this: falling down, getting hit, pushed, pinched, grabbed, having their body scratched, having their hair pulled. They may get kicked, fall off of play equipment, bite their own tongue or lip during a fall, during meals, or from getting bumped in the mouth somehow. They can get their fingers caught in furniture, toys, or doors. They may be tackled to the ground, have objects dropped on them, objects thrown at them, or objects misused by a peer in a manner which hurts somebody. They two worst hurts short of a 9-1-1 call are that may get bitten by a peer, and they may somehow bump their head. Any bite, injury to the face, or head bump usually merits a phone call to parents.
Good daycare staff are constantly trying to visually scan everything. We scan each child for anything unusual-looking. We try our best to constantly scan the environment for safety, and the toys which could be broken and unsafe. We are constantly trying to scan the milieu of children to ensure that they make safe decisions and are behaving harmlessly to each other.
But staff are not video surveillance, and we are not perfect. Staff don’t always see or catch every single hurt or mark that parents may indeed find later. Some schools use video surveillance. Which has its own drawbacks. It is also possible that the lead teacher was not present at work at all when the hurtful incident occurred. So while it is always a good idea to contact your child’s lead teacher, the lead teacher may not always know what incident or hurtful mark the parent is referring to. We might be just as clueless as parents. We rely on our assistant staff, and beyond-program staff teams to be vigilant and care for your children in our absence.
If you are a parent whose child goes to daycare, should you ever notice your child coming home with anything that raises your parental/ guardian antenna, your best bet is to contact both the lead teacher and any staff you know is present during the (usually after care) time of the day after the lead has gone home. In order to do that effectively, every parent needs to know their child’s school schedule, know the lead teacher’s basic schedule, and learn which staff are in charge of after school care. For example, the lead teacher will work a certain portion of the day, and then she goes home. Different staff are typically put in charge for the before-school care program and after-school care program hours.
So when you inquire about the cause of any kind of “mark”, always ask if anything may have happened at school during the program hours, or during the school after care hours. If something happens during before-care hours, the lead guide would be filled in by the staff, or would hopefully notice any marks herself during the day. If anything happened at after-school care, the lead may not be able to provide insight.
It’s always best to ask about any unusual marks you find on the same day you notice something. That way, staff can recall to the best of their ability what might be the cause. If anything did in fact happen and maybe someone just forgot to fill out an incident or ouch report, staff will recall the details more vividly if they are asked the same day. If nothing actually happened, and maybe the mark is some kind of rash caused by a food, staff would also best remember what was eaten that day if you ask on the same day. Human memory is not perfect; so the sooner you inquire in relation to anything unusual you find on your child’s body, the better.
Not every mark you find is in fact some sort of “hurt”— sometimes it can be a rash or something to that effect that surfaces as result of exposure to a skin irritant, unknown food allergy, or maybe even your child’s own natural physiology (dermatology conditions do spontaneously arise). Particularly in formats of alternative education like Montessori, Waldorf, etc., food can be a huge part of what we do. Some daycares feed your kid for you, or cater the lunches from an outside vendor. And you just never know what unfamiliar foods can do in young toddler bodies.
Not every mark you find is in fact the result of something another child did to your child. Sometimes children hurt themselves by accident, or some object causes the hurt. I once saw a girl fall into the hedges, and however the landscapers cut the hedges it left a branch that cut her skin when she fell. Children take little stumbles all by themselves all the time, and they don’t always cry out. This actually happens way more than you would think. Children are often braver and more easygoing in group care settings than when they are at home for various reasons. This may sound odd to suggest, but I have fully heard feedback from parents that their kid cries so much at home, and is so timid. That exact same child I see at school is brave, content, curious, and rarely makes a peep. If they cry something is for sure wrong because they’re known for never crying. But then you’ll report that it’s waterworks at home left and right.
I’m not sure why this is the case. But yes, children absolutely do get hurt at school and they don’t always cry out or ask for help. So we can’t always know something got bumped or hurt especially if it’s in a more hidden location. I’m not exactly doing scans for say, a child’s inner elbow when she’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt and has not cried a single time that day.
If the hurt is serious enough, I personally have no shame around photographing the injury and/or FaceTiming and calling a parent. I let parents in my classes know both in a welcome letter to my classroom and verbally during back to school night what all the risks for hurts are (that list from a few paragraphs back). I also tell them that I will call them if there is ever an injury that seems serious to me (any head bump, any serious gashes or cuts, any marks on the face, any bites that leave teeth marks).
The same strategy can work in reverse from parents to school staff. If you find something at home, photograph it and send it via email so we can see what you’re referring to. But do know that if we did not see anything happen, we cannot conclude for sure that something did in fact happen at school. How do I know your kid didn’t fall during a bike ride at home after school, for example? The best we can do is inquire with all the staff. And if no one knows anything, I don’t know what else to tell you except sorry. Especially because like I said I’m not there all day.
Teaching staff tries our absolute best, but sometimes even our absolute best is not good enough to keep your child safe all the time because literally, we’re not superheroes. At the end of the day, we try our best to watch everything. But we only have two eyeballs with regular human vision that can only scan so vigilantly or focus on one thing at a time. Every parent should know the legal supervision ratios for your state (if you’re reading from America, at least); and parents can know the school’s chosen ratio of adults to children.
Parents also deserve to know that the ratio of adults to children does not mean that there are more eyes guaranteed to be on the kids at all times. It may very well mean that sometimes, one adult is in the bathroom with one or more kids, another adult is helping a child put their shoes back on, and the actual group supervision of the remaining 8 or more children is left to one person. Daycare staff is not God. We’re trying our absolute best, but we’re not omnipresent.
The best way to ensure that your child is better supervised is to send your child to a daycare program that has a very low number of children in it, period. To me it’s no t the “adult to child” ratio that produces quality. It’s the amount of children in the group overall. The bigger the group, the more safety risks there are, period. I don’t care what anyone says. I’ve been in this field long enough to know how true that fact is. It’s a numbers game, not a ratio game.
Some children are “repeat offenders” who hurt their peers over and over, and there is nothing anyone (except the director) can do about it. I have seen certain children do things to other children that are repeatedly hurtful. And every parent who chooses to send their child to daycare deserves to know that these repeatedly harmful children rarely to never get suspended or expelled from private daycare settings.
I have literally watched things that would horrify parents; and I am utterly powerless to do anything about it because I am not the head of school or the school owner. If it was up to me, that hurtful kid would have been outta there after a non-negotiable set number of offenses occurring over a certain non-negotiable timeframe. But it’s rarely up to your child’s teacher. And trust me– it makes my life a living hell right along with yours and your child’s.
Sometimes “repeat offenders” get into a thing where they go for the same peers over and over and over. So know that that is absolutely not uncommon. I have seen it happen many times. So if your child gets bitten once, chances are actually quite high that they may be bitten again multiple times by the same child. Know that it is always within your right as a parent to ask “did the same child bite my kid again?”, even if the school has confidentiality rules and they cannot tell you the name of the child who bit your kid. I have heard of one school where they encouraged parents to work it out amongst each other, but I have never personally worked at a school that breaks confidentiality.
If there is a “repeat offender” in the group, sometimes that child is so swift there is nothing we can do when they “attack”. Yes, we can try to shadow that child, and shadow your child to protect them if they’ve been targeted on multiple occasions. But we can literally be right next to the child, in arm’s reach, and they can lash out in another direction (literally) that prevents the adult from putting ourselves between the child and their victim. I’m on the left, right beside the repeat offender, and they’ll lash out to a child on their right. There’s only so much we can do.
We also can’t constantly prevent the repeat offender from being in proximity to the other children in the group. The “good” children who don’t do hurtful things deserve to move freely about the space and go where they want to go. But if they put themselves in direct proximity to the repeat offender? And there is no adult within arm’s reach? Good luck trying to explain to a one year old not to go near Billy unless you want Billy to bite you. Part of behavioral management is to not over-talk about or draw too much attention to the hurtful things children do to each other so that they don’t go home saying “Billy bite! Billy bite!” and freak parents out. So the most we can coach children to actively avoid each other is, “give (name) space”.
Just because teachers are legally bound to confidentiality doesn’t mean toddlers are. Teachers are legally bound to rules around confidentiality; so when hurts happen, we can’t tell you who did it. We can’t confirm or deny names you pose to us. Buuuuuut we also can’t prevent your own children from telling you who did it. I once worked with this very smart little girl whose daddy dropped her off at school one morning. And like a grown woman pointing out her perpetrator in a criminal lineup, she pointed straight at the kid who had been repeatedly hurting her from behind the classroom gate, and said “that’s him, daddy; that’s the kid who pushes me and pinches me every day”. 🤷🏼♀️. And just because they’re toddlers doesn’t mean they can’t speak well.
Know that not all staff persons in daycares operate at the same IQ, or have the same literacy skills. How does that relate to your kid getting hurt at daycare? It means that there is a wide range of variance you are liable to receive when you get a written incident or ouch report sent home. A really wise lead teacher will always read over incident reports written by assistant teaching staff and aides; and basically proofread them. If she’s really on it, she’ll initial them somewhere on the sheet so that the parents know she’s had her eyes on the incident report.
Even if the lead teacher did not personally witness the incident or assist in attending to the injured child, she will still do her due diligence and read over incident reports for her kiddos written by others; or implement communication systems that keep her in the loop. I really believe that myself and anyone who assists my kids are a team. So if anything happened during the day whether I was there or not, I assume all of our butts are on the line for liability. And I just want to know what happens to the kids in my class because it’s my class.
If you are the kind of parent who gets really emotionally worked up when your child gets hurt at school, my advice to you guys is actually on both sides of the fence. Sometimes parents can afford to turn down the volume on the emotionality, because the injury really isn’t as bad as you think in the grand scheme of all the early childhood education I’ve delivered over the last 15 years. If daycare may be newer to you and your precious child is extremely precious to you, yeah, you might be more sensitive. But actually certain hurts are a lot more common than you would think. I’ve had parents raise hell over their kid getting scratched. And in my head I’m like “🤨? Just wait until they get bitten. Because the kid who scratched them is also a biter”. Your little prince isn’t the only one who has ever been scratched, let me reassure you.
While on the subject of maybe being a little too touchy around your kid getting simple hurts, getting angry at other people’s kids for mildly hurting your kid is genuinely a waste of your emotional energy– they’re babies and they literally cannot control themselves. Usually the kids doing the hurting have a very low degree of self-control and are emotionally immature. They don’t yet know how to behave in consistently safe ways. Their parents also feel bad hearing the naughty things their kids do. So if it’s not that big of a hurt, try to let it go. No, it’s not right. But it’s also not always that big of a deal.
On the flip side, sometimes I am so grateful for you parents who are willing to raise cain for your kid, because there’s always the chance that we are actually stuck in a situation with a repeat offender child. And the director refuses to solve it. In these instances, I secretly really need more parents on my side trying to raise hell about the issue in order to put a fire under the director’s ass to stop ignoring all of our pleas for help. If you know that your child is repeatedly getting hurt in the same way at school, I can almost guarantee that other children are repeatedly getting hurt at school in the exact same ways by the same repeat offender. You can’t ever fault a parent willing to go to bat for their kid’s school injuries, big or small. So yes, being a squeaky wheel has its upsides.
WHAT ELSE CAN PARENTS DO?
There are things parents can actually do to prevent the risk of your child getting hurt so much at school. The biggest tip I have is to send your child to daycare in appropriate footwear. Make sure your kids’ shoes fit correctly and stay on. This will reduce fall risk.
My second suggestion for helping your child stay safer at school is give them plenty of outdoor time and barefoot exploration time; or sign them up for Gymboree if you live somewhere too cold for outdoor play. Children need to learn how to gain control of their physical body in order to stay safer. And that is not going to happen if they are never allowed to play in a way that challenges their movement skills and balance, forces them to problem-solve, and forces them to take some reasonable movement risks.
Children need to learn how to move safely in different ways and different scenarios. How to climb, walk on uneven terrain, how to balance, how to catch falls, and they need to develop stronger coordination. They also can’t learn to navigate trickier surfaces if they never get that kind of exposure. For example I personally suck at hiking as an adult; and that is because I never did it growing up. It was just not an activity my family ever did. But I have friends that are like animals the moment our feet hit the forest or the mountains because they grew up hiking. Likewise, kids need practice moving in different ways and in different places.
A third suggestion is make sure your kid gets enough sleep, and that they’re fed. This is going to sound really odd, but when a child is well-rested they are more coordinated, and more emotionally and behaviorally regulated. Likewise, feeding your kid a well-balanced diet also helps with emotional regulation and alertness. Always make sure your kid has had breakfast before they come to daycare. Because the first food offering of the day might be “snack” around 9am, depending when you arrive. Imagine if they’ve been awake since 7am and have not eaten breakfast, they will be ravenous by 9am. A well-rested, well-fed child is a well-behaved, alert, safer child.
My fourth suggestion for helping your child stay safer at daycare is to help them learn to behave around peers well before they ever get to daycare (or if you’re the kind of parent who works really hard, just start them off in the infant program and we’ll do the socializing for you). It is fantastic to put your child in peer-to-peer social situations starting as young as humanly possible. Starting in babyhood. The way that children learn how to treat others is by being around others; ideally others of similar ages. Socialization must also be paired close supervision and the guidance of adults. When your baby swats others, discourage that behavior from the start.
The very first time your child does a dangerous behavior to someone else, you need to respond well, so that it becomes the last time they ever want to do that behavior. Just because they are babies doesn’t mean they don’t understand seriousness, or the word “no”, or the feelings of having crossed the line. “That’s unacceptable” or “nope, you won’t be doing that again on my watch” comes with an unpleasant feeling for those who are well-socialized. If my child ever bit someone, I’d be downright horrified. So I would be sure to respond accordingly should I ever witness that happening. But I’ve worked around toddlers for a long time. So I know for certain that I don’t want that behavior emerging in my own child’s repertoire, ever.
I also know, after doing this work since 2006, that some parents out there are really really soft and mild people, and couldn’t never raise a harsh or serious tone toward their own child, because it’s not in their nature as a person. Some parents simply don’t believe in harshly disciplining their child, ever, even if they’re character has the potential to be serious.
If your child demonstrates a hurtful behavior and you laugh it off or don’t respond in an appropriate way that conveys a clear “nope, we don’t support that behavior”, there is a chance that they may repeat that behavior again with somebody else. If the responses to that behavior are inconsistent between one caregiver and another, if your initial response is overly-frightening or confusing, children may also try to repeat hurtful behaviors again. So it really is critical to respond appropriately the first time an unideal behavior emerges.
Whew! Well that was a lot, LOL. But safety is important. I hope this all helps with safety at daycare (: