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Guidance for Safe Working Practice for adults who work with children and young people

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Communication with Children and Young People

Communication between children and adults, by whatever method, should take place within clear and explicit professional boundaries. This includes the wider use of technology such as mobile phones text messaging, e-mails, digital cameras, videos, web-cams, websites and blogs. Adults should not share any personal information with a child or young person. They should not request, or respond to, any personal information from the child/young person, other than that which might be appropriate as part of their professional role. Adults should ensure that all communications are transparent and open to scrutiny.
Adults should also be circumspect in their communications with children so as to avoid any possible misinterpretation of their motives or any behaviour which could be construed as grooming. They should not give their personal contact details to children and young people including e-mail, home or mobile telephone numbers, unless the need to do so is agreed with senior management and parents/carers. E-mail or text communications between an adult and a child young person outside agreed protocols may lead to disciplinary and/or criminal investigations. This also includes communications through internet based web sites.

Internal e-mail systems should only be used in accordance with the organisation’s policy. This means that the organisation should:

  • have a communication policy which specifies acceptable and permissible modes of communication

This means that adults should:

  • not give their personal contact details to children or young people, including their mobile telephone number
  • only use equipment e.g. mobile phones, provided by organisation to communicate with children, making sure that parents have given permission for this form of communication to be used
  • only make contact with children for professional reasons and in accordance with any organisation policy
  • recognise that text messaging is rarely an appropriate response to a child in a crisis situation or at risk of harm. It should only be used as a last resort when other forms of communication are not possible
  • not use internet or web-based communication channels to send personal messages to a child/young person

Social Contact

Adults who work with children and young people should not seek to have social contact them or their families, unless the reason for this contact has been firmly established and agreed with senior managers, or where an adult does not work for an organisation, the parent or carers. If a child or parent seeks to establish social contact, or if this occurs coincidentally, the adult should exercise her/his professional judgement in making a response but should always discuss the situation with their manager or with the parent of the child or young person. Adults should be aware that social contact in certain situations can be misconstrued as grooming.

Where social contact is an integral part of work duties, e.g. pastoral work in the community, care should be taken to maintain appropriate personal and professional boundaries. This also applies to social contacts made through interests outside of work or through the adult’s own family or personal networks.

It is recognised that some adults may support a parent who may be in particular difficulty. Care needs to be exercised in those situations where the parent comes to depend upon the adult for support outside their professional role. This situation should be discussed with senior management and where necessary referrals made to the appropriate support agency.

This means that adults should:

  • have no secret social contact with children and young people or their parents
  • consider the appropriateness of the social contact according to their role and nature of their work
  • always approve any planned social contact with children or parents with senior colleagues,
  • advise senior management of any social contact they have with a child or a parent with who whom they work, which may give rise to concern
  • report and record any situation, which may place a child at risk or which may compromise the organisation or their own professional standing
  • be aware that the sending of personal communications such as birthday or faith cards should always be recorded and/or discussed with line manager.
  • understand that some communications may be called into question and need to be justified.

Sexual Contact

All adults should clearly understand the need to maintain appropriate boundaries in their contacts with children and young people. Intimate or sexual relationships between children/young people and the adults who work with them will be regarded as a grave breach of trust. Allowing or encouraging a relationship to develop in a way which might lead to a sexual relationship is also unacceptable.
Any sexual activity between an adult and the child or young person with whom they work may be regarded as a criminal offence and will always be a matter for disciplinary action.
Children and young people are protected by specific legal provisions regardless of whether the child or young person consents or not. The sexual activity referred to does not just involve physical contact including penetrative and non-penetrative acts. It may also include non-contact activities, such as causing children to engage in or watch sexual activity or the production of pornographic material. 'Working Together to Safeguard Children'10, defines sexual abuse as “forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening”.

There are occasions when adults embark on a course of behaviour known as 'grooming' where the sole purpose is to gain the trust of a child, and manipulate that relationship so sexual abuse can take place. Adults should be aware that consistently conferring inappropriate special attention and favour upon a child might be construed as being part of a 'grooming' process and as such will give rise to concerns about their behaviour. This means that adults should not:

  • have sexual relationships with children and young people
  • have any form of communication with a child or young person which could be interpreted as sexually suggestive or provocative i.e. verbal comments, letters, notes, electronic mail, phone calls, texts, physical contact
  • make sexual remarks to, or about, a child/young person
  • discuss their own sexual relationships with or in the presence of children or young people

This means that adults should:

ensure that their relationships with children and young people clearly take place within the boundaries of a respectful professional relationship
take care that their language or conduct does not give rise to comment or speculation. Attitudes, demeanour and language all require care and thought, particularly when members of staff are dealing with adolescent boys and girls.

Physical Contact

Many jobs within the children’s workforce require physical contact with children as part of their role. There are also occasions when it is entirely appropriate for other adults to have some physical contact with the child or young person with whom they are working. However, it is crucial that in all circumstances, adults should only touch children in ways which are appropriate to their professional or agreed role and responsibilities.

Not all children and young people feel comfortable about physical contact, and adults should not make the assumption that it is acceptable practice to use touch as a means of communication. Permission should be sought from a child or young person before physical contact is made. Where the child is very young, there should be a discussion with the parent or carer about what physical contact is acceptable and/or necessary.

When physical contact is made with a child this should be in response to their needs at the time, of limited duration and appropriate to their age, stage of development, gender, ethnicity and background. It is not possible to be specific about the appropriateness of each physical contact, since an action that is appropriate with one child in one set of circumstances may be inappropriate in another, or with a different child. Adults, nevertheless, should use their professional judgement at all times, observe and take note of the child's reaction or feelings and – so far as is possible - use a level of contact and/or form of communication which is acceptable to the child for the minimum time necessary.

Physical contact which occurs regularly with an individual child or young person is likely to raise questions unless there is explicit agreement on the need for, and nature of, that contact. This would then be part of a formally agreed plan or within the parameters of established, agreed and legal professional protocols on physical contact e.g. sport activities or medical procedures. Any such arrangements should be understood and agreed by all concerned, justified in terms of the child's needs, consistently applied and open to scrutiny.

Physical contact should never be secretive, or for the gratification of the adult, or represent a misuse of authority. If an adult believes that their action could be misinterpreted, or if an action is observed by another as being inappropriate or possibly abusive, the incident and circumstances should be reported to the senior manager outlined in the procedures for handling allegations and an appropriate record made. Parents/carers should also be informed in such circumstances.

Where a child seeks or initiates inappropriate physical contact with an adult, the situation should be handled sensitively and care taken to ensure that contact is not exploited in any way. Careful consideration must be given to the needs of the child and advice and support given to the adult concerned.

It is recognised that some children who have experienced abuse may seek inappropriate physical contact. Adults should be particularly aware of this when it is known that a child has suffered previous abuse or neglect. In the child's view, physical contact might be associated with such experiences and lead to some actions being misinterpreted. In all circumstances where a child or young person initiates inappropriate physical contact, it is the responsibility of the adult to sensitively deter the child and help them understand the importance of personal boundaries. Such circumstances must always be reported and discussed with a senior manager and the parent/carer. This means that adults should:

  • be aware that even well intentioned physical contact may be misconstrued by the child, an observer or by anyone to whom this action is described
  • never touch a child in a way which may be considered indecent
  • always be prepared to report and explain actions and accept that all physical contact be open to scrutiny
  • not indulge in horseplay
  • always encourage children, where possible, to undertake self-care tasks independently
  • work within Health and Safety regulations
  • be aware of cultural or religious views about touching and always be sensitive to issues of gender
  • understand that physical contact in some circumstances can be easily misinterpreted

This means that organisations should:

  • ensure they have a system in place for recording incidents and the means by which information about incidents and outcomes can be easily accessed by senior management
  • make adults aware of relevant professional or organisational guidance in respect of physical contact with children and meeting medical needs of children and young people where appropriate
  • be explicit about what physical contact is appropriate for adults working in their setting

Other Activities that require Physical Contact

Adults who work in certain settings, for example sports drama or outdoor activities will have to initiate some physical contact with children, for example to demonstrate technique in the use of a particular piece of equipment, adjust posture, or perhaps to support a child so they can perform an activity safely or prevent injury. Such activities should be carried out in accordance with existing codes of conduct, regulations and best practice.

Physical contact should take place only when it is necessary in relation to a particular activity. It should take place in a safe and open environment i.e. one easily observed by others and last for the minimum time necessary. The extent of the contact should be made clear to the parent/carer and once agreed, should be undertaken with the permission of the child/young person. Contact should be relevant to their age or understanding and adults should remain sensitive to any discomfort expressed verbally or non-verbally by the child.

Guidance and protocols around safe and appropriate physical contact are provided by national organisations, for example sports governing bodies or major arts organisations, or the employing organisation and should be understood and applied consistently. Any incidents of physical contact that cause concern or fall outside of these protocols and guidance should be reported to the senior manager and parent or carer.

It is good practice if all parties clearly understand at the outset, what physical contact is necessary and appropriate in undertaking specific activities. Keeping parents/carers, children and young people informed of the extent and nature of any physical contact may also prevent allegations of misconduct or abuse arising. This means that adults should:

  • treat children with dignity and respect and avoid contact with intimate parts of the body 
  • always explain to a child the reason why contact is necessary and what form that contact will take 
  • seek consent of parents where a child or young person is unable to do so because of a disability. 
  • consider alternatives, where it is anticipated that a child might misinterpret any such contact, 
  • be familiar with and follow recommended guidance and protocols
  • conduct activities where they can be seen by others
  • be aware of gender, cultural or religious issues that may need to be considered prior to initiating physical contact

This means that organisations should:

  • have up to date guidance and protocols on appropriate physical contact in place that promote safe practice and include clear expectations of behaviour and conduct.
  • ensure that staff are made aware of this guidance and that safe practice is continually promoted through supervision and training.

Behaviour Management

All children and young people have a right to be treated with respect and dignity even in those circumstances where they display difficult or challenging behaviour.

Adults should not use any form of degrading treatment to punish a child. The use of sarcasm, demeaning or insensitive comments towards children and young people is not acceptable in any situation. Any sanctions or rewards used should be part of a behaviour management policy which is widely publicised and regularly reviewed.

The use of corporal punishment is not acceptable and whilst there may a legal defence for parents who physically chastise their children, this does not extend, in any circumstances, to those adults who work with or on behalf of children and young people.

Where children display difficult or challenging behaviour, adults must follow the behaviour policy outlined by their place of work, and use strategies appropriate to the circumstance and situation. The use of physical intervention can only be justified in exceptional circumstances and must be used as a last resort when other behaviour management strategies have failed.

Where a child has specific needs in respect of particularly challenging behaviour, a positive handling plan may be drawn up and agreed by all parties. Only in these circumstances should an adult deviate from the behaviour management policy of the organisation. This means that adults should:

  • not use force as a form of punishment
  • try to defuse situations before they escalate
  • inform parents of any behaviour management techniques used
  • adhere to the organisation’s behaviour management policy
  • be mindful of factors which may impact upon a child or young person’s behaviour e.g. bullying, abuse and where necessary take appropriate action

This means that organisations should:

  • have in place appropriate behaviour management policies
  • where appropriate, develop positive handling plans in respect of an individual child or young person.

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