‘Tis the Season: PPOs, Custody Orders and the Holidays

As we approach the holidays, visions of turkey and presents and family gatherings all float temptingly in our brains. After all, the last six weeks of the year are all about togetherness, right?

Not necessarily. Separation and divorce can be the exception to that long-held family rule, particularly at this time of the year. Emotions are heightened as we approach the holidays, which carry with them the expectations of shared parenting – and shared schedules.

Parents going through their first set of holidays apart can find themselves in unfamiliar space, jockeying for time with their kids and trying to manage competing schedules. As the acrimony level rises, patience can decline and tempers can flare.

This can be a bad recipe for childcare providers, whose first – and primary responsibility – is to ensure a safe environment for the children in their care. We always see an uptick in bad behavior and schedule struggles at this time of year for our childcare clients and wanted to share some tips that will make November and December easier:

  • Ensure the custody order in place is enforced. We tell our clients never to go on faith and to request a copy of the court order so they can have it on file. Then stick to that order – no exceptions. This eliminates the need for daycare staff to make judgment calls and takes subjectivity out of the equation.
  • Communicate adjustments to the classroom. It’s not enough for the administrative office to understand the custody arrangements. This needs to be communicated to the classroom teachers and aides to ensure they know who can – and who cannot – pick up a child.
  • Enforce PPOs consistently. Personal protection orders can be used like sticks and carrots, punishing bad behavior and rewarding good. We see this often where a mom has taken a PPO order out against a dad, then comes in to tell the office, “He’s been better, it’s OK for him to pick up our child.” This puts the daycare team in the position of being a judge and can create serious liability and safety issues. It’s always best to stick to the order. If a parent pushes back, encourage them to go to court and get it amended.
  • Be ready for events. Year-end can mean a spate of classroom parties, plays and performances that require both parents to appear in the same space at the same time. This can increase the likelihood of volatility and create potentially dangerous situations. We teach de-escalation strategies to our clients so they are equipped to remain calm during parental fireworks and quickly and safely calm all parties.

Rethinking Lockdown: Age-Appropriate Safety Drills

Back to school means new crayons, new backpacks, new teachers, new friends – and new safety drills.

Fire drills have long been a fact of life in our schools. In fact, I dare you to find an elementary classroom where the kids can’t finish this set of commands: Stop. Drop.

Of course the answer is Roll – and of course, that’s what we teach children to do in the event of a fire. Each month, from kindergarten to high school, teachers routinely conduct fire drills. They are engrained in our culture – we conduct fire drills and there’s no fear associated with them.

The same can’t be said of safety drills, though. Increasingly, we are seeing a pushback from schools, teachers and parents who object to practice for sheltering in place or lockdowns. The disparity in response is puzzling – fire can kill as much as gunfire, yet we see a visceral fear when it comes to safety drills that just isn’t there for fire drills.

We are strong advocates for age-appropriate safety drills. It’s less important for kids, particularly younger kids, to understand why they are practicing certain movements than to understand the movements themselves. It’s a case of stimulus-response: When you hear this noise, it means we have to move to this area and be quiet – just as when you hear the fire alarm, it means you have to line up and exit the classroom and then the school quickly and quietly.

When younger kids ask why we are doing a particular drill, it’s OK to be general. We have found it works to tell them that there are some emergencies where to be safe, we have to leave the building – but other times, we have to stay inside to be safe. Framing it as practicing being safe within the classroom is a non-scary way to broach the subject.

Of course, the answer is age dependent. High schoolers will know – and likely have less anxiety over – the reason behind the drills. Even middle schoolers may have some concept of the reasons behind a drill.

For younger children, though, such as daycare, kindergarten and early elementary, safety drills are more designed for teachers to practice and understand the spacing issues. Do all the kids fit in this area? How quickly can I get the door locked?

We recommend that schools practice safety drills at least twice a year. These should consist of:

  • Establishing a simple alert: Schools could use the public address system, but they need to have a back-up of some type, such as an air horn, verbal alert or something that can’t be easily defeated by a technology fail. When it comes to alert, two is one and one is none, so be sure to have a backup.
  •  Recognizing the safe areas of the classroom: We helps schools identify this during the site assessment. They want to pick spots away from doors, our of the line of site from windows and preferably behind a locked or secured door.
  • Understanding what you can physically do: The capabilities of the school will determine the protocol, so it’s critical to understand what the building will and will not do. It’s not enough to say that you have to lock or barricade the door to a classroom – some classroom doors have no locks while others open from the outside. A site assessment will allow teachers to identify the protocol that works best with their facility.

Approaching safety drills in an age-appropriate way ensures students practice the movements they need to respond quickly in a crisis, giving both parents and teachers added peace of mind.

Situational awareness, not “stranger danger” is the best strategy for keeping kids safe

Situational awareness, not “stranger danger” is the best strategy for keeping kids safe

The concept of “stranger danger” is a common one for parents to employ when trying to ensure their children are safe.

But that practice is limiting and doesn’t take into account a key factor: If harm is done to a child, it is more likely to be by someone known to the family, and sometimes someone who is trusted.

I know this doesn’t fit the common narrative in our society, but the fact is that predators, particularly sexual predators, tend to be people who are friends or acquaintances. Actual abductions by strangers are rare.

What’s more, there are plenty of times strangers can be helpful to children, such as police officers in uniform or staff members at a zoo if a child is lost.

So what I advocate is situational awareness for children. This approach helps instill in children the need for them to be aware without shifting to paranoia. Children need to be reassured that they are going to be protected but they also need to be empowered to be part of that protection.

It is a good idea to help our children understand their surroundings and what is acceptable in terms of adult behavior.

Emphasize to your children that they can say “no” to an adult when they are uncomfortable or when an adult is trying to force them to do something they know is wrong. Adults never need to ask a child for help. If an adult asks a child for help finding a puppy turn and run away.

Prepare your child for the worst case scenario: If someone tries to grab them, do everything possible – bite, kick, scream, make noise and run as fast as they can – to get away or get attention.

There are practical ways to prepare your child to be aware of surroundings. For one, play memorization games with them to help them pay attention, such as asking what color was the car next to us in the parking lot, or the color of someone’s hair while we were standing in line. It’s a fun way to get their minds focused on awareness. I now find my kids noticing things I didn’t.

Teach kids to introduce themselves to people, look someone in the eye and say their name at least loudly enough to be heard. Why? It shows attention and an appropriate amount of assertiveness. Research shows that offenders tend to choose victims who exhibit victim behavior – not paying attention, head down, walking with no purpose.

Lastly, I want to share a caution with parents about Facebook. It is so tempting to share happy moments but be aware of how information can be used. If you put a picture of your daughter on Facebook wishing her a happy birthday by name, that is all information that can be used to try to entice a child. Limit the information you use and, most importantly, use privacy settings.

While we don’t want to induce paranoia, we want to encourage common sense and paying attention to surroundings as sure ways for parents and children to feel secure.