Positive relationships

How do we recognise and respond to neglect in the Early Years?

Part one of a four-part series on child safeguarding
Emotional abuse with Rachel Buckler
June 23, 2021
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With Famly since

In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • How might signs of child neglect show up on the day-to-day at your Early Years setting? In this article, we’ll explore how we can sharpen our awareness of neglect in the Early Years.
  • Neglect can take many forms, and children can express these in lots of different ways. We’ll go through the most common causes and symptoms you should look out for.
  • This article is the first of a four-part series on safeguarding, written by Rachel Buckler. Stay tuned for part two, which will address emotional abuse.

We can sometimes overcomplicate our approaches to safeguarding and child protection.

We might worry that we don’t have enough knowledge about the subject, or we may be underconfident in engaging in appropriate practices and interventions. I recognise this when working with many early years practitioners, and particularly when delivering training. 

Safeguarding and child protection can invite uncertainty over whether we’re following best practice guidelines, or if we’re making things needlessly complex. So in this four-part series, I’d like to present how we can make this practice simpler, and easier to follow in your own setting. 

In its simplest form, you can provide effective safeguarding and child protection by considering the following five elements.  

  • Identify - What do we know about the child? What is happening? What does this tell us about the child and their situation?
  • Help – Is the level of need for the child as such that they would benefit from early interventions or help that would support their well-being or make them safe?
  • Protect – Does the child need protection and require us to take actions that prevent them from experiencing significant harm or the risk of significant harm?
  • Report – Who do we need to talk to about our concerns? What are the processes that we should follow?
  • Manage – How do we engage with appropriate processes and procedures that safeguard and protect children? How will our role as early years practitioners contribute to the ongoing processes that help and protect them?

Why we need to talk about neglect

Out of all four categories of safeguarding (emotional, physical, sexual abuse and neglect), neglect is most often identified in social care assessments undertaken for children.

Statistically, there has been a year-on-year increase of children experiencing neglect in one form or another. Neglect can stand alone, but it often co-exists alongside factors that involve other categories of abuse.

The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, which evaluates rapid reviews and serious case reviews in England, stated in May 2021 that “neglect was the primary form of serious harm to children”. Its annual report drew upon data from January through December 2020, while recognising the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in its findings.

Defining neglect in the Early Years

In 2018, the DfE defined neglect as follows: 

Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse. Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to: 

  • Provide adequate food, clothing and shelter (including exclusion from home or abandonment) 
  • Protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger 
  • Ensure adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate care-givers) 
  • Ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs.

How neglect can take shape for children

Neglect can take many forms. You might identify it by some of the following signs: 

  • Children whose basic and essential needs to thrive and develop are not met. For example, their health is impaired because they do not have adequate food, clothing, warmth, hygiene, or shelter.
  • Children whose health and well-being deteriorates over time. This can include weight loss, significant tooth decay, presenting as persistently dirty or unclean, or developing frequent minor illness and infections.
  • Children with special needs and disabilities who are not given the appropriate interventions needed to help their development and reach their potential.
  • Children who experience poor attachment between themselves and significant adults in their lives, such as parents. This includes a child whose parents are non-responsive to their emotional needs and do not provide consistent, supportive, and caring interactions towards them.
  • Children who are inadequately or poorly supervised. Perhaps their adult supervision is compromised, due to the adult being under the influence of alcohol and drugs. It can also include a child being left in the care of a younger sibling or being left at home alone.
  • Children whose parents prioritise their own needs or those of another person’s (often a relevant partner or someone with whom they are in a relationship) rather than their child’s needs.
  • Children who live in unsafe environments where hazards and dangers exist. This can include access to drugs and harmful substances or dangerous weapons that often go hand in hand with families associated with criminal activity or organised crime groups. 
  • Children who live with a family that present challenges for the child such as substance misuse, adult mental health problems and domestic abuse.

How might children express signs of neglect? 

There may be lots of reasons as to why a child experiences neglect. And for some children who may be showing initial signs of neglect, it’s critical we identify it early and apply the right interventions. 

Understanding the child’s circumstances, seeing the bigger picture, and taking time to talk to parents and carers to ascertain the reason for a concern as it emerges is better than waiting for the problem to escalate. 

Early signs of neglect, or triggers of neglect, can present themselves among young children in a number of ways:

  • Changes in their behaviour
  • Children who are tired and frequently sleepy
  • Poor hygiene and presentation
  • A hungry child who gorges on food
  • Family bereavement
  • Poor adult mental health
  • Homelessness 
  • Substance abuse
  • Parents new or recurring relationships with unsuitable adults

Individual practitioners can offer support to children who may be experiencing these early signs of neglect. They may be able to help a parent with children's’ sleep routines, or offer them nutritional advice. They could also sign post a parent to services who specialise in offering tailored support to them and their child. 

These early interventions work best when multiple groups or individuals get involved. This includes getting an assessment of children’s needs from more than one expert who knows the child and their family. Once we’ve got this assessment in place, it’s easier to create structures and milestones that help us ensure we’re helping children meet their needs.

Safeguarding against neglect with your team

Managing safeguarding and child protection concerns for a child experiencing neglect can involve lots of different factors.

The role of ‘lead professional’, when working with early help processes, will require a practitioner to coordinate responses from other agencies alongside of their own. They may present evidence of how the child is being cared for, and how their basic needs are (or are not) met by the child’s parents.

Designated safeguarding leads may be required to take decisive action and make referrals to social care in respect to their concerns about a child. They will also have responsibilities to report and make decisions about the extent to which a child is experiencing neglect, and if it’s necessary to pursue a child protection plan.

Monitoring a child’s wellbeing on an ongoing basis often includes considering their condition when they come into your setting. This helps us determine whether children are cared for and protected at home, and we’re meeting the objectives within our early help or child protection plan. 

This may include whether the child is provided with the following: 

  • Sufficient and nutritious food and drink
  • Appropriate care giving and supervision by parents and relevant adults
  • Taken to health appointments and developmental checks
  • Provided with a clean and safe home environment
  • Is offered supportive and caring interactions by parents who understand the emotional needs of their child

Understanding different forms of neglect

Neglect isn’t always easy to recognise. Sometimes it can take time to see a clear picture of what is happening. It’s important to understand the impact of neglect on young children, and to consider it from the child’s perspective. This child-centred approach to safeguarding acknowledges the child’s ‘lived experience’.

Neglect is most damaging when it results in a child experiencing significant harm. Harm can occur because of one stand-alone incident that endangers a child, or it can also take shape as a pattern of events that accumulate over time.

How we should act on our concerns

Of course, recording and reporting concerns about children is an important safeguarding procedure. Neglect is often best understood as a pattern of concerns that happens over time, so it’s important to record our concerns in chronological order. This gives practitioners a sharper picture of when and how they should respond.

Any member of staff who has knowledge of, or information about a child who is being neglected should always share this with their designated safeguarding lead.

If a child is at risk of significant harm, we should contact statutory services. If you and your team believe a child is in immediate danger, you should contact the police.

When considering child neglect, you should always take time to think through what’s happening in the life of a child. Do not make assumptions — rather, find opportunities to gather as much information as possible about a child’s situation. Refer to the definitions provided by Government guidance to influence your response and subsequent decision making when taking action.

The big ideas

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Learn more about Famly

Find out below from Neil Leitch about the impact of Famly at the Early Years Alliance, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.