For all Head Start programs, the most important priority is to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of the children and families they serve. The regulatory provision governing how staff must promote health and safety are known as the “standards of conduct” which are often referred to as the “code of conduct.” Historically, health and safety violations have been one of the leading causes for deficiency findings. According to the Office of Head Start’s 2014 Report to Congress, three-fourths of all deficiencies in that year were due to “Code of Conduct” violations.
Under the Designated Renewal System (DRS), the stakes for deficiency findings are higher than they have ever been, requiring agencies to re-compete for their grants or even leading up to termination of the grant. Unfortunately, many Head Start agencies receive deficiency findings for minor isolated incidents despite the fact that the definition of “deficiency” under the Head Start Act requires a finding that there is a “systemic or substantial material failure of an agency…” Head Start Act § 637(2).
Your Head Start program’s human resources department can play a pivotal role in avoiding deficiency findings for such minor incidents by taking advantage of the following tips.
- Train staff on the standards of conduct and other health and safety policies and procedures.
We all know that Head Start staff must abide by the agency’s written standards of conduct by among other things, ensuring children are supervised, refraining from the use of corporal punishment, verbal and physical abuse, and other egregious behavior. In addition, staff members will need to know how to comply with reporting requirements for suspected abuse and neglect under your state and local law. The first step in ensuring adherence to these requirements is to provide training. Often programs provide safety training during the pre-service meetings with staff before the school year. Don’t forget regular intermittent training throughout the school year to refresh everyone’s memories and make-up training for staff members absent during regularly scheduled trainings or staff members that start their positions later in the school year. The HR department should coordinate with supervisors to help schedule training and make sure everyone throughout the agency has received all necessary trainings to promote the health and safety of children and families.
- Regularly monitor compliance.
After the staff has been trained on the standards of conduct find out whether the training was effective. HR can help coordinate and track monitoring responsibilities and identify the need for any adjustments to the written procedures to make sure they actually work. If management observes problems maybe additional training is in order. If that doesn’t do the trick, see tip #3.
- Recognize and address the stressors facing staff.
In our trainings throughout the country we have had the opportunity to meet a lot of Head Start staff that are extremely dedicated to the Head Start mission and care deeply for the children and families they serve on a day-to-day basis. But let’s face it; this is not an easy job, particularly for teaching staff. It seems that every day the responsibilities for Head Start staff increase, without a commensurate increase in compensation. Too much stress can cause anyone to behave in ways that they are not proud of. The Head Start standards recognize the importance of this point by requiring programs to take into account staff mental health and wellness by providing information on staff health issues that affect their job performance. Help staff identify resources and practices designed to help reduce stress. Maybe additional breaks, moral support, or more specialized training will help staff adhere to the standards of conduct.
- Impose appropriate punishment for violations.
In addition to training, tweaking your procedures and addressing stress, your HR Department may have to appropriately penalize staff for failing to follow your health and safety standards. The key word here is “appropriate” and that’s not just our language. The relevant regulation states that “Personnel policies and procedures must include appropriate penalties for staff, consultants, and volunteers who violate the standards of conduct.” 45 C.F.R. §1302.90 (c)(2). In reaction to this high stakes world of DRS, we have counseled a number of Head Start programs that immediately propose firing teaching staff for failure to supervise a child for even one minute. Nothing in the Head Start Act or the Head Start Program Performance Standards requires such a drastic measure. The HR Department can help conduct an internal investigation to determine the cause of alleged infractions to the standards of conduct and other safety policies and procedures. Rather than jumping to conclusions, consider removing the staff member from contact with children pending that investigation and imposing a suspension, with or without pay, depending on the circumstances. After the investigation is complete, think about what penalty makes the most sense including a verbal reprimand or further suspension. Remember, simply firing staff members for minor infractions is not the best way to promote recruitment and retention of competent staff and may negatively affect overall morale.
- Maintain records reflecting your organization’s systems related to health and safety
One of the best ways that the HR department can help your Head Start program avoid health and safety deficiency findings is to maintain the documentation that demonstrates your program’s systems designed to promote health and safety. This includes the most up-to-date version of your organization’s standards of conduct, sign-in sheets for trainings (including documentation of make-up trainings), internal monitoring tools, correspondence with state and local licensing and reporting agencies, internal investigation reports, and HR documentation regarding reprimands, suspensions and termination. When the reviewers get it wrong, these documents can be used to appeal a deficiency finding along with a letter disputing the finding to the Office of Head Start.
For a more in depth discussion on how to avoid health and safety deficiency findings join FTLF for our AMS 2.0…Are You Ready?: Live Training with Case Studies. We’ll use real life scenarios to give members of your HR Department and other management a better understanding of how to implement Head Start requirements to promote health and safety in your program.