When you drop your young child off at a daycare or other childcare facility, you do so with the expectation that the adults in charge will watch over them with the authority that’s necessary to ensure they remain safe. But when does “necessary” cross into “unnecessary” in child daycare discipline? How do you know if a firm hand turns into too firm of a hand? And what should you, as a the parent, do when you suspect disciplinary action has been taken a step too far? 

We’re here to answer those questions for you, and more.

Q: Are daycare facilities legally allowed to discipline my child?

A: This can be a tricky question to answer. That’s because the word “discipline” has so many definitions and methods associated with it. While “discipline” itself isn’t necessarily illegal, certain types absolutely are. And in general, when it comes to children, discipline should only be used in an effort to keep them safe, or to teach them about the necessity of being safe. It should never be used to coerce, shame, or harm them in any way.

Q: Is physical discipline allowed?

A: A daycare facility should never, ever physically harm your child in any way, for any reason—whether it’s grabbing, pinching, spanking, or other. The staff members should actually refrain from physically touching your child as much as possible, unless an emergency situation calls for it (such as a child choking), or if the child themselves enacts the physical engagement (such as seeking out a hug). Abstaining from physical contact is a wise and precautionary intention on the part of the daycare facility in order to avoid accidentally or unintentionally harming children in any way.

Q: So what kind of discipline is allowed?

A: Again, this can be a difficult answer to pinpoint. But in the simplest of terms, it’s whatever safe, non-damaging discipline you’ve agreed to with your daycare facility. And knowing what you’ve agreed to with your daycare facility or other caretaker comes first and foremost from understanding the methods and preferences they have in place for their business.

Q: How do I find out what kind of discipline my daycare facility uses?

A: You ask! You can’t know what you don’t seek to know. Asking questions about discipline should be one of the first steps you take when vetting various childcare facilities for your children to attend. If you don’t agree with their caretaking methods, then it’s not going to be the right fit for your and your children. Often, when you do finally decide upon a facility you’d like your child to attend, you’ll be a given some kind of agreement or maybe even a waiver to sign. Scrutinize this paperwork carefully so you understand what to expect from the childcare methods that are going to be used. And ask questions about anything and everything you don’t understand—namely, anything that might seem to be missing from the agreement.

Q: If I sign a waiver, and my child is injured, do I relinquish my rights to sue?

A: Absolutely not. Waivers for discipline and injury are tactics daycare facilities use in an effort to dissuade parents from taking legal action against them. They create them and have parents sign them as an attempt to make parents think they have no ground to stand on when something goes wrong. But the reality is, if such waivers could be held up in a court of law, it would essentially give these facilities the leeway to create unsafe environments and even harm your children as freely as they want.

Q: What kind of disciplinary methods (if any) should I be looking for in a daycare facility?

A: This answer comes down to your own childrearing preferences and methods as a parent. But in general, the latest healthy developmental methods point to caretakers using an establishment of stable routines and clear expectations, positive reinforcement methods, open communication, checks and balances, and a team approach where applicable. Together, the combination of these elements have been shown to serve as the best backdrop for healthy, safe, and positively constructive discipline for children.

Q: When can discipline be used as grounds for a daycare abuse claim?

A: The list for qualifying daycare abuse claims is varied, but can include:

  • Spanking or hitting a child
  • Using profanity when speaking to a child
  • Preventing a child from eating, drinking, or using the bathroom
  • Confining a child to a small, close-off area like a closet
  • Using any kind of restraints on a child
  • Letting children punish or abuse each other
  • Administration of any other cruel, harsh, or unusual punishment

Q: What if disciplinary methods used aren’t abusive, but I decide I don’t like them?

A: You always have the power to pull your child out of that daycare facility. You have no obligation to keep your child somewhere you don’t feel they are safe or respected—regardless of contracts signed or fees paid. And even when the discipline isn’t physical, there is such a thing as discipline that’s gotten too excessive, and these types of decisions can still be damaging to your child in other ways. For example, if your child is put on timeouts that keep them continuously isolated from others, this could affect their mental wellbeing.

Q: What are the signs of possible excessive disciplinary action?

A: Children may not always be able to verbalize if and when they’re being treated inappropriately, so it’s up to you as the parent to keep an eye out for things like:

  • Drastic changes in your child’s normal behavior
  • Regressive behavior, or a sudden lack of learned skills (such as potty training)
  • Unexplained injuries 
  • Extreme thirst or hunger upon pickup from the facility
  • Trouble sleeping or recurring nightmares

Q: What should I do if I suspect physical discipline is being used?

A: First, if your child has been physically injured in any way during their time at a daycare facility, you should immediately get them the medical attention they need. After they’ve been treated by doctor, you should not take them back to the facility until you or the authorities discern the cause of the injuries (and even then, taking them back may not be a viable option). If abuse of any kind is suspected, you should report your concerns to the daycare and request they conduct an investigation into the matter. If further concerns reveal themselves, you or the facility may want to then contact the proper channels for further investigation. A great place to start is with the Missouri Children’s Division Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-800-392-3738. And if you want to bring a claim or lawsuit against the facility that caused your child harm, you should always hire a Missouri daycare injury lawyer to help you do so.