Even at the most diligent, high-quality ECE programs, things go wrong: A child gets hurt. Someone is left out on the playground after the rest of the class goes inside. A young Houdini slips away through a hole in the fence to the outside world.
How you respond to these sorts of incidents can make or break your program – especially in this age of hyper-connected parents, online review sites, and instant social media blasts.
While every crisis is unique, here are some general guidelines that can help you successfully navigate the treacherous waters:
1. Apologize. Profusely, if warranted. Do it right and do it sincerely. Keep in mind that a good apology neither minimizes the problem (“Colby was only outside on his own for a few minutes!”) nor blames the victim (“We all know Amelia is a wily little monkey who can scale any fence”).
2. Focus, in a non-defensive way, on what you did right. “As soon as we realized Colby was missing, we brought in an extra teacher for coverage in the Chipmunk room so that his teachers could run back out to the playground and track him down.”
3. Explain the steps you have taken to prevent the problem happening again in the future. “We’ve now instituted a double-count system for each class when they come back from the playground – once when they all line up outside and once more after they’ve come back in.”
4. Apologize again. See above.
5. Don’t throw your teachers under the bus. The buck stops with you, the program owner or administrator, when it comes to the safety and well-being of the children at your school. Parents assume, quite reasonably, that this includes proper selection and training of your teaching staff.
If the mistake is such that teacher discipline or termination is warranted, by all means do that, but know that the final responsibility for what happened still rests with you.
6. Notify the school community. If the problem is the sort that will likely start making the gossip rounds (and, let’s be honest – unless it involves a pre-verbal child, the involved kid will undoubtedly rat everyone out anyway!), be proactive and issue an announcement to the school community explaining the facts of the situation, and the corrective steps, as noted above.
Even if it’s a small school and everyone knows the involved players, be careful not to mention the involved child(ren) or teacher(s) by name.
7. Respond as needed on social media. If you become aware that the incident is being discussed on social media – maybe on your school’s own Facebook page, or a parent’s – you cannot simply stick your head in the sand and hope it blows over.
It’s vital that you respond as soon as possible in a responsible, non-defensive, fact-based way. Encourage people with additional questions or concerns to contact you directly; do not get into a lot of lengthy exchanges on the social media platform itself.
And, once again, remember to maintain confidentiality (even if someone else is naming names right there on Facebook, don’t do it yourself).
8. Make yourself available. Don’t just say you’ll be available if people have additional questions or concerns. Do it. Maybe establish some additional office hours or (for big stuff) even consider giving out your home or cell phone number. Most people are not going to actually track you down, but your willingness to put yourself out there will count for a lot.
9. Consider calling a lawyer. Yes, I know – ugh. Nobody ever likes to get to this point. It’s scary and it can be expensive. But if the problem is very serious, the result of negligence (or, even worse, deliberate misconduct) on the part of a staff member, and/or if you have the sense that someone might file a lawsuit, it’s better to bite the bullet sooner rather than later to minimize the damage and plan your next steps. It’s also a good idea to meticulously document everything, from start to finish, as it happens.
We all, alas, make mistakes. How you respond to them will make a world of difference to your future trustworthiness and business success.
The bottom line is that you want to appear calm, honest, sincerely apologetic, and non-defensive – all while giving the situation the level of attention and concern it deserves.
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