SLU to Teach Skills to Intervene When Child Discipline Crosses the Line
ST. LOUIS – You’re at the store and you see a parent hit and scream at her child.
Should you intervene? Research shows that most people would look the other way.
In fact, experts don’t yet know the best way to handle these types of situations.
A grant to Saint Louis University from Missouri Foundation for Health will help find
“We’ve all been there. A two-year-old is kicking and screaming in the middle of the
grocery store and Mom reacts with a temper. Dad is in a hurry, forcefully tugging
his child down the street,” said Nancy Weaver, Ph.D., associate professor of behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University’s
College for Public Health and Social Justice and principal investigator for the project.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of reacting with judgment and anger, bystanders would
reach out a hand of support? We just don’t know what that hand looks like at this
point, but this project will help us develop and promote the most effective strategies.”
The $341,000 grant from Missouri Foundation for Health will fund a two-year pilot
project that examines the effectiveness of a training program for bystanders that
offers strategies on how to intervene and guidance on when to turn to authorities
if they see children being treated severely. The training will be accompanied by a
social media marketing campaign that reinforces messages during training and bolsters
approaches for bystander interventions, such as how to distract a child to assist
an overwhelmed parent.
Our goal is to get bystanders to take action, and give them the confidence that they
don’t have to watch in silence as children are being mistreated."
Nancy Weaver, Ph.D.
Weaver said she got the idea for bystander training from health professionals who
said they were uncomfortable watching some parents interact harshly with their children
in a hospital setting, yet didn’t know exactly what to do. “Hospitals and other community
settings have begun to institute ‘no hit’ policies, but we really don’t yet know if
those will work, if they might backfire or how to best support parents who are struggling,”
A total of 40 employees at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and affiliates
of Family Resource Center and Safe Connections will receive the initial training,
which will be guided by principles developed during fact-finding focus groups and
adapted from a successful sexual violence prevention approach.
“We plan to train people in the community who have expressed a need for prevention
strategies. We will address personal barriers to intervening and ask participants
what types of parent/child interactions they observe most often that make them uncomfortable,”
“We will then teach and model how to respond safely and effectively. Our goal is for
bystanders to become allies who create opportunities for parenting support.”
Each of the 40 employees will train 10 others, expanding the network of those who
are equipped to address child mistreatment. They will learn to identify parenting
behaviors that pose a threat to the child, connect with parents in a comfortable and
non-threatening way to de-escalate the situation that doesn’t jeopardize their own
or the child’s well-being, and share available resources to help parents who are overwhelmed.
“There are ways to diffuse the situation. It could be something as simple as saying,
‘It looks like you’re struggling. Going to the grocery store can be a real challenge
with a toddler. Can I grab your diaper bag so you don’t have to juggle that?’” Weaver
“You have to understand why people parent the way they do. Parents have different
philosophies about using physical punishment to discipline a child who misbehaves
and different values about parenting that are shaped by personal experience and community
context. Our goal is to get bystanders to take action, and give them the confidence
that they don’t have to watch in silence as children are being mistreated.”
Child mistreatment is a significant problem, Weaver noted. A recent study shows that
as many as a third of U.S. children are the subject of an investigation for abuse
or neglect before they turn 18.
“Evidence suggests that parents who are physically aggressive toward their child have
a greater potential for child abuse. Public maltreatment is a critical opportunity
for intervention,” she said.
The Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice is the only
academic unit of its kind, studying social, environmental and physical influences
that together determine the health and well-being of people and communities. It also
is the only accredited school or college of public health among nearly 250
Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States.
Guided by a mission of social justice and focus on finding innovative and collaborative
solutions for complex health problems, the College offers nationally recognized programs
in public health, social work, health administration, applied behavior analysis,
and criminology and criminal justice.
Missouri Foundation for Health is a resource for the region, working with communities and nonprofits to generate
and accelerate positive changes in health. As a catalyst for change, the Foundation
improves the health of Missourians through a combination of partnership, experience,
knowledge and funding.