The following best practices support the planning and implementation of safe and high-quality youth programs. University requirements may also apply, and are referenced within each section as applicable.
Prior to an event or activity
Define your purpose, youth participant target audience, and goals for the program. Plan safe and developmentally appropriate activities. Assess and mitigate the risks involved with different activities. Review and incorporate the requirements of APS 10.13: Requirements for University and Third Party Youth Programs. Review and plan to meet all other relevant UW, state, and federal policies.
Children are at risk for abuse no matter the age. However, the age of your participants correlates with specific needs in terms of supervision and risks associated with activities. A mixed age group presents unique risks to be addressed.
- Pre-K aged children (age 0-5) need help with basic needs including feeding, toileting, and safely navigating movement between locations. They require very close supervision and a structured schedule.
- Elementary aged children (age 6-11) are more able to care for their own basic needs but require somewhat more structured activities, and close supervision at all times.
- Middle and early high school aged teens (age 12-15) may be able to manage their time more freely than younger children, but still require supervision at all times.
- Older youth (age 16-17) may come and go to a program independently, such as by car or transit. They also may be able to successfully participate in less structured, more ambitious activities safely. You still are responsible for providing supervision while they are participating in your program.
Seek out environments that suit your age group. Assess any potential hazards, especially if in a space designed for adults, such as equipment that may cause injuries to minors if not properly supervised. Plan routes around campus that steer clear of loading docks or other potential fall zones and streets with car or bus traffic. Have a plan for indoor activities in the case of inclement weather or poor air quality.
For any space that has potential hazards for youth:
- Ensure that parents have been made fully aware of the environment and associated risks, and sign an acknowledgement of risk indicating their permission.
- Ensure that staff are trained to prevent and address injury, and in proper supervision to monitor and protect youth.
- Orient and train youth prior to setting out into the environment- give clear guidelines for conduct and instruct on how to safely navigate the setting. Clearly articulate any prohibited behaviors that may cause harm to themselves or others
Plan your program activities using Universal Design principles, incorporating features to make your program accessible for all participants, regardless of ability. Solicit accommodation requests from all participants ahead of the start of the program in order to have time to meet the requests. Contact the UW Disability Services Office (DSO) if you receive a request that you are not sure how to meet or want to consult on. Honor all requests and never decline a request without consultation with and approval from DSO.
- UW Disability Services Office
- UW Accessible Technology
- Assessing Risks in Your Youth Program
- Policies and Laws Regarding Minors
- Virtual Youth Programming
- APS 10.13 Policy Resource Guide
- Managing camp liability (NACUA Notes): Comprehensive guide for camp policies, operating practices, forms and agreements.
Be intentional in screening and selecting prospective volunteers and employees. Review qualifications and carry out background checks for all relevant paid and volunteer positions.
The screening process is a way to surface risky behavior traits that can’t be caught through a criminal background check. Use all application materials, including personal statements, interviews, and reference checks. Findings from the screening process may indicate a person should not be put in a position of power or influence over a young person.
Your screening process should enable you to assess the following three characteristics:
- Motivation – why does this person want to engage with youth?
Look for genuine interest in working with youth that aligns with personal goals, education or career aspirations.
Screen out candidates who aren’t interested in working with youth. Be wary of candidates who don’t have any hobbies or volunteer activities besides those involving youth.
- Attitudes – what does this person think and feel about youth?
Look for statements about youth that align with values of your program and a belief that youth have potential to be successful in your program.
Screen out people who exhibit a judgmental or otherwise negative attitude towards young people.
- Approach – what skills will this person bring to their work with youth?
Look for prior education, training and experience in child/youth development; a flexible, equitable approach to dealing with people of varied backgrounds and temperaments.
Screen out candidates you are concerned would not keep the professional boundaries you set in your program.
Anyone in a position deemed authorized personnel by APS 10.13 Requirements for University and Third Party Led Youth Programs is required to complete a background check. This applies to both volunteer and paid staff positions. This process is initiated through the Youth Program Registration System. View more information about the background check process through the Youth Program Registration System.
Those who do not fit the definition of authorized personnel but are in a position deemed a security/safety sensitive position will also require a background check. Follow UW HR guidelines for carrying out these background checks. Contact HR Operations at email@example.com or 206-543-2544 with additional questions about this process.
- Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-Serving Organizations: CDC publication with examples and guidance on applications, interview questions, and reference checks
- American Camp Association’s 14 Questions to Identify Potential Hiring Risks at Camp
- APS 10.13 Policy Resource Guide
- UW HR Background checks: Rationale and Process
Sufficient onboarding and pre-service training equips staff to provide a safe environment for youth, foster positive development, and reduce risk of harm. Consider what a staff person needs in order to effectively do their job.
Important training topics include:
- Conduct expectations for staff and participants
- Emergency response and preparedness
- Equity and inclusion in youth programs
- First aid, including managing medications
- Handling conflict between youth
- HR and personnel related policies
- Key program components (e.g., activities and schedule) and related expectations for staff roles
- Parent communication (as applicable)
- Reporting Suspected Child Abuse or Neglect (online training required of any new UW employee or volunteer)
- Promoting Safe Interactions with Youth (online training required of authorized personnel per APS 10.13)
- Tips on facilitating activities with youth
- Youth development (e.g., how to safely and effectively work with the specific age of youth you are serving)
Offer training online to make the most of limited in-person pre-service time with your staff. Follow up on these topics in-person to assess understanding and reinforce key points. Reserve content that is best addressed in person for an in-person pre-service training session, if possible.
Develop a tracking system, such as an onboarding checklist, to ensure all employees and volunteers complete required training and onboarding activities. Completion of requirements under APS 10.13 is tracked through the Youth Program Registration System.
- UW youth program volunteer Policies and Procedures [PDF]
- Reporting Suspected Child Abuse & Promoting Safe Interactions with Youth Online Trainings
- David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality Youth Work Methods Trainings
- Washington State Core Competencies for Child and Youth Development Professionals
- Staff and Participant Conduct Codes
Overnight programs present a unique set of challenges that must be managed carefully. Please be aware of the following safety precautions:
Preparing for your overnight program
- Additional supervision is required for overnight programs. See the Supervision Ratio section of this guide for acceptable staff to participant ratios based on the participant age group.
- Consider who else might be sharing your overnight facility during your stay. Will your participants be able to interact with others? What risks might that pose and how can you mitigate them?
- Consider who has access to the facilities. Who can access what parts of the facility? How will you prevent unknown individuals from accessing your facility?
- As applicable, establish guidelines and protocols for:
- Shared room arrangements. How many participants will share a room? Will participants be separated by biological sex? How will you serve and include non-binary individuals?
- Which areas of the hosting facility are available for use by participants, when, and under what circumstances.
- Use and supervision of higher risk areas, such as bathrooms, stairwells, exits, etc.
- Curfew. How will curfew be enforced and by whom? What will happen if curfew is violated?
- Facility features like windows or balconies. Are these off-limits/locked during your program? Under what circumstances are they allowable for use?
- Emergencies or missing participants. Make a plan to collect whatever information you might need to effectively locate a missing participant and/or communicate with their family.
- Review and make plans to abide by any additional applicable guidance, such as those imposed by your host facility or by external agencies.
- With consideration to COVID-19, CDC guidelines for overnight camps and activities requirements/ guidances are outlined by the WA State government in this document linked.
During your overnight program
- Conduct a thorough orientation to the facility.
- Inform participants about emergency exit locations, safety protocols and common meeting areas in the event of an emergency or building evacuation. Make sure that participants know who to contact if they have an emergency while at the facility.
- Review all guidelines and protocols, even those you communicated ahead of time, to be sure everyone understands them and has a chance to ask questions.
- Program staff should not enter participant rooms alone. If it is necessary to enter a room to check on a participant, two staff members should be present at all times. In emergency situations, when another staff member is not available, the door(s) must remain open at all times.
- Adults should use separate facilities than youth, or use facilities when youth are not present.
During an event or activity
Plan for and communicate clearly who is responsible for supervision at all times. In many cases, the University is assuming responsibility for supervising children who participate in your event. University representatives must be equipped to safely supervise children in your care.
In some instances, e.g., school visits to campus or family friendly events, the expectation may be that teachers or parents supervise their own children. Even in these circumstances children may be separated from their group and the University must have safeguards in place to prevent children from harm. University representatives should be trained to monitor the environment and properly respond to situations of lost children.
Ensure there are enough adults supervising activities. Below are recommended ratios from the American Camp Association:
- <5 years 1 staff for each 5 overnight campers and 1 staff for each 6 day campers
- 6–8 years 1:6 for overnight, and 1:8 for day
- 9–14 years 1:8 for overnight and 1:10 for day
- 15–18 years 1:10 for overnight and 1:12 for day
Plan for adequate supervision by adding a ‘floating’ or ‘roving’ qualified adult to fill any gaps due to breaks, absences, and to help with transitions. When welcoming outside groups accompanied by adults, set expectations for adequate supervision by stating minimum adult to child ratios.
Youth under age 16 should not be left unsupervised for any period of time while participating in your program. If they are given free time, ensure there are staff members on duty to supervise any areas where youth are allowed to hang out.
Limit independent free time for older youth (aged 16-18). Include guidelines for acceptable use of free time, such as limits to how far they can go or what they should not do. Have older youth sign in and out when they leave the program premises. Be sure you have their contact information.
Interactions between adults and youth should be actively monitored in any program setting. Supervisors or program managers should incorporate this into their responsibilities and include regular monitoring, both scheduled and unannounced, in their daily practice. Virtual interactions should also be monitored if this is part of your program model.
Reinforce expectations for behavior with staff, youth and their parents/guardians that are included in the conduct codes and/or group agreements made at the beginning of a program. Address all violations of conduct code with the appropriate level of corrective action that matches the severity of the behavior.
Avoid virtual interactions with youth under the age of 13 that require use of a child’s personal contact information, e.g., a personal email, cell or social media account.
Limit one-on-one interactions by:
- Using the ‘rule of three,’ i.e., two adults and one child or two children and one adult in all interactions including virtual interactions.
- If a youth needs to be pulled aside for an individual conversation, do so in the same room as where the rest of the group remains.
- Conducting one-on-one work, such as individual tutoring sessions, in a group setting with other adults around.
One-on-one mentoring as part of a program brings unique value and also unique challenges. Ways to reduce risk in mentoring settings include:
- Set limits on allowable locations for mentoring to occur. At the school the youth attends, in certain public settings on campus, or other locations where known adults will be present are optimal for ensuring transparency.
- Set limits on the frequency and timing of mentoring encounters. Encourage mentoring schedules that exclude late night or weekend interactions, when possible. Create a regular schedule and share with parents of the youth to reinforce transparency of the encounters.
- Set limits on what mentors and youth discuss. Mentors in UW programs typically have a specific academic or career focused purpose underlying the relationship. While the personal connection and rapport between mentor and mentee is also important, coach the mentor to channel the rapport they have built into a meaningful conversation about the future career or education interests of the youth.
- Mentors are not serving as therapists or social workers. Train mentors to handle disclosures of extreme personal hardship in a thoughtful and sensitive manner, with redirection to professional support as applicable.
- Set aside official program social media accounts, phones, or email addresses for use by mentors. Allowing mentors and mentees to communicate virtually via social media, email, or text lead to interactions that are difficult to monitor.
- Consider group mentoring. Mentoring in small groups (2-4) can be just as rewarding for youth, and it allows them to learn from each other as well as allowing for the mentor to have a greater impact on more youth. Safe interactions (including the rule of three) are inherently built into the model.
- UW online training Promoting Safe Interactions with Youth
- Participant Conduct Codes
- Preventing Child Sexual Abuse in Youth Serving Organizations: Component 2: Guidelines on Interactions Between Individuals
- Elements of Effective Mentoring Standard 5: Monitoring and Support
- UW Guidance for Virtual Youth Programs
Unless the program is primarily athletic in nature, keep physical activity to moderate levels. Avoid games that use equipment that can cause injury or substitute softer equipment (nerf balls vs. baseballs). Choose locations that have dedicated space for your group and safe perimeters (i.e., not adjacent to a street).
Ensure parents have been made fully aware of the physical activity level and associated risks and sign an acknowledgement of risk indicating permission to participate.
With prolonged or strenuous activity:
- Give youth scheduled breaks and water. Allow for additional unscheduled breaks as needed by a youth participant.
- Ensure youth demonstrate physical fitness that matches the level of activity you will be requiring of them. Assess team compositions of youth to prevent less experienced youth from inadvertently being harmed by more experienced youth or vice versa.
- Only employ staff and volunteers who are trained in youth sports management and who understand varying sports developmental levels so as to prevent injury.
- American Camp Association Accreditation standards: see Program Aquatics, Program Design and Activities (selected resources available for non-members)
- Safe Kids Worldwide- Sports, Swimming and Water
It is important to carefully plan for transporting youth as risks are higher during any transition.
When transporting youth on foot:
- Ensure there are adequate adults to support the transition and monitor the entire group throughout.
- Have a routine group walking plan that includes staff positioning, walking route, formation of the group, etc.
- Avoid paths of travel that are busy with other people, have trip or fall hazards, or have poor line of sight of the whole group.
- Communicate and enforce ground rules to youth for your travel.
When transporting youth in vehicles:
- Ensure vehicles have proper safety equipment for the age group and size of children you are transporting.
- Communicate and enforce special ground rules to youth in unfamiliar or crowded locations. Communicate to youth what to do if they are separated from the group.
- Have additional adult presence to manage smaller groups of youth in a busy or unfamiliar environment.
- Have youth and adults wear visual identifiers such as t-shirts that allow youth to be easily recognizable.
Respond to and report any incidents that occur during the program.
Following an event or activity
Keep records in a secure location per UW records management requirements.