Men in ECE (Early Childcare & Education)

Last updated: 20/12/2016

‘Get the good guys in and the wrong guys out.’ 

Prevention of abuse embedded in good quality management.

Lauk Woltring (December 2010 – March 2011) This text is written to open up discussion. Please react and I will update the text regularly, learning from new input.


Men in ECE; News facts about abuse in Amsterdam kindergartens.

For years, in the Netherlands we tried to get more men in Early Childcare and Education (ECE).
In December 2010 all of us were shocked here and abroad at the news about child abuse in two Amsterdam kindergartens. We feared a backlash in the ongoing process of getting more men in.

Through FBI research into an international child pornography network, one picture could be traced to a Dutch server. This was followed up by thorough Dutch police research, eventually leading to an interim worker in two Amsterdam Early Childcare Centers and his friend.

This man came from another EU country, was a naturalized Dutch citizen, had run an educational support website for parents on early child education in Latvia (EU) before. He was convicted in Germany for possessing child pornography in 2003 and was suspected of pedosexual abuse before in other countries. The screening before employing him in Amsterdam was dubious and incomplete. He had worked for three years (February 2007 – January 2010) as replacement worker in two Dutch ECE centers, where he was very popular among colleagues and parents. He walked around all day with a camera, gave nice pictures to parents of their children, and was therefore able to mislead plenty of people. In Amsterdam he abused 83 children. His friend worked in the field for fourteen years; this man was taken in custody for having chat sessions with children and possession of child pornography. The director of the center was suspended because he had not been cautious enough and because he organized slumber parties at his house as a farewell to children leaving the center (he was found not guilty in accusations of possible abuse).

Remarkably, at an earlier date the abusing man was not accepted at his application in another childcare organization in Amsterdam (staff later stated that ‘he gave us a bad feeling’). In another center he tried to get employed but he was sent away nine days into his trial period because the workers had a funny feeling about this guy (‘He did not behave as a professional colleague, and was conceited’). Yet, during the legal trial it became evident that he had managed to abuse one child.

Reactions in the media and in the sector.

All media outlets jumped on the case. It was hot news for days, and the consequences have been echoing for a long time in the sector. Tabloids and some blogs shouted ‘No men in early childcare!’. Fortunately, nearly the entire sector reacted quite fast in securing, informing parents, helping the children and their environment, addressing their workers and looking for better policies to keep child abusers out of this field. Many parents react positively towards male workers. But, if anything, we have to learn from this case.

Many organizations in this field try to employ more men in Early Childcare and Education. It’s also a EU policy (2010 Brussels: ‘20% men in 2020’). Being an outspoken advocate of this for many years I have been intensively approached by media and many organizations during the weeks after the news. As a result, I developed a twelve-point policy to be incorporated in the near future in many organizations. Essentially, my reaction was short (2 main points) and to the point: ‘Face it and deal with it’.

I              More men in Early Childcare and Education. Their input is necessary because they can give male examples to both boys (sex role identification) and girls (who may get a richer image of the world around them as well). Men can contribute to the quality of work. Their styles are sometimes different from women (more physical play, a little more acceptance of small risks, higher demands, different tone, voice, speech and humor). Children love it. (More elsewhere on my site). Mixed teams operate better, as we see in nearly all professions. We need to have more experience with men in this field. One man in a center ‘is a stranger’ or is easily seen as a weirdo. Employing more men leads to a more balanced picture in which one can differentiate between ‘good male behavior’ – even when different from average female conduct – and wrong behavior. We have to take into account as well that many parents who have a classical perception of role distribution – or who stem from different cultural backgrounds – may project their uneasiness about male roles onto men in in this field and may falsely insinuate or accuse men of abuse (We have seen cases where couples who mistreated or even abused children blame the workers in ECE).

II             We have to keep ‘the wrong men’ out of this work by singling them out during their professional education, during their selection for the job (interview techniques and screening) and by means of an open and transparent culture among professionals on the job who know how to act upon ‘funny feelings’. Keeping the wrong men out by prohibiting all men in this field does wrong to all good men, deprives children from contact with men (especially harmful when they grow up in a no-father or absent father family, and in small families with no brothers) and places the full burden on women in a time when roles are fortunately  changing. Neither can we prohibit men in swimming pools, scouting, education, etc. without harming children in a changing world (more elsewhere on my website).


Who are ‘the wrong men?’:

We need to distinguish the necessary ‘pedagogical eros’ from pedophilia, pedosexuality and abuse.  Working in education asks for a pro-child-attitude. Some speak of a ‘pedagogical eros’: directing your energy to raising and educating children needs love for children. So the question is: how to discern between right and wrong attitudes, right or wrong love, healthy or perverted attitudes?

I think it is important to stay focused on the professional quality and the right attitude of all workers; this rules out any form of abuse or misconduct. This goes for men and women equally. The Amsterdam case concentrates on pedosexuality and abuse through child pornography. Of course that has to stop, everywhere, and certainly in this field. But: we do not know enough about male pedophilia and pedosexuality. There is an important discussion about the terms pedophilia and pedosexuality in different cultures.

There is little research done about the group as a whole. Those who feel attracted to pre-adolescent children or young adolescents will not come out in the open, nor volunteer for research – even if they do not take part in ‘hands-on sexuality’ or filming activities, and even loath those practices. So in all research there is a big bias towards those who are convicted for practicing abuse, making or dispersing child pornography and/or having child pornography in their possession. The real spread of the phenomenon pedophilia in all its manifestations is not known. Some claim that pedophilia can be managed without any abuse and that there are many men (and women) who do not act on their feelings in any harmful way.

This text is about men in ECE. We know even less about female abuse through mishandling children or mistreatment. Some women abuse children as much as men do. As far as we know, they practice less hands-on sexual abuse, targeting genitals, but harm them through maltreatment, shaking, acting violent, beating or just the opposite: clinging to young children and unduly cuddling/loving them merely out of self-interest. We just do not know enough about these phenomena.

In my opinion and frequent observations (for example of human resource managers in the field) some young women who have been abused themselves, develop low self-esteem and/or fear ’hard’ market-oriented jobs. They tend to choose work in the field of ECE or other child-oriented jobs. Working with children gives them a sense of having meaningful and nice work, while at the same time staying out of ‘the evil outside world’. Doing so without realizing it, they may bring in the evil they have experienced in reverse, through their own actions and/or blindness, blurred ‘radar’ and restricted (or exaggerated) assertiveness. They can be easy targets for cunning male child abusers who, for example, lower their suspicions by giving them the compliments that they scarcely receive elsewhere.

So: how to get the right men in and keep the wrong ones out? It’s difficult, but certainly not impossible. Below, you’ll find a twelve-point policy program to prevent the wrong men (and women [1]) coming into this field. I plea for a manifold policy with a variety of actions. Together they should increase the chance of reaching our goal (evidently, 100% is unattainable, but that’s a fact for most risks in life), securing the rights of children, their parents and the workers, and at the same time heighten and deepen the quality of the professional work in this field (which is another important item in the Dutch discussions). Many of these actions are possible within the standing practices.

1)      Procedures and addressing the subjective factor.
There are hardly any objective and 100% effective instruments to deselect pedosexual predators and other potential mistreating workers. So next to legal papers and references we have to address the subjective element too, but as meticulous as possible taking the rights of workers into account as well. Nonetheless the saying ‘innocent until proven guilty’ does not work here. We know for a fact that sexual predators can be very cunning. Merely waiting until they prove to be what they are and are convicted is too high a risk.

2)      Professional Education.
During the professional education process, students should be obliged to reflect on their motives and must be asked to do so under rigorous supervision and other forms of close contact education during work placements (“What makes you want to work with children? What makes you keen on this work? What can you offer them? Do you see any pitfalls and drawbacks as a man (or woman) in this predominantly female field? How do you cope with them?). Those who do not see any risks are naïve and should learn about them; if they deny their existence to themselves, they should be confronted with their hiding behavior. It has been said that this only would make potential perpetrators even smarter. My answer here: do not be naïve. Real predators in this field are quite smart already, this being almost by definition a part of the of the pedosexual predator profile.

This supervision has to be performed by able and experienced supervisors. This goes for every professional education leading to work with vulnerable people under unequal conditions, be it in hospitals, psychiatry, or in early child care, education and nursing. During their professional education students should learn how to be responsive not only to children and parents, but to colleagues as well. The should learn how to react properly to ‘uneasy’ feelings.

A problem in the Netherlands can be that the professional education for these workers is of mid-level, with a sometimes doubtful quality. The sector exploded quantitatively in 2004, when the Dutch government decided on a quite sudden exponential growth of the sector in order to get more young stay-at-home mothers in the labor market. The number of places in ECE centers was raised with some 300-400 % (estimation mine). At the same time, education in the last decade suffered under numerous budget cuts, leading to schooling of professionals in this field with little and sometimes low-quality contact with teachers. (During a few occasions in my career as lecturer in Higher Professional Education for Youth Social Work I have filtered out students with a ‘non-professional attitude and love for children’ just by good (intersubjective) observation and interviews following from there. I cannot rule out that some potential perpetrators passed this test, but this is one of a range of actions to narrow the accessibility of this field).

3)      Applicants (males and females) for ECE-jobs should be screened thoughtfully in the recruitment and selection process. Not just a ‘Certificate of Good Conduct’  (a legal obligation in the Dutch field of ECE and other educational professions), which is a necessity but not enough. Inquiries about applicants should be not only by letter or digital but also verbal; by word of mouth. Applicants should be interviewed by capable staff. The employer should not let him/herself be satisfied with beautiful words, pretty or splendid letters, ‘politically correct statements’ and so on. Capable assessors should continue to ask questions: what motivates you to apply for this job? What are your own experiences with adult men? What is for you the difference between ‘pedagogical eros’ and pedophilia, pedosexuality and abuse?

4)      On the job there should always be two professionals working, when possible in view of each other. This applies to both men and women, yet in the current state of affairs especially to men. An argument can be made about it being unfair, but it’s the reality we live in. It is for their own wellbeing and safety as well, as it diminishes the chance of becoming easy targets of wrongful accusations. (This double occupation – for women too – is already more or less prescribed in Dutch ECE centers, but not always practiced).

5)      Do not exclude men from changing nappies, washing etc. This gives a wrong signal to children, parents and female colleagues. Just train them to do it right and to set a good example for other men as well.

6)      Unfair policies to the good men in the field? Indeed it is, to a certain extent, but it is also the reality, so face it and deal with it. With more men in this field the problem will diminish (more men makes it easier to discern between right and wrong). Prepare men applying for these jobs for the fact that they will be observed closely. Support them, but also select them on their strength to deal with accusations. It may be unfair, but it was unfair as well when women entered male workplaces and were subject to countless remarks and accusations. It’s how changes work. Needless to say, men who have been falsely accused need to be protected after the incident is closed and should be able to return to the job. Harsh? Yes, but this is where we are. If you cannot deal with these things, find another job.

7)       There must be a transparent professional working culture. This does not only mean clear appointments and agreements, but also a continuous willingness to confront each other with what you see and what you feel, not only on serious matters like (suspicion of) mistreatment and alike, but also on smaller things in the everyday work process (‘Yesterday you did not wash the dishes’ or ‘What happened yesterday when that child was shouting so loud when you were alone with him/her?’). This applies to women among each other as well.

It has been observed in ECE centers that many women keep silent about what they see, unable to confront, feeling ashamed of what they see, afraid that the other may complain in return or ‘use’ it negatively in their mutual relations (‘soft blackmail’) and in their way of coping with daily stress. They keep silent about what they see to their local directors, and these in turn tend to be silent to the main office as well (‘In my center everything is ok’). Taken together these are the symptoms of not-learning organizations. Transparency starts in daily feedback, where we learn to ‘keep our radar clear’ and develop our intuition for small signs that indicate things are going wrong (this is of course not limited to the subject of abuse). This is not about annoying each other but to contribute to quality. Do not leave this up to the one above you, the local director or manager. Make it possible for her or him to do their job properly as well. When it is safe to speak out on smaller things, there is no more room for manipulation, and it is just that room in which child abusers can flourish…

Making mistakes is part of the job, but when we do not learn from them, they are in vain. In a clear professional working culture with ‘open radar systems’, a pedosexual or mistreating colleague that slips through the selection and screening processes will catch attention sooner and/or have less space to maneuver in… and will leave the place, as the risk of getting caught is too big.

8)       Use your intuition, refine and develop it, and act on it.
Intuition is one of our basic survival instincts, warning us for danger and unusual behavior, often before it turns into a threat to ourselves or the process. Of course, it can be blurry or lead to overreaction, but by developing it together we keep our intuition clean and sharp (it’s part of the job concerning the responsive relation with children, so extend it to your team as well). If for example one of the colleagues is too often too long occupied or involved with one child and he (she) is more intimate with one child than should be expected, it can constitute ‘grooming’ behavior (‘wheeling in the targeted child’. More info? See Wikipedia).

Does a colleague try to be alone for a long time with children? Do you see something else that gives you an unpleasant feeling? Do not be silent: it can be nothing, it can be a minor thing, but it can also be something worse. Do not gossip, do not ‘use’ it in any way, but make clear to the person that you are not feeling comfortable with his (her) behavior; talk it over, open and with respect. Give the other the opportunity to explain what and why. If that is satisfying? Okay (“I had to ask it”). If the answer does not satisfy you; take it up immediately with the local leadership. Of course you can be wrong, but at least you have shared it with the management – that’s what they’re for. This is not snitching on someone, but just professional conduct. Enable your local manager to do his/her work properly [2]. No doubt that there is nothing wrong with sympathetic behavior, and expressing your opinion about what’s right or wrong – on the contrary, that’s how good teams work – but it is that ‘extra’ that may raise an eyebrow.

It’s our developed and shared intuition that can discern between all tiny signals that can be either harmless or not. But let’s not be naïve. This is all taken from reality, either in the Amsterdam case or from my long experience in training workers and educating students. (In my work as lecturer and teacher in professional education on youth (social) work I once had to report a colleague that was very popular among both men and women. It was later revealed that he seduced women just in order to gain access to their children. After the man was reported he vanished into thin air, leaving his colleagues behind in awe and shock (“Him? Oh no, that is not possible…, he is so nice, so gentle, so good!”).

This text is not – repeat: not – a plea for continuous distrust, but merely for keeping your intuition sharp, keeping your radar clean and open and sharing observations in a professional way. This makes a safe work environment for everybody, leads to learning and enhances quality in the work. Stifling discussion about this subjects clouds your observations. And if your team leader or manager ignores or trivializes something you are really uncomfortable with: consult your trade union or go one step higher, if necessary anonymously.
The biggest danger in these situations of underreported signs of possible abuse or mistreatment is that the one who gets the signals, hopes that what he/she sees or saw is not true, not real, is not what it can be (‘what if…’), and consequently suppresses his/her own observations and in doing so blurs his/her own radar and intuition. Feeling guilty about that may open up a new circle of bad observation and communication; again, this is exactly the culture in which predators can flourish. They get too much trust (just what they’re after) by being charming, surprised (“Do you think these horrible  things about me…?”), overfriendly, extra nice, or sympathetic.

9)      Regular counseling, coaching and/or supervision on the job.
This leads to learning organizations and quality in the job. The effects of this investment are numerous: less absence through illness, better development of children, and in the end better work relations [3]. This is essential for maintaining a positive working environment within the center and for gaining the trust of the general public in this field.

10)   Always take complaints or remarks by parents seriously, even if they seem exaggerated.
Not everybody will formulate her or his uneasy feeling as meticulous as we would like them to do. For many parents it is quite something to trust their children to others, especially professionals. See it as an act of interest in their children and coping with the feeling of being separated from them. By taking all remarks and distrust seriously, and later report on what you have done about it, trust can grow. Stimulating parents to develop their own intuition, which is all too easily blurred by public media hypes and gossip, clears the way for more difficult items that can come up at a later stage [4].

11)   Protect your employees.
Each sign towards problematic behavior must be treated with the utmost care and attention, but keep in mind that a false alarm can be very harmful to the accused worker. Create a clear protocol on how to handle these cases, and inform all workers that these things can happen as part of the working with vulnerable children and their parents.

12)   Registered workers?
As final piece of good policy it may be prudent to make a register of all professionals (male and female) who work with vulnerable groups in a hierarchical position with the opportunity to isolate and abuse. This is in order to prevent abusers from changing jobs when accused of or convicted for seriously wrong behaviors. Needless to say, proper regulations must be developed first. When a person has worked in another state or country access to their personal file must be arranged in a way. Of course there is no 100% guarantee, but when all these conditions are taken into account, wrong men will avoid the centers, will be deterred or will be caught. It may cost more money. So be it. Parents and (local) government cannot always get what they want on a bargain.


[1] This text is focusing on male misbehavior, but this should not cloud our vision on female mistreatment of children (again: that is just another story).

[2] Taking action. Either send this colleague away, or involve the police, or send him/her into therapy; this goes beyond the scope of this text.

[3] The arguments about money are false (on a more political level). Research by economists has made very clear that investment in early child care and education is very productive and profitable for modern societies (less school absenteeism and dropout, better school results, less crime, better relations, etc. etc.).

[4] In one Dutch kindergarten the policy was to get men in the workforce. There was a letter given to all parents in which the management explained why. It said also: “We do know that some of you may be suspicious about this and do not like to trust their children to unknown men. We do understand that. Please if you feel uneasy about anything, whatever, please contact us, and we will act on it”. Result was that within a few weeks everybody was happy with the men. Do not trivialize, but be sensitive and explain.

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