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Risk Communication

ECE programs face special risk communication challenges when children might have been exposed to hazardous substances at the facility. Effective risk communication can help calm people’s fears by telling them what actions are being taken to protect children and staff and to answer health questions.

Every ECE program would benefit from having a risk communication plan to follow if children20 or staff are exposed to chemical or radiological hazards. Ideally, the plan should provide guidance on informing parents, guardians, and staff about what has happened, how health could be affected, and actions being taken to prevent future exposure to hazardous materials. Plans are best developed before an event occurs. Some ways this can be done include the following:

  • Write generic letters that use simple language that can be customized to give information. about an event and the steps being taken to protect the health of children and staff.
  • Develop key messages so that all staff members provide the same messages about the event to parents, staff, media, and others affected by the event.
  • Develop a plan to provide key messages and information via texting, email, or the daycare website, when applicable.

When developing a risk communication plan for ECE programs, special consideration can be given to the following:

  • Partner with the local and state health departments, pediatric environmental health specialty units (PEHSUs)21 whose doctors specialize in health effects caused by children’s exposure to hazardous material in their environment, or ATSDR, to develop simple, easy to understand health messages.
  • Partner with a local physician or other health care provider who is trusted by the community and can talk about potential health effects from exposure to the hazardous substance.
  • Test your messages before they are released by having them read by someone who is not familiar with the event to be sure they are understandable.
  • Designate one spokesperson to talk to the media about the event.
  • Deliver three key media messages based on facts and without speculation.
  • Provide information about the event to parents, guardians, and staff as soon as possible (this also helps counter errors that might be reported elsewhere).
  • Tell what is known and focus on the specifics of the event and the potential effect it can have on the health of children and staff.
  • Tell what is not known, and the actions that are being taken by the ECE and others, such as local, state, and federal emergency response agencies, to get the information needed to address public health issues.

Message mapping techniques, such as the following, provide an effective strategy for risk communication:

  • Develop the three most important key messages to deliver to groups affected by the exposure, such as parents, staff, and the media.
  • Write three supporting messages or facts for each key message.
  • Keep the messages short and concise.
  • Develop a separate message map for each group because the key messages for each group will be different.

Appendix C includes a message map template and an example of a completed message map for reference.

Use the method(s) that will work best for each ECE program. Tell parents at the time their child enters the ECE program how information will be shared, so they will know how they will be notified if an event occurs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed a risk communication guidance manual, Crisis Emergency Risk Communication by Leaders for Leaders, available at

20 CCDBG recipients are required to have emergency plans and Head Start, for example, has requirements that
ensure prog rams communicate with parents in an emergency or other health-related situations.
21 See for more information.