Safeguarding in Education Service supporting children who display harmful sexual behaviour

Safeguarding in Education Service
Briefing: The role of schools, colleges and academies in recognising and
supporting children who display harmful sexual behaviour
May 2013
“Young people (under 18) who engage in any form of sexual activity with another individual
that they have powers over by virtue of age, emotional maturity, gender, physical strength,
intellect, and where the victim in this relationship has suffered a betrayal of trust” (Palmer
Since there is no officially agreed way of describing sexual behaviours which cause concern,
it is more helpful to describe sexual behaviour on a continuum of healthy, problematic and
harmful sexual behaviours. Professionals need to understand what constitutes normal
sexual development in order to understand what is usual developmental sexual expression
and what is harmful sexual behaviour.
“Child Maltreatment in the UK” (NSPCC, 2011) reported that two thirds of sexual abuse
experienced by children aged 0-17 was perpetrated by someone under the age of 18. 80%
of children aged 11-17 who were sexually abused by a peer did not tell anyone about it.
Freedom of information figures obtained by NSPCC in 2013 show more than 5000 children
were reported to the police in England and Wales in the last 3 years. This is partly attributed
to the increase in access to online pornography.
What is harmful sexual behaviour?
In order to understand what defines harmful sexual behaviour it is necessary to understand
sexual behaviour in normal developmental terms and to understand age appropriate sexual
Age appropriate sexual
0-5 years
Use childish ‘sexual’
language to talk about body
Ask how babies are made or
where they come from
Discuss sexual acts
Use sexually explicit
Touch own genitals
6-11 years
Ask questions about sexually
behaviour and pregnancy
Role play (doctors and
Masturbate in public
Show adult sexual behaviour
and knowledge
Show and look at private
body parts
Masturbate in private
Older children in this age
group may use sexual words
to discuss sexual acts
particularly with friends
12-16 years
Ask questions about
relationships and sexual
Use sexual language
Masturbate in private
Experiment sexually with
others of the same age
Masturbate in public
Have sexual contact with
much younger children or
It may be helpful to think of sexual behaviour along a continuum:
Not age appropriate
Not age appropriate
One off incident
Planned, secretive, use of
force, coercion
Peer pressure
Power differential (size, age,
status, strength)
No intent to harm
No intent to harm
Others anxious, scared to tell
Level of understanding
Blames others
No power differential
Acceptance of responsibility
Frequent or increasing
Others not scared to tell
Other issues such as poor
peer relationships,
challenging behaviours,
School response: None
School response: liaison with
parents, informal discussion
with children’s social care
School response: Referral to
children’s social care
The nature of harmful sexual behaviour
Research indicates that harmful sexual behaviour is associated with emotional abuse,
sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect and exposure to domestic violence. (Hackett 2004,
Hickey 2006 and Vizard et al 2007). The most significant indicator is multiple, prolonged and
repetitive abuse. Children who display harmful sexual behaviour may also display conduct
and oppositional disorders, learning difficulties and poor educational attainment. Not all
children who show harmful sexual behaviour have been sexually abused. Professionals
need to be aware of the function and motivation of the behaviour. A child who exhibits
harmful sexual behaviour and who also displays other challenging behaviours and other
difficulties may use the harmful sexual behaviour as a way of exerting power and control
over others. An otherwise model pupil displaying harmful sexual behaviour may be doing so
because they are being or have been sexually abused. (Bentovim, 2009)
There is no typical profile of a child who displays harmful sexual behaviour. Most are
adolescent males but girls and younger children can also display the behaviour. Research by
the University of Edinburgh and NSPCC (2013) reported that children and young people with
harmful sexual behaviour are generally diverse in terms of age, gender and ethnicity.
Children and Young People with Learning Difficulties:
Children and young people with learning difficulties tend to be over represented in any
figures, perhaps because they are more likely to be caught. They are also more likely to be
abused themselves and to be isolated. They tend to receive less sex and relationships
education and are perhaps given fewer opportunities to develop appropriate sexual
expression. The organisation Respond estimates that young people with learning difficulties
account for between 30 and 50% of all young people with harmful sexual behaviour. Fyson
(2007) found that special schools dealt with harmful sexual behaviour in line with their
behaviour policy and procedures. They used behaviour modification aiming to prevent
unwanted behaviours rather than addressing the underlying cause of the behaviour. They
justified this approach because the behaviours were usually lacking in intent. In making
decisions about how to respond to an incident of harmful sexual behaviour, the schools
reported that they took into account:
1) The act itself – unwanted sexual contact between pupils was seen as a greater
concern than ‘nuisance’ behaviours such as masturbation and exposure.
2) Any imbalance of power between the pupils.
3) Attempts at secrecy, indicating the pupil know that what they were doing was wrong.
4) Repetition.
The role of schools:
a) Prevention
The curriculum for PSHE and sex and relationships education is likely to offer the main
teaching opportunities for children to learn about appropriate behaviour, trust, boundaries
and responsibility. Sex and relationships education should promote respect and care for
each other. Young people need to be taught about consent and also to understand the law
around sexual activity.
Schools are likely to be in a position to identify sexualised behaviour earlier than other
b) Response
Schools should respond to concerns about harmful sexual behaviour following their child
protection policy and procedures and working with local agencies. Many LSCBs publish
guidelines on the management of children and young people who display harmful sexual
behaviours. Schools need to support the child displaying the behaviour and also any
children who may be affected by it which necessitates a sensitive approach to both parties.
The designated senior person for child protection (or other appropriate member of staff)
should be part of multi-disciplinary teams and processes for the child displaying harmful
sexual behaviour and the victim.
Schools need to be recognised as a source of information about children, especially about
behaviour. Schools have a significant role following disclosure and this includes risk
management strategies.
c) Support
Schools are unlikely to have the specialist knowledge to work directly with children who
show harmful sexual behaviour so they will need to work alongside external services as an
important partner in the process.
Staff in schools need to understand the underlying factors that may lead children to display
harmful sexual behaviour as well as have an understanding of typical sexual behaviour and
development so as to distinguish between behaviour that is harmful and that which is
developmental sexual expression.
When talking to children about their harmful sexual behaviour teachers need to feel
confident and use age appropriate language. They need to talk to the child about what has
happened in a clear and explicit way and reinforce:
Appropriate behaviour (personal space, privacy, touch and respect)
Responsibility, decisions and choices
Risk Management:
Information provided by schools makes an invaluable contribution to the risk management
process. Risk management of harmful sexual behaviour should include:
The nature of the risk.
The likelihood of risk.
Factors which increase or decrease risk.
Risk to siblings/family members.
Risk to peers.
Risk to the public.
The possible consequences of further harmful behaviour including any risk to the
young person themselves.
A risk management plan to include actions, roles, responsibilities and timescales.
The risk assessment and management plan should be shared with the child or young
person, parents, school, social care, therapeutic services (e.g. CAMHS) and also with the
Youth Offending Team if prosecution is a possible outcome of the behaviour.
Assessment of Harmful Sexual Behaviour:
Research by NSPCC and the University of Edinburgh (2013) found that schools were the
referring agency to local authorities in 18% of cases of harmful sexual behaviour. Referrals
are most likely to be made through the child protection procedures and therefore schools
may not be aware of the next steps of assessment and intervention, although examples of
good practice recognise the school as an important partner in any multi-agency approach.
Assessment will take account of the needs of the whole child and the child should not be
viewed as a “mini sex offender” (Hackett et al, 2005). Assessment should be a multi-agency
approach to include assessment, investigation, case planning and case review. The nature
of assessment may include individual, group and family work, cognitive behavioural therapy
and multi-systemic therapy.
The research states that 45% of assessments of harmful sexual behaviour use the
assessment framework AIM or AIM 2 (Assessment, Intervention, Moving on). This includes
an initial assessment, core assessment and intervention with the child, family and wider
network. The AIM website has guidelines to help schools identify, evaluate and manage
harmful sexual behaviour.
Intervention for children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour uses
therapeutic approaches to change thinking and helps children and young people to take
responsibility for their behaviour and teaches them how to form more positive relationships.
Programmes also focus on the young person’s positive qualities and help them to build their
self-esteem. There will also be engagement with families.
Working with parents:
Parents of children who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour and parents whose
children have been affected by the behaviour of others may react with confusion, shock,
anger or disbelief. Parents need appropriate support from specialist agencies as they can
face hostility and rejection from the local community. Schools will need to respond with
discretion and respect, demonstrating a non-judgemental response to parents’ emotions.
Schools should seek advice from specialist provision and work within a multi-agency
approach to support parents.
Schools should not ignore the signs of harmful sexual behaviour.
Disclosures of harmful sexual behaviour should be responded to in the same
way as other disclosures in line with the child protection policy.
Schools should be actively involved in multi-agency responses to harmful
sexual behaviour.
Staff in schools should see the whole child, and not just the harmful sexual
AIM (2001) Working with Children and Young People who Sexually Abuse: Procedures and
Assessment. Department of Health, Home Office.
Bentovim, A. (2009) Growing up in a climate of trauma and violence: Frameworks for
understanding family violence. In Bentovim et al Safeguarding Children Living with Trauma
and Family Violence: Evidence based assessment, analysis and planning. London: Jessica
Criminal Justice Joint Inspection/HM Inspectorate of Probation (2013) Examining MultiAgency Approaches to Children and Young People who Sexually Offend. Available from:
Fyson, R. (2007) Young People with Learning Difficulties who sexually abuse:
Understanding, identifying and responding from within generic education and welfare
services. Nottingham: University of Nottingham
Hackett, S. (2004) What works for children and young people with harmful sexual
behaviours. London: Barnados
Hackett, S. et al (2005) Services for young people who sexually abuse. London: NSPCC,
Youth Justice Board and National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers
Radford, Lorraine, Corral, Susana, Bradley, Christine, Fisher, Helen, Bassett, Claire, Howat,
Nick and Collishaw, Stephan (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London:
NSPCC. Available from NSPCC Inform
Sanderson, C. (2010) Managing sexually harmful behaviour in young children, Protecting
Children Update 68 7-9
Smith, C., Bradbury-Jones, C., Lazenbatt, A. and Taylor, J. (2013) Provision for Young
People who have Displayed Harmful Sexual Behaviour. Edinburgh: University of
Edinburgh/NSPCC. Available from: NSPCC Inform
Vizard, E. et al (2007) Developmental trajectories associated with juvenile sexually abuse
behaviours and emerging severe personality disorder in childhood: A 3 year study, British
Journal of Psychiatry 190:49 27-32
Useful websites: