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Problem Sexual Behaviour

Schools play a big role in socialisation process of children as children spend a huge part of their time in school. Thus, schools and teachers play a special role in combating child sexual abuse and can be at the frontline on matters of child protection. The teachers due to their close daily contact they are in a unique position to identify children with problematic sexual behaviour or who are victims of child abuse. It is important that school staff do not over-react or underreact, or respond to children’s sexual behaviour in a way that labels and “pathologizes” them. It is the way adults respond to the child’s behaviour that gives the behaviour meaning for the child. When children engage in sexual behaviour in school settings, teachers and principals are faced with sensitive cultural, gender, religious, spiritual, legal and professional issues. Thus, it is very important to understand how sexual behaviour problems develop, and how teachers and other school staff can respond appropriately to them. When teachers are able to recognize children’s problem sexual behaviours in the school, are able to talk openly about sexual behaviour, and know how to respond, children too feel more comfortable talking about and reporting problem sexual behaviour. This can help teachers to establish a practical and effective system for responding to and preventing sexual behaviour problems in the school setting.

The two terms commonly used to describe this type of behaviour are problem sexualised behaviour (PSB) and sexually abusive behaviour (SAB). It is also important to note that teachers should not just only focus on managing the behaviour for purposes of safety and professional liability. They should respond to problem sexual behaviour with the goal of preventing the development of aggressive or offending behaviour in children who may be considered “at risk”. Therefore, the teachers should keep in mind the three essential goals :

  1. The teachers should try to increase the communication between “at risk” students and the adults around them. This can be accomplished by adults speaking directly and matter of- factly to children about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. The students come to realize that the adult is comfortable communicating directly about sexual behaviour.
  2. The teachers should try to make the child empathise with those affected by his or her behaviour. This can be accomplished by the adult demonstrating concern for those involved and providing information about the effect of the behaviour on all persons involved.
  3. The teachers should try to increase the accountability, or sense of self-control, of the student over his or her behaviour. This can be accomplished by providing limits, reminders of rules, consequences for misbehaviour, and by encouraging students to accept responsibility for misbehaviour.

What Teachers can do?

Responding to Problem Sexual Behaviour in the School Setting

A student’s sexual behaviour may be reported to school personnel by another student, or a parent, or observed directly. When an incident is reported by a parent to a staff person, he or she should:

  • Acknowledge the person reporting for bringing the behaviour to his or her attention.
  • Reassure the reporter that the school will take appropriate action
  • Inform the school principal of the alleged incident
  • Consider reporting to police as per provisions of the POCSO Act 2012

What to do when sexual behaviour appears to be normal

Although a child’s sexual behaviour may be within the normal range, it may be inappropriate for it to occur at school. When it does, it merits a response designed to teach boundaries and important distinctions, such as the difference between private and public behaviour at school.

At the first level of response, teachers may talk to the student(s) when sexual behaviour is observed or reported. In talking to the student(s), staff are taking advantage of a “teachable moment” to:

  • communicate to the student concern about the specific behaviour. Describe the behaviour in terms that are clear and direct (“You had your underpants down on the playground.”) pointing out the impact on others (“When I saw you both with your pants down, I felt uncomfortable. Clothes stay on at school.”)
  • reminding student of the “norm” (“Taking your clothes off is what you do in a private place, and the school yard is a public place.”)
  • reminding student of the “norm” (“Taking your clothes off is what you do in a private place, and the school yard is a public place.”)

Talk to Other Student(s) Involved

Sometimes it is not clear whether one child was the initiator or both children were willingly engaged in the sexual activity. In such cases, school personnel should speak to both students about their behaviour.

Document the Incident and inform school management and Principal/head teacher

Documentation is important because it enables the school to track whether the student’s behaviour has changed as a result of the adult intervention. Also, the nature and extent of a student’s problem sexual behaviours may not be immediately evident, based on a single incident. A record of the incident can help the school to determine if there is a pattern of behaviour that may be cause for concern.

Inform Parents

The principal should contact the parents or guardians of both students to inform them about the incident. Explain that the behaviour does not appear to be cause for concern, but that it is always important to let the parents or guardians know what has happened. Inform the parents that the student’s behaviour has been dealt with at the school and suggest that the parents may wish to reinforce the same message at home. To protect the privacy of the other student(s), do not reveal their identity.

In their meeting with the parents/guardians of the student with problem sexual behaviour, the principal, the teacher and/or counsellor should:

  • discuss the student’s behaviour and the school’s immediate response
  • explain the school’s procedure for responding to problem sexual behaviours and the next
  • request their involvement in decisions concerning the details of a safety and support plan for their child, and how it is implemented, bearing in mind that the school principal is ultimately responsible for the safety of all students
  • offer school-based support for the student and/or refer the student and her or his family to appropriate services in the community.

Consult with Other Professionals if required

Develop a Safety and Support Plan

The principal convenes a safety and support plan team comprised of school staff who work directly with the student and his or her parents/guardian, as well as with other professionals, as appropriate.

Follow-up and Monitor

It may take some time for a child with external controls and supports to begin to develop internal control over her or his behaviour. The principal, teacher, or counsellor can help by:

  • observing the student and providing feedback on his or her behaviour
  • taking opportunities to talk with the student about his/her friendships, interests and activities
  • repeating the steps, Describe and Respond and Confront and Prohibit several times, especially in the case of a child with poor social skills or a hidden disability such as fetal alcohol syndrome.

Strategies for classroom teachers

Teach the student about privacy and personal space. Reinforce these concepts by providing the student with a clearly designated work area and a place for her or his belongings. Model respect by always asking permission before using the student’s workspace or touching his or her belongings. When younger students are participating in circle or carpet time, provide a small mat to designate the place where the student will sit.

There are three key concepts that can be taught to the student with inappropriate sexual behaviours: personal space, types of touch, and types of relationships.

Types of touch

  • Communicate clear messages about touching others (e.g., “kissing other children at school makes them feel uncomfortable and must not be done”). They also need clear and consistent limits about touching others and respecting personal space.
  • It is important to talk about how students can and do touch each other, and how teachers touch students and vice-versa. By making this a more public issue, many problems can be prevented. Toni Cavanaugh Johnson, a therapist in Los Angeles, proposed that all elementary students need to be able to describe, recognize and respond to at least seven different kinds of physical contact. These are:
    • FIX-IT TOUCH
    • FRIENDLY TOUCH
    • LOVING TOUCH
    • ACCIDENTAL TOUCH
    • SPACE INVADER TOUCH
    • HURTFUL TOUCH
    • PROBLEM TOUCH
  • Each touch should be discussed so that it is clear that each student can define each type. Using feeling faces, students are taught how each type of touch feels (with the possibility that one type might cause two or even three feelings). For example, accidental touch (touch that is not done on purpose) could hurt, or shock you; problem touch (when someone touches or grabs your private parts, or asks to see your private parts, or shows his or her private parts) could confuse you, or make you feel mad. “Fix-it” touch might hurt (e.g., when you get a scrape cleaned, it is still safe touch because of its intent). Depending upon what the teacher knows about where the problem touching is or was happening, he or she might stipulate, when talking about problem touch (again, firm but calm tone), that “sometimes it happens in the washroom or in the bushes by the playground, and that sometimes a student will ask another to go there to do problem touch. This is not OK and we need to tell someone.”
  • The final part of this process is to inform children what needs to be done about each kind of touch. Teachers can explain to students that they need to tell about hurtful touch and problem touch to their parents or teachers or any other adult they trust.
  • Many children who have been victims of unwanted touching can benefit from discussions about different kinds of touches. Learning that there are limits around the kinds of touches we get from, and give to, the different people in our lives will help the child to establish personal boundaries. It is also important to talk about the range of feelings that different kinds of touches can evoke and that, while some touches are caring or helpful, others can hurt our bodies and our feelings. Understanding boundaries and being assertive go hand in hand, as students need to know what to do and/or say when someone is touching them in an inappropriate or confusing way.

Make a plan with the student for getting help from an adult when the student is experiencing the thoughts and feelings that typically precede her or his problem sexual behaviours. This can be effective if the student has progressed in therapy to the point where he or she is aware of the antecedents of the problem sexual behaviour. Such a plan requires input from the child’s therapist and the involvement of several adults in the school setting who are given specific strategies for helping the student defuse feelings and gain control. It may include a simple hand signal that a student can use to indicate that she or he needs immediate help.

Encourage social interaction with peers, but discourage the student from interacting exclusively with an individual child or adult. Teach other students to label inappropriate behaviour and respond assertively. Develop a system for reinforcing appropriate behaviour and/or times when the student’s sexual behaviour is under control.

Supporting the Student Who Was Mistreated

  • Support for a student who has been involved in inappropriate sexual behaviour by another student begins with the staff person‟s initial intervention in the incident. It is important to speak privately with the child, acknowledge what happened and ask how the child is feeling about it. The goal is to help the student resolve feelings of fear and anxiety by equipping him or her with some skills and strategies for self-protection and self-control.
  • Remain calm and matter-of-fact. Remember, the student‟s emotional response to the incident will be determined, in part, by your facial expression, body language, tone of voice and words. Let the child know that you are sorry it happened.
  • Depending upon the circumstances surrounding the incident, it may be appropriate to reassure the child that the behaviour was not his or her fault, and that telling an adult about it was the right thing to do.
  • Talk about the rules (e.g., “It is not okay for other children to touch your private parts”) and instruct the student to tell an adult immediately if it happens again.
  • A student who has been sexually mistreated by another student may need further support if:
    • the student continues to show signs of anxiety and is upset after the initial intervention. These may be evident at school and/or at home.
    • the student tends to be unusually quiet, overly compliant and non-assertive
    • the student has very few friends and/or has social skills deficits
    • the student begins to act out sexually (e.g., self-stimulating behaviour, exposing private parts, touching others in a sexual way)
    • the student has a problem maintaining appropriate boundaries

Source : Raising Happy children and providing safe childhoods - A Reader by Ministry of Women and Child Development



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