Current training for educators

In the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland, and Victoria, teachers arc only mandated to report sexual and physical abuse. In Western Australia, they are only mandated to report sexual abuse. In South Australia they are mandated to report physical, cmotional/psychological, and sexual abuse and neglect, and in New South Wales, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory they are mandated to report physical, cmotional/psychological, and sexual abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic violence (Bromficld & Higgins 2005; Walsh, Rassafiani, Mathews, Farrell, & Butler 2010). This disparate approach to mandated notification across states and territories is problematic for effective sexual abuse prevention. Although all educators nationally arc required to report sexual abuse, terms such as ‘sexual abuse’, ‘sexual offences’, ‘sexual perpetrators’, and ‘sexual offenders’ typically reference adults rather than children (Staiger et al. 2005), which may result in children’s harmful sexual behaviour being overlooked (Ey et al. 2017, p. 687).

The content in mandated notification courses on offer is not accessible to the general public and the only course empirically tested and published is the South Australian mandated notification course (Walsh & Farrell 2008), now known as Responding to Abuse and Neglect: Education and Care. Further research to compare and contrast state and territory mandated notification courses is needed to ascertain what training educators receive about child protection, and more specifically, whether and how these courses address children’s harmful sexual behaviours. When the complexities of harmful sexual behaviour arc overlooked or misunderstood, it is difficult to identify children who may be victims of sexual abuse by adults.

(Ey ct al. 2017, p. 686)

Pccr-on-pccr aggressive conduct in education and care sites is often construed as bullying or as children having poorly developed social skills. It attracts interventions such as physical separation, mediation between parties, or a range of school-based disciplinary strategies such as detention or exclusion (Barter & Bcrridgc 2011). Educators and carers recognise elements of sexual behaviour as part of normal development, such as kissing, holding hands, and cuddling. Although it is well recognised that sexual development and sexual expression begins in childhood, ideas of when it is acceptable for children to engage in sexual activity arc grounded in social and cultural values that change over time. Concerns arise if there is evidence of aggression or coercion by children pursuing or harassing other children, penetrative behaviours, or public exposure of genitals (Ey & Mclnncs 2018). A rising number of reports over the previous decade have identified preschool and junior primary school children involved in USB in education settings (Briggs 2012; Bromfield, Hirtc, Octoman, & Katz 2017, Dcbcllc 2013; Ey & Mclnncs 2018). This highlights an increasing need for new understandings and responses by educators and carers to affected children and their families.

Most states and territories have produced policies and guidelines for teachers. The following section identifies those available online. The New South Wales Department of Education provides a Child protection policy: Responding to and reporting students at risk of harm. This outlines the ‘roles and responsibilities of staff in relation to child protection including training, reporting on safety, and supporting children and young people, as well as monitoring, evaluation and reporting requirements’ (NSW Department of Education 2018).

South Australia’s Education Department document Responding to problem sexual behaviour in children and young people: Guidelines for staff in education and care settings, defines and discusses age-appropriate and harmful sexual behaviour with guidelines for staff. These relate to (a) determining the seriousness of the behaviour; (b) immediate responses by the staff member and leadership of the education setting; (c) long-term responses, including safety and support plans; and (d) a list of support services for staff, children, and their families (Department for Education 2019).

In the Northern Territory the education department has Guidelines: Sexual behaviour in children, giving information similar to that provided in South Australia (Department of Education: Northern Territory Government 2015). Identifying and responding to student sexual offending is the Victorian document which defines harmful sexual behaviours for children under 10 years and offending behaviour including sexual assault, rape, and indecent acts for children over age 10. It docs not define age-appropriate behaviour. The document provides guidelines on immediate responses along with instructions to develop a support plan for those involved but does not provide a template like the Northern Territory or South Australia. There is also a list of support services (Victoria State Government Education and Training 2016). Tasmania’s Department of Education provides the True Relationships and Reproductive Health’s Sexual behaviours in children and young people guide to educators to identify, understand, and respond to sexual behaviours. The document Transforming trauma discussion paper 3: Problem sexualised behaviour (Australian Childhood Foundation and Tasmania Department of Education, 2012) (a) defines problem sexual behaviour and addresses concerns with how sexual behaviour is labelled; (b) defines and explains normal, concerning, and harmful sexual behaviour; (c) presents causes of harmful sexual behaviour; (d) provides guidelines for assessing problem sexual behaviour and (e) responding to problem sexual behaviour; (I) poses questions for consideration about understanding and managing problem sexual behaviour; and (h) provides references for further reading. Tasmania also conducts a workshop for educators on transforming problem sexual behaviour.

The Australian Capital Territory Education Directorate has training for primary school teachers on identifying and responding to problematic sexualised behaviours. There arc policy guidelines and a training module for high schools. The focus is on addressing coercive and violent behaviours and intimate partner violence.

Queensland’s guidelines are only available to staff working in education in the state. The Queensland Department of Education gives information for educators in its Student protection guidelines (Department of Education Queensland 2020). This is informed by True Relationships and Reproductive Health’s Sexual behaviours in children and young people (2015). The Western Australian Education Department gives no public information about their policy documents (Ey et al. 2017, p. 686).

There are inconsistent approaches around Australia to mandatory reporting training and guidelines in identifying and responding to children’s harmful sexual behaviour. This highlights a need for educators’ access to consistent and holistic teacher training materials and support (Ey et al. 2017, p. 687).

Educators´ training in identifying and responding to children displaying sexual behaviour

Most of the 2016 survey respondents were able to identify more than one source of training relating to harmful sexual behaviour. Sources included external agencies, teacher training, training within another discipline, and researching the topic (Ey ct al. 2017).

Ey et al. (2017) report that more than half of respondents had been trained in identifying and responding to harmful sexual behaviour in children. Sixty-six of 101 participants (65.3%) indicated they had been trained. Four in every five who had been trained had done mandated reporting courses. The rest had received professional development. One in five of these had completed pre-service training at university. Ey, Mclnncs, and Rigney note that 26 respondents had either sought courses, read books, or searched the internet or sought information through other means (Ey et al. 2017, p. 690).

Nearly 80% of those who had received some education said it made them ‘confident’ in identifying and responding to children’s harmful sexual behaviour. Nine out of ten respondents wanted specific courses for educators in identifying harmful sexual behaviours (Ey et al. 2017, p. 691).

What educators want

The survey identified that educators wanted on-demand access to training and expert support. Whilst all state and territory education departments provided some level of support, services were often thinly spread, and issues of child sexual behaviour did not have any priority over other issues. This meant that educators could wait for weeks before they or the children could access counselling support. A particular priority was support for educators in responding to involved families. Educators also wanted to be able to refer families to services in the wider community and have wholc-of-school leadership engaged in safe behaviours education. Respondents noted that support was most effective when they could access information and guidance as needed (Mclnnes & Ey 2019).

Educators experienced high levels of stress when confronted with harmful sexual behaviours and wanted to be effective in protecting and supporting children. Responses from site leadership were critical for educators who needed to comply with legal frameworks, manage the learning and care needs of the children, care for their own health and wellbeing, and manage the needs of families. Respondents felt that they experienced little support when they reported harmful sexual behaviours and were not informed or aware of any action by child protection services. Principals

Educators and harmful sexual behaviour 79 and managers who did not act promptly or appropriately on reports of concerning behaviour were seen as failing to prevent escalating behaviours by children. Male educators felt particularly vulnerable responding to harmful sexual behaviours. Educators were highly vulnerable to vicarious trauma, toxic stress, and burnout, owing to the combination of being exposed to harmful sexual behaviours, limited or delayed support from school leadership and counselling and therapeutic services, ongoing impacts on children’s behaviour in their classroom environment, and the ongoing concerns of families (Mclnncs & Ey 2019).

The psychological and emotional impacts on educators of being exposed to harmful sexual behaviours are currently largely unacknowledged in formal, systemic responses. Such impacts include the responsibility to maintain the safety of all students, legal obligations to make mandatory reports, managing learning in ways which take account of children’s trauma histories, and liaising with families whose children have been directly and indirectly involved. A consequent risk of harmful sexual behaviours, apart from impacts on children and families, is the impact on the learning environment and the wellbeing of educators.

A move to a national approach

The survey findings highlighted the need for harmful sexual behaviours to be included as a specific issue in pre-service teacher training programs in universities, in child protective behaviours curricula, and in mandatory training in responding to child abuse and neglect. Developing a national approach to harmful sexual behaviours training for educators would enable the development of a shared language, definitions, reporting and response frameworks, and pedagogy approaches.

Several strategics arc indicated as critical to ensuring that the harms caused by harmful sexual behaviours can be prevented and reduced. These include multiple forms of access to information and training for educators in identifying and responding to harmful sexual behaviours, greater access to counselling and therapeutic services for affected children, and expert and continuing support in managing family needs. Feedback to educators on actions by child protection services is important for enabling educators to form part of a team approach to support children’s safety and recovery.

The social problems of domestic violence, parental substance abuse, and child abuse inform children’s social learnings, which manifest in their behaviour in education sites. Educators arc on the front line of identifying harmful sexual behaviours and providing effective response to prevent ongoing and future harms. More training, more services, and more support need to be focused on harmful sexual behaviours to improve outcomes.


Educators bear the brunt of responsibility in identifying, reporting, responding to, and managing harmful sexual behaviours in care and education settings. However, the research indicates that many struggle with the ongoing work of dealing with children’s behaviours, parents’ concerns, legal and professional obligations, and their own levels of stress. Male educators indicated their need for particular support in an environment of heightened awareness of sexual behaviours and public sensitivities to males as potential perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Both male and female educators expressed the need for priority expert attention to harmful sexual behaviours incidents in care and education sites, as these had the potential to escalate rapidly to affect multiple children. Children initiating harmful sexual behaviours required quick access to therapeutic interventions, whilst children who were directly involved in harmful sexual behaviours by other children, as well as those who witnessed or heard about the behaviour, required rapid support to deal with what occurred. Families also required multiple-level responses to be assured of the re-cstablishmcnt of safety for their children in the education setting, communication and privacy needs, and ongoing access to appropriate services to assist them to deal with any emergent consequences of exposure to harmful sexual behaviours. In addition to teacher education and training, on-demand resources and support are critical to ensuring educators arc not left with all the responsibility and insufficient care. This will help ensure they can meet their obligations in each circumstance.


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