Responding to and supporting children who display harmful sexual behaviour: an educator’s approach


Chapter 8 discusses recommended practice of how to support and respond to children who display harmful sexual behaviour and those who have been affected, whilst drawing on current practices and guidelines designed to protect and support the children involved. The final focus of this chapter is on supporting children within an educational context, placing the child and their education and development at the forefront, rather than focusing only on the behaviour. Some practical ideas are deliberated.

In Australia, there are 281,948 full-time teaching staff (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2018) who, as mandated notifiers (Australian Institute of Family Studies 2017b), need to be able to recognise and respond appropriately to children’s harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) in education settings to minimise ongoing social and economic impacts. Schools arc increasingly charged with the responsibility of addressing complex social problems faced by children and adolescents (Skovdal & Campbell 2015) and have a responsibility to support the safety and wellbeing of all children in their care (Ministerial Council on Education: Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs 2011). Teachers spend more time with school-age children than any other adults, other than children’s parents (Briggs 2012), and play a significant role in the safety, wellbeing, and education of children. This places teachers at the forefront of those required to identify, respond to, and seek support for children with HSB and those affected by it. In Australia, teachers across all states and territories arc mandated to report sexual abuse (Australian Institute of Family Studies 2017b) and arc the second-largest group to report child abuse and neglect (19%), marginally below police (21%) (Australian Institute of Family Studies 2017a). However, navigating this complex and sensitive area can be difficult. Because a teacher’s response to harmful sexual behaviour could significantly affect the subsequent health and development of the children involved, including children’s potential contact with the judicial system, it is important that teachers respond to children in an appropriate and supportive manner.

Therapeutic treatment for children who display harmful sexual behaviour

The prevalence of children’s harmful sexual behaviour in Australia has resulted in a rise in the number of children attending treatment programs (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2016). There is significant variation in the interventions offered for children with harmful sexual behaviour across Australia (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017b) and limited evidence for the effectiveness of these programs. This can be due to practical issues, such as children who did not complete the treatment or continue participating in the research, and a lack of research with children with harmful sexual behaviours who arc not enrolled in programs (Shlonsky ct al. 2017). Nevertheless, multisystemic therapy has been identified as a promising approach (Shlonsky ct al. 2017). It is an intensive program underpinned by a range of cognitive behaviour therapies and pragmatic family therapy approaches delivered in the child’s home and facilitated by the child’s parcnt/carcgivcr. Multisystemic therapy interventions follow an ‘ecological’ model and ‘arc tailored to the child’s individual, family, friendship, school and community environments’ (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017b). The involvement of children’s social systems is designed to uphold and maintain behaviour change (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017b). Multisystemic therapy’s collaborative approach provides the opportunity for consistency in response and support mechanisms across all the environments of children who display harmful sexual behaviour. Enabling educators’ access to support materials and practices not only assists the child with the behaviour, but also provides educators with informed strategics to manage and support the child whilst in their education setting. Such knowledge is also likely to inform educators of best practices for other children who may have been involved in or exposed to the behaviour.

Other treatment and interventions for children who display harmful sexual behaviour include cognitive behaviour therapy, including therapy specifically for sexual behaviour problems; trauma-focused, sexual abuse-specific therapy; gradual exposure; play therapy; expressive therapy; relapse prevention; group treatment; client-centred therapy; non-directive supportive

Responding to harmful sexual behaviour 85 therapy; and a multi-modcl intervention (Cox, Ey, Parkinson, & Brotnfiel 2018). The delivery of these interventions may include sessions with the parent/carcgivcr and child, separate therapy sessions with parent/ caregiver and child, and group therapy (Cox ct al. 2018). Shlonsky ct al. (2017) point out that although there are services available for children, accessibility of the services is sometimes problematic because of a lack of spaces in the program or the location of the services.

External support services for children who have harmful sexual behaviour

Briggs (2012) argues that schools and teachers arc important figures in protecting children. She claims that well-informed educators can identify ‘at risk’ children, report suspicions, provide support and therapeutic activities to assist children’s recovery or rehabilitation, support children and parents in seeking external support services, and provide preventative education. It is therefore important that educators have a sound understanding of healthy sexual development and sexual expression, as well as harmful sexual behaviour (Ey, Mclnncs, & Rigney 2017). It is also important for educators to familiarise themselves with support services available for children who display harmful sexual behaviour. There arc currently limited specialist services for children with harmful sexual behaviours (Table 8.1);

Table 8.1 Specialist services for children with harmful sexual behaviours by jurisdiction




New South

New Street Adolescent

Children aged 10-17 not convicted



of a sexual offence

New South

Sexualised Behaviours

Children under 10 with problematic


(under 10s) Program (Sparks)

or harmful sexual behaviour


Sexually Abusive Behaviour Treatment Services

Children aged up to 18 following voluntary or mandatory referral


Male Adolescent Program for Positive Sexuality

Children and young people aged 10-12 convicted of a sexual offence


Griffith Youth Forensic


Children convicted of a sexual offence


Mater Family and Youth Counselling Service

Children convicted of a sexual offence

Source: Adapted from Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017b, p. 180.

however, if access to specialised services proves difficult, educators should suggest mainstream services, such as:

  • • mental health services;
  • • community health services;
  • • specialised health services, such as SA Health: Sexual Health Services;
  • • general practitioners (GPs);
  • • private practitioners, such as psychologists.
  • (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017a)

It is essential that schools maintain up-to-date lists of local support services to enable educators or schools to provide information about relevant local services for children and parents if parents or children indicate a need to access these.

Initial responses

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Recommendations (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017c, p. 33) requires all state and territory governments to establish ‘primary prevention strategies to educate family, community members, carers and professionals, including mandatory reporters, about preventing harmful sexual behaviours, and intervening when harmful sexual behaviours arc developing or arc already prevalent'. This initiative is particularly important for schools and educators as determined in Volume 10 of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Children with harmful sexual behaviours (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017b), which identified that staff in institutional contexts need the tools, resources, support, and training to respond appropriately to harmful sexual behaviour and facilitate early intervention.

It is important to recognise that children who display harmful sexual behaviours arc, first and foremost, children (Meiksans, Bromficld, & Ey 2017). If an educator observes or receives a report of harmful sexual behaviour, it is essential that he or she remains calm and avoids panicked or shocked responses (Briggs 2012). Each state and territory education department will have different policies and procedures on how to respond, based on compliance with legislated requirements. The authors arc most familiar with the South Australian education departmental policies and procedures and will therefore provide an overview of South Australia as a case

Responding to harmful sexual behaviour 87 study. Drawing on South Australia’s Responding to problem sexual behaviour in children and young people: Guidelines for staff in education and care settings (3rd edition) (Department for Education 2019), the most important first response is to determine the severity of the behaviour. The behaviour needs to be reviewed relative to several factors. These include the age and developmental capability of the child or children (using the department resource of what constitutes typical sexual development and what behaviour is concerning or scrious/problcmatic); the differences in age or developmental level of children involved; the context in which the behaviour has taken place (e.g. public versus private, or obstructing another child from leaving the location where the incident occurred); behaviour history of the child (ongoing behaviour, behaviour that is increasing in severity as opposed to a once-oif incident); and the impact of the behaviour on others (e.g. penetrative behaviour, or potential social, psychological, or emotional impact) (Department for Education 2019).

In South Australia, there arc procedures for immediate responses for the first staff member involved. These include attending to immediate safety needs, meaning providing first aid, securing the area to prevent or limit traffic, and alerting leadership or the emergency team. The staff member needs to respond calmly to children in their care, listen to accounts of what has occurred, and provide appropriate reassurance. From the information collected once the staff member has become aware of an incident, they need to establish the whereabouts of the other children involved and act to support the safety of all children. This may involve separating them, obtaining further supervision, or quarantining sexual material or other relevant evidence. Finally, they need to hand over the information to site leadership and begin documenting the incident (Department for Education 2019). For clear guidelines about documenting harmful sexual behaviour incidents, see Ey and Bromfield (2020). Site leadership is then responsible for contacting police if required, reporting the incident to child protection services, supervising the child or children involved, and contacting necessary others such as case workers or parents. The leadership is also responsible for reporting, documenting, and storing critical incident reports. It is their role to identify and inform other parents or guardians if required and, keeping within the information sharing policy, inform relevant others (e.g. boarding house director, child care or out-of-school hours care director), as well as recording the site’s actions (Department for Education 2019).

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