Behaviour - How to join the fight against sexual abuse

Teachers are well placed to identify victims and perpetrators, and their ability to recognise the indicators is crucial

Valerie Sheehan

Child sexual exploitation has been referred to as a hidden epidemic, with good reason. Research has shown that one in four children in the uk will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18, and the numbers are equally high elsewhere. These children sit in classrooms and may show no obvious signs of the abuse they are experiencing. So how can teachers help them?

It is difficult for teachers to spot victims of harmful sexual behaviour - or, indeed, to spot child perpetrators. Yet teachers are pivotal in safeguarding children when a disclosure is made, and in spotting the child who is being sexually abused or who is abusing others. A way of helping teachers, therefore, has to be devised, and a good place to start is by distinguishing between the myths and facts about sexual abuse.

The myths are multiple. It is widely thought that children are most at risk from strangers. On the contrary: research from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre reveals that 80 per cent of sexual offences against children are committed within the family or by people known to the child, often in positions of trust.

It is also said that child sexual abusers are "dirty old men" and "weirdos". In fact, those who sexually abuse children transcend stereotypes, professions and age. Contrary to common belief, women sexually abuse children. Indeed, the number of women convicted of such offences is increasing, according to a 2011 study published in the Internet Journal of Criminology.

Another disruptive myth is that victims of sexual abuse are socially awkward, withdrawn and quiet. That is not the case: all types of children are targeted and offenders will spot a vulnerability that may not be apparent to all. Bubbly, outgoing and confident children are just as likely to be victims. Older children are also as at risk as younger ones: those who sexually exploit children are adept at manipulating others and can readily spot vulnerabilities and capitalise upon them, so children of all ages can be silenced. That said, a recent study found that victims in sexual exploitation images are getting lower and the abuse depicted more extreme.

With these facts in hand, a teacher can be more prepared for spotting signs of abuse. Typically, they will be trained in recognising behaviour that may indicate that a child is being sexually abused. Such indicators could include inexplicable changes in behaviour; a change in eating habits, including signs of an eating disorder; recklessness and risk-taking, particularly in boys; uncharacteristically impulsive behaviour; a drop in school grades, performance or attendance; self-harm; withdrawal; and sudden sexualised behaviour.

In younger children, another indicator could be behaving in a sexually inappropriate way that is not commensurate with their age and does not stop over time, despite boundary setting.

While it is important not to jump to conclusions about these behaviours, it can be helpful for teachers to pool information sensitively. If one teacher highlights a minor behaviour, it can often be a piece of the jigsaw that slots in to a bigger picture of concerns. Communication about behavioural indicators is crucial in spotting harmful sexual behaviour.

Equally important is considering the behaviour of the offender. At Mentor Forensic Services, an Ireland-based company that teaches behavioural analysis, we work with schools to educate staff in the psychology of sex offenders and how they seek to create an environment of silence and secrecy. We worked with one offender who regularly made complaints against the teachers who taught his stepchildren. He explained to us that it gave him a reputation of someone to be appeased in the school setting but also depicted him as a concerned stepfather.

Teachers and schools need to understand how offenders try to dupe professionals and polarise protective adults in the child's world. In doing so, they can develop the necessary policies to tackle harmful sexual behaviour from an informed perspective.

Online dangers

The internet as a tool of sexual abuse also has to be considered. A growing problem concerns children producing and distributing sexually explicit photographs or videos of themselves ("sexting"). In September 2012, the UK charity Internet Watch Foundation found 12,224 self-generated sexually explicit images and videos of young people on the internet in a 47-hour period, 88 per cent of which had been taken from their original location and uploaded on to other websites. In another study on self-generated images by the American Psychological Association, it was found that 61 per cent of those who engaged in the process had been coerced.

Teachers have to understand this phenomenon and be careful to warn children against uploading images and, if children do upload them, not to apportion blame for doing so but to understand the coercion that takes place. We worked with one case in which the child had been groomed and coerced online to send sexually explicit photographs of herself, believing she was in a "relationship" with a 20-year-old who turned out to be a 47-year-old man. After much pressure she was effectively captive to his threats of publicising the images.

It is important, too, that teachers are aware that children can be offender as well as victim. What do you do when a child in your school has behaved sexually inappropriately or engaged in harmful sexual behaviour towards another child? This is a complex situation for teachers but an increasingly common one. Children are fluid in their development and if a child engages in harmful sexual behaviour it does not mean that it is going to be a lifelong pattern. What they need is understanding, help and a multi-agency plan where the professionals involved may include teachers on a "need to know" basis.

It is often the teacher who initially raises a concern about a child's sexual behaviour. Markers can include sexualising conversations with children outside the norm for their age group, or inappropriate touching or gestures; being socially isolated from peers but gravitating towards younger children; low self-esteem; attempts to isolate a more vulnerable child; extended or frequent time in the toilets; withdrawal from adults or anxiousness around them; and volunteering to help with younger children to the exclusion of other peer activities.

Of course, all these points may not be indicative but may be the result of some other issue in their life or even typical developmental stages. However, it is important to raise concerns and check out the range of possibilities. One student we worked with was spending his entire lunchtime in the toilets as he found it sexually arousing to peep at the other children. The children in the school were aware of his behaviour but the staff did not notice for some time as he proffered a medical condition to mask his activity. In another case, a boy had lent money to a more vulnerable classmate and was demanding sexual contact when the child was unable to repay it.

Whether a child is a victim or a perpetrator of harmful sexual behaviour, teachers play a challenging but crucial role. The scope of the possibilities and indicators is massive and the subject matter incredibly sensitive. With effective training and an understanding of behaviours, however, child protection can be made slightly easier and hopefully lead to a reduction of harmful sexual behaviour and better support for those involved.

Valerie Sheehan is a senior therapist and director of Mentor Forensic Services.


One in four children in the UK will experience sexual abuse before they are 18 years old.

Spotting these children is very difficult for teachers but debunking myths and understanding behavioural indicators can help.

Also important is understanding offender behaviour in order to better comprehend the victim.

It is crucial for teachers to be aware of the internet and how it has changed the ways in which children can be sexually abused.

Schools should also be aware that children who commit sexual abuse need support.


Erooga, M., ed (2012) Creating Safer Organisations: Practical steps to prevent the abuse of children by those working with them (Wiley-Blackwell).

Sullivan, J. and Beech, A. (2002) "Professional Perpetrators: Sex offenders who use their employment to target and sexually abuse the children with whom they work", Child Abuse Review, 311: 153-167.

Quayle, E. and Ribisl, K. M., eds (2012) Understanding and Preventing Online Sexual Exploitation of Children (Routledge).


The TES Connect website has a detailed whole-school e-safety policy. bit.lye-safeTES.

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Valerie Sheehan

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