Sexual behaviour among young children can be a difficult area for adults. On top of the sense of embarrassment we often feel in talking about sex, it can be hard to avoid feeling a certain level of disgust. If you work in a primary school, chances are you'll encounter this type of behaviour in some form or another.
In June, Ofsted revealed that it had found "worrying" levels of sexual behaviour in children as young as four. Inspectors examined schools that had repeatedly excluded children and found widespread examples of inappropriate touching and using graphic language by sometimes very young children.
One of the first hurdles is to overcome our own feelings. "We tend to be quite uncomfortable with children's sexuality," says Marcus Erooga, child sex abuse adviser for the NSPCC.
"We need to be aware of how much our response is about our own discomfort and how much it is about whether the behaviour is really appropriate."
A first step is to distinguish between a child's natural curiosity about their body and behaviour that is inappropriate. Children going into a Wendy house to look at each other's genitals can be perfectly normal; touching another child in a way that makes them uncomfortable should ring warning bells.
If it falls into the latter category, it is important to treat it in the same way as you would any other inappropriate behaviour, such as bullying.
"Children test out boundaries about what is appropriate sexually just as they do in any other area, and it is helpful to avoid having an emotionally-laden response," says Mr Erooga. "Explain to them in a non- moralising, straight-forward way that this is not OK and keep reinforcing that message."
Telling a child that what they have done is dirty or disgusting risks clouding your message, and may lead to them carrying on doing it, but in secret. Instead, concentrate on explaining how it makes other people feel, just as you would with any other behaviour you want a pupil to stop.
If you believe it is more than just a three or four-year-old with a hazy understanding of personal space taking their curiosity a step too far, then there may be other issues that need exploring.
Explicit behaviour either learnt or observed
Behaviour in a child that age that is explicitly and unpleasantly sexual is either learnt or observed, says Maggie Atkinson, immediate past president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services. The next conversation should be with the child's responsible adult to find out where they could have picked it up.
"You should try to keep it low key and panic free, and have the same sort of conversation as if he was bullying someone or hurting himself or taking risky behaviour," says Mrs Atkinson, director of children's services in Gateshead. This could be asking why the adult thinks the boy is behaving this way, and what he might have seen.
By this stage you should also have spoken to other members of your team, to see if anyone else has noticed anything of concern and to make sure you are all taking a consistent line, as well as to take advice on how to approach it.
It may be the child has access to a video or game that he shouldn't, or he could have walked in on somebody having sex. If this conversation produces a red-faced admission that something like this has happened, then it should be enough to point out that the child is too young to be exposed to this type of thing.
But if the responsible adult's answers are not satisfactory you have a duty to take the process to the next stage. This means filling in a Common Assessment Framework Form, which triggers involvement from local authority child protection teams.
"If you have a concern, that escalates up the statutory framework and the statutory agencies have to get involved," she says.
- Treat is as you would any other behaviour you consider inappropriate in a child that age.
- Concentrate on how the behaviour is affecting other people to reinforce the message that it has to stop.
- Inform your school's designated child protection officer if you think there are child welfare issues at stake.
- Cloud your response with an emotional reaction or give the boy the impression you think he is dirty or disgusting.