Children are inquisitive, but what happens if they overstep sexual boundaries? Nick Morrison hears first-hand accounts from schools and finds out what can be done
A six-year-old puts her hands down another child's trousers; a teenage boy touches a girl in his class in a way that could be seen as sexual assault; two five-year-old boys are discovered naked in a toilet cubicle - of all the minefields awaiting teachers, dealing with emerging sexuality is one of the most treacherous.
Feelings of embarrassment, shame and confusion are common among children whose first steps into sexuality appear to be misplaced. The balance between child protection and confidentiality can be tricky to negotiate, and parental reactions range from denial to outrage.
And then there is the question of where healthy experimentation stops and inappropriate behaviour begins. "It's an area teachers are often unsure about," says Julie Henniker, manager of Assessment, Intervention and Moving-on (Aim), a project based in the North West of England working with young people who display sexually harmful behaviour. "It is not only about what is acceptable behaviour, but also who in the school needs to know and who is there to support the young person."
These are familiar concerns for Christine, a primary head in Telford and Wrekin in the West Midlands. A six-year-old girl arrived at Christine's school with a history of sexually touching other children.
"It can colour your view of a child because they have done that thing," says Christine. "But you have to remember they're still a child and they've done it because they don't know any better.
"We did a risk assessment and identified potential danger times. And we looked at areas that may present opportunities for inappropriate behaviour, such as the playground, the cloakroom and the toilets."
The school's approach was to have a supervisor, funded by the local authority, keeping an eye on the girl during breaktimes. She was only allowed to go to the toilet accompanied and when no other children were there. But this vigilance had to be discreet enough not to raise suspicions.
"The last thing we wanted was to cause other children to think there was something wrong with her - we didn't want to make the situation worse than it was," says Christine.
The class teacher and breaktime supervisor knew all the details; the teaching assistant knew the girl shouldn't sit too close to other children, but didn't know why. Other lunchtime supervisors, as well as parents, were not informed. "You need to give sufficient information to appropriate people, and no information to others," says Christine. "Give people enough detail to make them alert and ensure that the safety and wellbeing of all the children is paramount."
The girl has been at Christine's school for three years, working intensively with NSPCC counsellors during that time. So far her sexualised behaviour has not resurfaced and the supervision has been scaled down.
In another case at Christine's school, a teacher caught two five-year-old boys in a toilet cubicle. Both were naked, with one using suggestive language not normally found in a five-year-old's vocabulary.
Child protection officers visited the boy's home but so far there is no indication of why the incident happened. A risk assessment concluded that only the other boy was at risk. The two boys can no longer go to the toilet at the same time, and there has been no repeat occurrence.
While the boy seen as the instigator is waiting to be seen by counsellors, another of Christine's pupils has been working with the NSPCC for several years. She is 10 years old, arrived at the school more than a year ago, and frequently masturbates in class.
"She's been doing it since she was in nappies, but when you get to nine or 10 you know it is socially unacceptable," Christine says. The girl is fully clothed, and stops if the teacher asks for hands on the table.
"There have been comments like 'don't be so dirty' from the other pupils, but there isn't a risk to anybody else and the children haven't been overly bothered. It isn't always obvious and sometimes the children don't cotton on," says Christine.
It may be that she has been unlucky in having to deal with a number of incidents in recent months. There is no central record of how frequently schools have to deal with sexually inappropriate behaviour.
So far the reasons for the 10-year-old's actions remain unexplained. But the majority of children who display sexually harmful behaviour have been the victim of some form of abuse, whether it's sexual or otherwise.
Kevin Gibbs, NSPCC assistant director in south and east Wales, says it is important to recognise that these children are often vulnerable. "We shouldn't portray young people with sexually harmful behaviour as mini-adult sex offenders, because they're not," he says.
At one end of the scale are children who are acting out what they have seen or experienced, or whose behaviour is inappropriate, but where the intention is not to cause harm. At the other end is sexually abusive behaviour, where there is an element of taking advantage or coercion.
Deciding if an incident is inappropriate is not always clear-cut. "It is important to recognise that sexual experimentation and sexual play is normal in young children," says Kevin. "Sometimes it doesn't warrant referral to a specialist service, and the stigma that creates."
Kairen Cullen, an educational psychologist based in London, says the age at which children start displaying sexual behaviour varies widely, but sexual development does not generally start until the end of the primary years.
And while physical exploration is part of growing up, this could be worrying if it is accompanied by sexual language at a young age. "If you have a child of eight or nine talking about sexual behaviour in a way that doesn't fit their normal experiences, you would be concerned," she says.
Context is often the key, says Tess Johnson of Kaleidoscope, a Sunderland-based project run by the NSPCC and Barnardo's, which works with children as young as four who behave in a sexually harmful way. Is the behaviour appropriate for their age? Is there a difference in the level of understanding of the children involved? Is there some degree of secrecy or planning?
Sexually inappropriate behaviour rarely comes out of nowhere: there is likely to have been inappropriate language before incidents involving other children. But while schools are understandably anxious about this, many already have the tools required.
"Schools are experienced at dealing with bullying, and this is another kind of bullying," says Tess. "You need to look at this alongside other bullying behaviours and manage the risk."
James Williams, a lecturer in education at the University of Sussex, says their advice to trainees is to report any incidents of sexual behaviour to senior teachers or designated child protection officers. "A child who doesn't realise what they're doing is wrong or who is confused about their sexuality is one of the most difficult things to deal with and is difficult to tackle on your own," he says.
The good news is that specialist interventions have a high success rate. Although 30 per cent of all sexual offences are committed by under 18s, a study of 250 children who displayed sexually harmful behaviour and had worked with the NSPCC over a 10-year period found none had gone on to commit sexual offences as an adult. The waiting list for counselling, however, is a long one.
The Aim project in the North West has procedures to provide consistency in assessing and working with children, which have now been adopted across 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester. "Schools need to make informed decisions about whether a young person can remain in school and what sort of support they need," says Julie.
The danger is that an over-reaction could have disastrous consequences. "It is easy to turn a situation into a catastrophe," says Colleen Sweeney, child protection officer at Chorlton High School in south Manchester. "You can cause a lot of damage to someone who is just starting their sexual life."
Colleen worked with a teenage boy who was given six months' probation by a youth court after touching three other pupils. The decision was made that the boy could stay in school but would stay away from areas where he couldn't be seen. He also worked with the young offending team on his attitudes towards women.
"He was not a sexual predator, he was a young man who took it too far," says Colleen. "He misread the situation and probably from watching the other boys thought it would be OK, but he got it a bit wrong. An automatic reaction is to say they're out, but if they're excluded from school, we probably wouldn't be as effective in dealing with it, and it is vital that young people get support when they start displaying this sort of behaviour."
Some names in this article have been changed
DON'T PLAY THE BLAME GAME
The initial reaction of many parents of children who display sexually inappropriate behaviour is one of denial. Few are prepared to acknowledge their child is capable of such a thing, not least in case there is an implication that they are somehow to blame. That is why it is important not to make accusations, but to describe the behaviour, says Robin Wilson, head of Woodlands School, an 11-16 school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties in Shropshire.
Robin has extensive experience in the field - about 40 per cent of children who show sexually harmful behaviour have learning difficulties. In one incident, a Year 8 boy was alleged to have abused two boys in Year 9 on a residential trip.
Although there was no forensic evidence, an investigation revealed the parents of the Year 8 boy were aware he had done this before, but had not told the school. They still blamed the school.
"They were aggressive and said we had allowed it to happen, even though, if they had disclosed the full story, we would have made different arrangements," says Robin.
What you should do
- Consider the context - the type of behaviour, the ages of the children, where it takes place.
- Talk to the alleged victims - are they distressed by what happened?
- There will always be one-off incidents, but look out for any recurrence and whether the child is obsessed with sexual behaviour.
- Avoid a reaction that could stigmatise the children involved. Be discreet - once rumours have started they are difficult to stop.
- Do not keep secrets. If you have any concerns, speak to your designated child protection officers.
- If a child makes a disclosure, listen but do not question them. If it becomes a police matter, you could contaminate the evidence by asking leading questions.