How to prevent harmful sexual behaviour in children

Last updated: 15 Mar 2022
Introduction

It's typical for children to display some sexualised behaviour as they grow up. But sometimes a child might display sexualised behaviour that is harmful to themselves and others.

Everyone who works or volunteers with children has a responsibility to keep them safe. This includes taking appropriate action to prevent and respond to problematic sexual behaviour (PSB), harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) and peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

> Read more about developmentally typical, problematic and harmful behaviours

> Watch this video to find out more about why it’s important to tackle all forms of harmful sexual behaviour

What you need to do

Statutory guidance for schools in England says leaders should act on the assumption that all children and young people are affected by peer-on-peer sexual abuse and harassment (Department for Education (DfE), 20211). To help keep children safe, this is best practice for everyone working or volunteering with children.

But it can be difficult to know how best to protect children from HSB, PSB and peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

We’ve put together some information to help you and your organisation:

  • put policies and procedures in place
  • create a safe culture for all your children and young people
  • understand legislation and guidance relating to HSB, PSB and peer-on-peer sexual abuse across the UK.

References

Department for Education (DfE) (2021) Keeping children safe in education: statutory guidance for schools and colleges. London: DfE.

How to manage incidents of harmful sexual behaviour

Learn more about how you should respond if a child or young person is displaying or experiencing problematic, harmful or abusive behaviour.


Read more

 

Policies and procedures

Policies and procedures

Your safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures should include information about problematic sexual behaviour (PSB), harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) and peer-on-peer sexual abuse. They should explain what these things are and set out what your school or organisation is doing to prevent and tackle them.

You might want to develop separate procedures that make it clear how you will respond to all forms of sexualised behaviour.

> Find out more about writing safeguarding policies and procedures

> Read more about responding to incidents of PSB, HSB and peer-on-peer sexual abuse

Codes of conduct

You should have codes of conduct which clearly set out what behaviour is and is not appropriate for adults and children. This will help make sure everyone knows what behaviour is suitable for your setting.

Your codes of conduct should set out how you will support children and young people to behave appropriately and what the consequences will be if they breach the rules. Any response to sexualised behaviour should be immediate, proportionate and appropriate, to make sure all children involved get the support they need.

> Get tips on how to write a code of conduct for adults and children

> Find out how to respond appropriately and proportionately to PSB, HSB and peer-on-peer sexual abuse

Training

All staff and volunteers in your school or organisation need regular training to help them understand whether sexual behaviour is developmentally typical, problematic, harmful or abusive and know what action to take.

This includes everyone from frontline staff, teachers and teaching assistants to your nominated child protection leads and managers. Trustees and school governors should also have a good understanding of what sexualised behaviour is, when it can pose a risk to children and how to keep children safe.

> Take our online training on managing harmful sexual behaviour in schools

Reviewing and updating

Your training, policies and procedures should be updated regularly to make sure they are up-to-date with national guidance and reflect the needs of the children and young people you work with.

You should keep clear records of any incidents of PSB, HSB or peer-on-peer abuse, and analyse these regularly. This will help you identify patterns and improve the measures you are taking to keep children safe.

> Use our self-assessment tool to audit your safeguarding and child protection measures

Multi-agency work

Children and young people who display problematic, harmful or abusive sexual behaviour might have multiple and complex needs. They might need support from a range of services.

It's important for agencies to work together so that children receive the most effective support possible. Make sure your nominated child protection leads have the time and support to liaise with local safeguarding agencies.

> Find out more about multi-agency working to support children and young people who display HSB

Creating a safe culture

Creating a safe culture

As part of your responsibility to keep children safe, it’s important for all organisations to create a healthy and safe environment for all children and young people.

This includes developing a culture where all kinds of problematic, harmful and abusive sexual behaviour are recognised and addressed. For the education sector, this might be looking at implementing a whole school approach towards responding to HSB.

Sharing your policies and procedures

You should share your safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures with staff, volunteers, parents and carers. This will ensure everyone understands what they need to do to help prevent and tackle problematic, harmful and abusive sexual behaviour.

You might find it helpful to create a version of your policies and procedures that are suitable for children and young people.

Sharing this information can:

  • help children and young people understand that any incidents of problematic, harmful or abusive sexual behaviour will be taken seriously and responded to effectively
  • help them know who to talk to if anything upsetting has happened
  • encourage them to speak out if they are worried about their own or someone else’s behaviour.

Modelling appropriate behaviour

Your staff and volunteers should model respectful and appropriate behaviour. Make sure they all understand and agree to follow your codes of conduct.

Support your staff and volunteers to respond consistently and appropriately to any incidents of sexualised behaviour. This will help children and young people understand that your school or organisation wants to keep them safe.

Safe environments

You should think about how you can make your organisation’s environment safe for children and young people.

To start with, you could identify any locations where there are concerns about peer-on-peer sexual abuse taking place. This might include toilets, unsupervised corridors and areas that are poorly lit or hidden from adult view. Think about what you can do to make these places safer – for example, increasing supervision levels in certain areas or improving lighting.

> Find out about creating safer environments for children and young people

Children’s understanding of sexualised behaviour

Children may not always understand that they have experienced or displayed problematic or harmful sexual behaviour. This might be because:

  • they don’t understand what constitutes appropriate, problematic or abusive sexualised behaviour
  • they have experienced sexual abuse but don’t realise that what happened to them was wrong
  • they don’t know whether consent was given
  • the abuse happened between friends or partners
  • the abuse took place online
  • they blame themselves for being abused
  • they haven’t received appropriate relationships and sex education

(NSPCC, 20181).

It’s important to create a culture where adults are able to have age-appropriate discussions with children and young people about sex and relationships.

> View our relationships and sex education (RSE) resources

Talking to children

Helping children speak out

Children might not always feel able to talk to adults about sexualised behaviour. But there are things you can do to make it easier.

  • Build a positive, trusting relationship with children. Give them frequent opportunities to share their thoughts and opinions, and encourage them to speak out. Listen to them respectfully and respond appropriately to what they say.
  • Build a culture within your organisation that challenges inappropriate behaviour. This can help children feel more confident that they will be supported if they raise concerns.
  • Having specialist staff in pastoral care or counselling roles can make it easier for children to share anything they’re worried about.

(Contextual Safeguarding Network, 20201).

Talking with children about sexual behaviour

It’s important to talk to children in an age-appropriate way about sexual behaviour, trust, consent, boundaries and responsibility. This will help them have a clearer understanding of what behaviour is, and is not, appropriate and why.

If children are used to having open discussions with adults, it can help them feel more comfortable about speaking out if they are worried or upset about anything.

It’s good practice to let parents know about the topics you’re discussing and make time to answer their questions as well.

> Read our advice on how to have difficult conversations with children

Relationships and sex education in schools

In schools, lessons on relationships, sex and sexuality should be a part of the curriculum.

> Find out more about the curriculum guidance for relationships and sex education in each UK nation

Topics you can discuss with children in primary school include:

  • what caring friendships and respectful relationships look like
  • how relationships might be different online and offline
  • the importance of privacy and boundaries
  • appropriate and inappropriate physical contact
  • who they can talk to if they are ever worried or upset about anything.

Our Speak out Stay safe service for schools helps children understand abuse in all its forms and encourages them to seek help if they need to.

> Get more details about Speak out Stay safe

Topics you can discuss with secondary school children include:

> Discover how to promote healthy relationships from early years through to older children

> Listen to our podcast on preventing harmful sexual behaviour in schools

> Take our training on managing sexualised behaviour in primary and secondary schools

Responding to disclosures

During your discussions, a child or young person might tell you they have displayed or experienced problematic or harmful sexual behaviour (PSB or HSB). Or you might notice something that makes you concerned. If this happens, it’s important to respond quickly and appropriately.

Children and young people can also contact the Report Abuse in Education helpline to talk about being involved or witnessing incidents or sharing experiences of sexual abuse and harassment by calling 0800 136 663 or email help@nspcc.org.uk.

> Learn how to manage and respond to incidents of peer-on-peer sexual abuse

> Find out how to respond if a child tells you they have experienced or carried out peer-on-peer sexual abuse

Support from Childline

Childline has produced age-appropriate information and advice for children and young people about sexual abuse, which includes information about HSB and peer-on-peer sexual abuse. You might want to signpost children to Childline for support, or use some of these examples to help start a conversation.

> See Childline’s information about sexual abuse for children and young people

Children can also contact Childline for free on 0800 1111 if they need to talk to one of our counsellors confidentially.

> Download or order Childline posters and wallet cards

References

Contextual Safeguarding Network (2020) Beyond referrals: harmful sexual behaviour in schools (PDF). Bedfordshire: Contextual Safeguarding Network.
Legislation and guidance

Legislation and guidance

Key guidance

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each have their own legislation and guidance about how professionals must respond to child abuse and protect children from harm. These include key messages for practice for professionals working to safeguard children at risk of harmful sexual behaviour.

See our pages on child protection in:

Guidance for the education sector

In each UK nation, the statutory guidance for schools includes information on preventing and responding to harmful sexual behaviour and peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) has also provided advice for schools and colleges on how to prevent and respond to reports of sexual violence and harassment between children (DfE, 20211).

> Read our summary of the sexual violence and harassment guidance

In Northern Ireland, the Department of Education (DE) has published guidance for schools and other education settings on how to identify and manage harmful sexual behaviour displayed by children and young people (Department of Education (DE), 20222).

In Wales, the Welsh Government has published guidance for education settings on peer sexual abuse, exploitation and harmful sexual behaviour (Welsh Government, 20203).

This guidance supplements the All Wales practice guide: safeguarding children where there are concerns about harmful sexual behaviour (Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board, 20214).

Pupils, parents and teachers across the UK can also use the Report Abuse in Education Helpline to express any concerns about current and non-recent experiences of sexual abuse.

> Get more information about the Helpline

Sex and relationships education

UK schools should teach children about sex and relationships. This should include discussions about peer-on-peer sexual abuse, consent, healthy relationships and sexuality.

> Find out more about the guidance relating to relationships and sex education across the UK

Guidance for other sectors

In England, Harmful sexual behaviour among children and young people provides guidance for professionals on responding to children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour, including those on remand or serving community or custodial sentences (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 20165).

In England and Wales the Home Office provides guidance for police and practitioners on Part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This includes the requirements for children and young people who have been convicted of sexual offences to keep agencies informed of their whereabouts (the notification requirements) (Home Office, 20186).

In Northern Ireland, the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) has published a policy and procedure on harmful sexual behaviour (PDF), which sets out the principles of effective child protection intervention for children who sexually abuse others (SBNI, 20217).

In Scotland, the National guidance - under-age sexual activity: meeting the needs of children and young people and identifying child protection concerns (PDF) is designed to be used alongside the National guidance for child protection in Scotland (Scottish Government, 20108).

In Wales, the All Wales Practice Guide: safeguarding children where there are concerns about harmful sexual behaviour provides information on how agencies can work together to safeguard children who display HSB (Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board, 20219).

Sexting

Creating or sharing explicit images of a child is illegal, even if the person doing it is a child. However national guidance highlights the need to prioritise safeguarding issues rather than criminalising young people.

In England and Wales, if a young person is found creating or sharing images, the police can choose to record that a crime has been committed but that taking formal action isn't in the public interest.

> Read our summary of the legislation and guidance about sexting

References

Department for Education (2021) Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges. London: Department for Education (DfE).
Department of Education (DE) (2022) Children who display harmful sexual behaviour. [Accessed 08/03/2022].
Welsh Government (2020) Guidance for education settings on peer sexual abuse, exploitation and harmful sexual behaviour. Cardiff: Welsh Government.
Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board (2021) All Wales practice guide: safeguarding children where there are concerns about harmful sexual behaviour. [Accessed 19/07/2021].
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) (2016) Harmful sexual behaviour among children and young people [London]: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
Home Office (2018) Guidance on part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. [Accessed 19/07/2021].
Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) (2021) SBNI policy and procedure - harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) (PDF). [Belfast]: SBNI.
Scottish Government (2010) National guidance - under-age sexual activity (PDF). Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.
Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board (2021) All Wales practice guide: safeguarding children where there are concerns about harmful sexual behaviour. [Accessed 19/07/2021].