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Is this "normal"? Understanding children's sexual behaviours

Last updated: 03 Apr 2019 Topics: Blog

By Katy Tomkinson and Leila Canay, NSPCC Children's Services Practitioner Social Workers

As social workers working in a harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) service we're often asked if children's behaviour is "normal". And it's something teachers frequently ask us because they're worried about sexual behaviours children are displaying in school. This anxiety is usually compounded by expectations from statutory safeguarding guidance for schools, which specifies that schools must have an effective response to HSB. Schools have a responsibility for keeping children safe, managing risk and promoting wellbeing and healthy sexual development. All this in addition to ‘selling’ Shakespeare to a group of reluctant 12-year-olds (or other subject specific dilemmas)!

This focus on healthy sexual behaviours is extremely positive. But teachers also tell us that in reality this can mean more responsibility, without the practical tools they need to help understand and respond to sexual behaviour in an informed and proportionate way.  It's clear to us that our education colleagues go above and beyond for the children in their care, yet they tell us that they don’t always feel confident and equipped and they worry in case they ‘get it wrong’. We recognise that sex in any sense can be particularly challenging and emotive and we know that people have very different values and levels of openness about it. 

So what is normal?

When it comes to sexual behaviour, context is key. And that’s what makes it so tricky. Some sexual behaviours could have lasting and devastating consequences, not just for the victim, but for the child displaying the behaviour too. However, not all behaviours that teachers contact us about are necessarily a worry. In fact, they could be completely ‘healthy’ for that child’s development. 

We often use the word ‘healthy’ instead of ‘normal’ because what’s normal for one person might be really quite strange to another. For example, we might think it is totally normal for us to eat cake for breakfast, but we understand that others think this is, frankly, pretty odd. On a more serious note, it might be considered ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ for teenagers to look at pornography, but there is very little evidence to suggest it’s healthy for their development. 

Developing a nationwide response

In responding to the ‘normal’ question we met with a number of teachers and with their insight, concerns and our combined expertise, we developed a face-to-face training package. Since 2016 we've been providing workshops to support teachers in assessing and managing children displaying sexualised behaviour. To date, the workshops have benefitted over 40,000 children local to us. But a lack of training in this area is a nationwide problem and so we needed a nationwide response. 

To meet this need, we created two elearning courses for primary and secondary schools that can be used by education professionals wherever they are. The learning takes around 2 hours so is ideal for fitting into teachers' busy schedules.

The Managing sexualised behaviours in schools courses are a practical resource, combining tools to support objective decision making, scenario-based activities, videos highlighting teachers' own experiences and documents to download, that fits into a school policy. The resource also supports understanding of the contributing factors and potential safeguarding needs of any children displaying problematic or harmful sexual behaviour. 

These courses were also developed in consultation with teachers and secondary school students and we've embedded the feedback we've received from the face-to-face workshops into the learning. They give teachers the knowledge, skills and confidence you need to recognise, respond to and report any concerns - helping you to better understand what is healthy or 'normal' behaviour and effectively safeguard the children in your care. 

> Take our online courses

Author's biographies

Katy Tomkinson and Leila Canay are NSPCC Children’s Services Practitioner Social Workers.