Associate Professor Elspeth McInnes and Dr Lesley-anne Ey of the University of South Australia discuss the findings of a national survey that examines how primary and early childhood educators identify and respond to problematic sexual behaviours in young children.
In 2016, 107 educators from primary schools, pre-schools and out of school hours care services around Australia answered an online survey about their experiences involving children’s displays of problematic sexual behaviours (PSB) in education settings. The survey explored how they defined such behaviours, the training and education they had received on the topic and the kinds of training and support they would like to have to deal with this issue.
The research was conducted in the context of a near doubling of reports of PSB in Australia in the decade from 2005 to 2015. In addition, of the survivors of sexual abuse who gave evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, over 23 per cent said their experience involved another child. PSB is linked to exposures to complex trauma including domestic violence, parental drug addictions and mental illness, and child abuse. Given that Australian Bureau of Statistics data details that at least one in four Australian children have been exposed to domestic violence and other forms of abuse, it is vital that educators are able to respond effectively to PSB in education and care sites.
Educators undertake mandatory training in responding to child abuse and neglect under the mandatory reporting laws in the state or territory in which they work and some universities offer pre-service courses that cover child protection issues. Such training is geared to address practices in relation to abuse of children by older people or adults rather than concerning harmful sexual behaviours involving other young children. PSB requires mandatory reports to child protection services, but unlike sexual abuse of children by older people, it is not a criminal matter involving police. Educators remain at the frontline of responding to classroom behaviour, peer relationships and concerned family members.
The survey identified that educators wanted on-demand access to training and expert support. While all state and territory education departments provided some level of support, services were often thinly spread and issues of child sexual behaviour did not have any priority over other issues. This meant that educators could have to wait weeks before they or the children could access counselling support. A particular priority was support for educators in responding to involved families – including the family of the child who had initiated PSB and the families of the children affected by these behaviours. Educators also wanted to be able to refer families to services in the wider community and have whole of school leadership engaged in safe behaviours education. Respondents noted that support was most effective when they could access information and guidance as needed.
Educators experienced high levels of stress when confronted with PSB and wanted to be effective in protecting and supporting children. Responses from site leadership were critical for educators who needed to comply with legal frameworks, manage the learning and care needs of the children, care for their own health and wellbeing and manage the needs of families. Respondents felt that they experienced little support when they reported the PSB and were not informed or aware of any action by child protection services.
Principals and managers who did not act promptly or appropriately on reports of concerning behaviour were seen as failing to prevent escalating behaviours by children. Male educators felt particularly vulnerable to responding to PSB because of their gender. The combination of being exposed to PSB, limited or delayed support from school leadership and counselling and therapeutic services, the ongoing impacts on children’s behaviour in their classroom environment and the ongoing concerns of families, meant that educators were highly vulnerable to vicarious trauma, toxic stress and burnout.
The survey findings highlighted the need for PSB to be included as a specific issue in pre-service teacher training programs in universities, in child protective behaviours curricula and in mandatory training in responding to child abuse and neglect. Multiple forms of access to education in identifying and responding to PSB, greater access to counselling and therapeutic services for affected children and expert and continuing support in managing family needs, are indicated as critical to ensuring the harms caused by PSB can be prevented and reduced. Feedback to educators on actions by child protection services is important for enabling educators to form part of a team approach to support children’s safety and recovery.
The social problems of domestic violence, parental substance abuse and child abuse manifest in children’s behaviour in education sites, with educators on the frontline of identification of PSB and effective response to prevent ongoing and future harms. More training, more services and more support need to be focused on PSB to improve outcomes.