Harmful sexual behaviour between children can happen in any environment. In addition to this, children may find it particularly difficult to report sexual bullying because of feelings of embarrassment and shame or fear of repercussions. As educators it is our role to create a safe environment where children understand consent and appropriate behaviour and feel confident that if they share concerns they will be handled discreetly and swift action will be taken.
We've written some key principles to support you:
- Talk about sexual bullying and harm: Sexual bullying thrives in a climate of secrecy. Create time and safe spaces to explain sexual development, harmful sexual behaviour and gender inequality in an age and development appropriate way with children and young people. Create opportunities for children to share what is happening inside and outside of school. There may be new trends that you are unaware of. Listen – but be prepared to challenge behaviour that young people may see as ‘normal’, but you consider to be harmful.
- Train staff: Make sure your Designated Safeguarding Lead is trained and supported to take a lead in preventing harmful sexual behaviour and bullying. Create time to train all staff in how to identify and respond to incidents and for open discussion. Make sure all staff are consistent in their response – for example, staff feel empowered to challenge sexism and sexual comments.
- Teach consent: All children and young people, regardless of their age, developmental needs, or disability, need support to understand the importance of respecting another person’s body, feelings and physical space, and that if someone says no to them, they must respect this at all times – even if they are in a romantic relationship with this person. Staff must also feel empowered and supported to report behaviour approach that they find uncomfortable or inappropriate.
- Teach and model respectful relationships: Relationships and sex education is now compulsory and provides an opportunity to explore consent as well as challenging all forms of sexism, healthy and respectful relationships and not judging someone else for their experience or preference.
- Do not allow sexual name-calling or comments: Be clear that sexual name-calling and comments are not accepted in your school environment and are a form of sexual harassment. Take time to work with children and young people to explain what this means, and the types of words or comments this could include (e.g. swear words, slang words for body parts, sexual innuendo, sexual advances or comments). Challenge all forms of casual sexism that put pressure on children to behave in a particular way, or to have a particular identity.
- Discuss online behaviour: Talk about sexual harassment online and the challenges and risks of romantic and sexual relationships online. Discuss the pros and cons of sharing sexual messages or images. Be clear what is acceptable within the school environment and in the eyes of the law, and communicate what action you will take if it comes to light that personal messages, images or videos have been shared without consent.
- Be approachable: Any child may feel hesitant to share concerns about sexual behaviour and bullying. However, children with complex needs and impairments may find it even harder to communicate how they are feeling and what has happened. Make sure they can share with you, or an appropriate member of staff, any worry or concern they may have, and also ask any question with confidence. Be conscious of your own bias and how this may impact your decision making. Do not assume anything and always listen to children.
- Be alert: Be aware of developing relationships between the children and young people that you work with. Look out for any behaviour that could cause concern – for example, any power imbalance within relationships such as age difference and developmental difference. Be aware of ‘learnt’ sexualised behaviour that seems inappropriate (e.g. does not seem appropriate to the age or development of a child).
- Communicate with parents and carers: Make sure your anti-bullying policy includes sexual bullying and that you have explained what this includes, and what this means to parents and carers. Create time and space for parents and carers to ask their own questions and share their own concerns about their child’s sexual development. Work with parents and carers if you have any concerns about a child’s behaviour – do not allow a situation to escalate. Remember that parents and carers might be embarrassed to talk about these issues, there may be cultural barriers or they may be ignorant of their child’s own sexual development –discreet and respectful but always put the safety of children first.