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Parents want preschool to respond to sexualized behaviors

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!

I'm a teacher at a preschool. Last year, two 5 year old boys pulled down another child's swim suit and laughed at her. This was during pool time. The parents of this child see this as sexual harassment and want something to be done about the boys (separate their classrooms, share an action plan).  

It has NOT been a repeat incident. I am seeing it from a child's perspective as teasing or power experimentation combined with age-appropriate curiosity, but without the element of sexual abuse, as from an adult's perspective. I would really like to see all three children in this situation treated with respect and given support and protection.

How would you suggest addressing this type of incident? 

Response: 
Please share your feedback

Dear Concerned Teacher

Generally, I am moved to agree with you that this does seem to fall into the range of age-appropriate behaviors. That does not mean that the behaviors are okay or should be ignored. This was a learning opportunity for the adults involved to talk with both boys about boundaries and clarify rules about touching others. Also, bullying behavior should have been addressed as well.

Children's Behaviors
With safety planning, it's important to recognize that there is a wide spectrum of children’s sexual behaviors that go from age-appropriate and typical to problematic and concerning. Sexual behaviors in kids are not generally worrisome when the behavior is between two kids that normally are playmates (as opposed to between children who do not usually play together or don’t appear to like each other) and/or between kids who are close in ageThe types of behaviors themselves generally have a playful, spontaneous quality, as opposed to having a serious, intense tone, and are not explicitly adult-like. Additionally, these behaviors - even when inappropriate -diminish when adults talk to kids and let them know the behaviors are not acceptable. Based on your description, it does sound like the behavior immediately ceased after the initial incident.For more information, take a look at the resource list we’ve put together on Children's Sexuality Development and Behaviors and I also recommend our guidebook, Do Children Sexually Abuse Other Children?

Policies and Procedures
It’s understandable, however, that a parent feels very protective of their child’s well-being, as you know. One way to help calm a parent’s fears is to inform them of your school’s policies and procedures regarding the school’s response to children’s sexual behaviors and to bullying. If you have protocols in place for how you address a student’s inappropriate behavior, these should be used as your guide. In essence, this is part of the safety planning your school hopefully does to be able to offer consistent, thoughtful responses and steps when any child breaks a school rule – such as bullying another child and engaging in a sexual behavior.

Our list of resources, Prevention for Youth-Serving Institutions, can help you with the right questions to ask when you look at your school's procedures and policies.Reviewing your own policies and procedures can help you answer the question of how you can guide others who may have to deal with similar situations. Also, you can be better prepared in the future by defining how the school will respond to children’s sexualized behaviors whenever they occur.

There are some great curriculums available to work with young children about safe behaviors, bullying, respect, etc. Many of them are based on helping children develop empathy and compassion for another person. They also help children understand boundaries and privacy. We are not in the position to recommend one over the other but suggest that you work with your resources in your community and through your library to help your school design activities to reinforce these ideas of empathy, boundaries and privacy.

I hope this is helpful, and that these children are indeed treated respectfully, with education, support and healthy limits.

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: December 31st, 2015