Last Updated: Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Safeguarding: identify, understand and respond appropriately to sexual behaviours in young people

What is this?

This page is designed to help staff in education and training settings, from early years to senior level and including ASN/EASN provision, to identify, understand and respond appropriately to sexual behaviours in young people.

Who is this for?

This will be helpful for all practitioners working with children and young people but particularly senior leaders developing policy and procedures.

Explore this resource 

The Scottish Government’s 2020 report by ‘The Expert Group on Preventing Sexual Offending Involving Children and Young People’ defines Harmful Sexual Behaviour(s) as:

‘Sexual behaviour(s) expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 that are developmentally inappropriate and may be harmful towards self or others and/or be abusive towards another child or young person’.

Whilst sexualised behaviour can be a natural healthy part of growing up, some children and young people may develop inappropriate and problematic habits, or display sexually harmful behaviour. Other children may be victims of harmful sexual behaviour.

This page has been developed to provide staff working with children and young people with information about how to identify, understand and respond appropriately to sexual behaviours in young people.

It pulls together national guidance, third sector support and good practice exemplars from across Scotland and beyond.

At all times however, it is important to remember to follow your own local authority safeguarding & child protection guidance and procedures.

Distinguishing between appropriate non-abusive behaviour and inappropriate or abusive behaviour can be a complex task that requires practitioners to have an understanding of what is healthy and informed consent and what is abusive or coercive behaviour.

There is a range of common and healthy sexual behaviours at ages from early years to young adulthood. When a child or young person behaves in ways considered to be outside this range, their behaviour may be called 'harmful' because it is harmful to themselves or others.

The Hackett Continuum (see image)

Children’s sexual behaviours sit on a continuum ranging for normal, experimental and expected behaviours that occur at different stages in childhood, through to behaviours that are inappropriate or problematic, which may cause no or limited harm to other children but which would need to be monitored and addressed to ensure they do not escalate, through to behaviours that are clearly abusive and cause harm.

The Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool

The Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool offers guidance for age-appropriate behaviour. The Brooks Traffic Light Tool, shows behaviours for a young person aged 0-17 that fall within green, amber and red categories.

N.B. When supporting a child or young person with additional support needs, the starting point should be to use the Tool to match the behaviour to the chronological age of the child rather than their comparative learning or developmental age.

Green behaviours are healthy, but some may still need intervention or redirection. Amber and red behaviours will all require some form of attention and response. The type of intervention will vary according to the behaviour and the needs of the child or young person and in line with GIRFEC. This tool should be used within the context of the guidance provided and should not be used in isolation.

Managing and preventing harmful sexual behaviour guidelines

These guidelines have been produced as a response to the sexual health needs of young people in Forth Valley. The purpose of the document is to allow all staff whether in the role of teacher, learning assistant, janitor or administrator, to use this as a reference and guide for their practice. It aims to support staff to understand how to respond and manage the sexual behaviours of the children and young people in their school.

Covid-19 restrictions mean that many children are spending more time unsupervised offline and online. The Harmful sexual behaviour prevention toolkit has been developed to spread awareness of the signs of harmful sexual behaviour, and help adults take action to prevent abuse happening.

The toolkit is suitable for parents, carers and educators working with children. As well as support, advice and information, it has links to key organisations and helplines, resources about harmful sexual behaviour by children, tips about internet safety, advice about sexual development and preventing child sexual abuse.

Key recognising sexual behaviours documents

Harmful sexual behaviour by children and young people: Expert Group report This report, published by the Scottish Government in January 2020, sets out proposals from the Expert Group on Preventing Sexual Offending Involving Children and Young People to improve prevention and early intervention in response to harmful sexual behaviour involving children and young people.

National Guidance for Child Protection Scotland

This is currently being refreshed and due for publication spring 2021.

National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland. Additional notes for practitioners (2014). Protecting disabled children from abuse and neglect.

What to do when harmful sexual behaviour is identified

At all times however, it is important to remember to follow your own local authority safeguarding & child protection guidance and procedures.

Where sexual abuse of a child or young person is alleged to have been carried out by another child or young person, such behaviour should always be treated seriously and be subject to a discussion between relevant agencies that covers both the victim and the perpetrator. In all cases where a child or young person acts in a sexually abusive fashion, immediate consideration should be given to whether action needs to be taken under child protection procedures, either in order to protect the victim or to tackle concerns about what has caused the child or young person to behave in such a way. Current guidance outlines the role that a multi-agency Care and Risk Management meeting has to play in such situations to ensure that a clear assessment of risk take place and proportionate risk management measures are implemented subject to regular review to ensure further abuse does not occur.

PDF file: Care and Risk Management flowchart exemplar (982 KB)

Learning and teaching resources

Relationships, Sexual Health and Parent hood (RSHP) is a resource for teaching across all the levels of Curriculum for Excellence linked to relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP) education for children and young people. This site contains activities linked to keeping safe and consent.

The resource was described as the ‘go-to resource’ in the Scottish Government’s Expert Group report on Preventing Sexual Offending Involving Children and Young People (2020) in terms of preventing and managing harmful sexual behaviour for children and young people.

Improvement questions

  • To what extent do we review our safeguarding procedures and incidents as part of our self-evaluation processes? This includes the review of any incidents of inappropriate sexualised behaviour.
  • How confident are staff in distinguishing between appropriate non-abusive behaviour and inappropriate or abusive behaviour?
  • To what extent do staff support children and young people to understand what constitutes healthy and informed consent and what is abusive or coercive behaviour?
  • How effectively do we support children and young people who display inappropriate, problematic or sexually harmful behaviour?