Safeguarding: Responding to harmful sexual behaviours

Written by: Carmel Glassbrook | Published:
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Responding to and addressing harmful sexual behaviours is a key part of safeguarding. Carmel Glassbrook considers eight forms this behaviour might take for primary-age children and how we can respond

The volume and nature of calls received by the new Home Office-funded Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service from primary school teachers and care-givers suggests that the signs of potentially harmful sexual behaviour are not being identified early or frequently enough to enable effective intervention.

By definition, harmful sexual behaviour is any sexual behaviour expressed by children that is developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards themselves or others, or abusive towards another child or adult (Hackett, 2014).

As children mature, it can be particularly difficult for teachers and staff working in primary schools to distinguish between behaviour that would be viewed as developmentally normal or not.

Chaffin et al (2002) define behaviour that can be considered abnormal, and therefore of concern, as that which: occurs at a frequency greater than would be developmentally expected; interferes with the child’s development; occurs with coercion, intimidation, or force; is associated with emotional distress; occurs between children of divergent ages or developmental abilities; repeatedly recurs in secret after intervention by care-givers.

As a teacher, knowing how to recognise and respond to the signs of harmful sexual behaviour in children is particularly challenging. Some behaviours will be of obvious concern, whereas others will be less clear but may signal behaviour that could develop into something more serious if left unaddressed. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for responding to these behaviours, but expert advice should be sought at the earliest opportunity. It is best practice for schools to discuss any concerns with parents, provided that this would not put the child at greater risk.

One key aspect is always to encourage children to talk openly about their thoughts, feelings and behaviour. There are two key reasons for this. First, it provides a good learning opportunity for the children. Second, it will provide some vital context and insight from which you can form a clearer picture of how and why the behaviour has occurred, which will help you to decide on a course of action.

When talking to children about sexual behaviour or pornographic materials it is important to not come across as judgemental or make them feel ashamed – this will only make them shy away and avoid the subject.

Responding in an open and neutral manner will create a more comfortable space for the pupil to talk to you now and in the future.

Below are some pointers for behaviour which might be concerning but which not everyone might consider obviously harmful, together with some advice for action you might take.

If you are unsure whether you should be concerned about particular behaviours or what action you should take in response, as well as following your school’s safeguarding procedures, do seek free advice via the Home Office-funded Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service (see further information). It is important to note that it may be necessary to refer the case to an external authority, and police involvement may also be necessary where a child is at risk.

1, Pulling other children’s trousers down/skirts up

If you are seeing this type of behaviour, talk with the children involved to establish why this is happening and understand the context in which it is happening. It may or may not be deemed as harmful sexual behaviour. If it is inappropriate behaviour rather than sexualised behaviour, deal with it as a behaviour issue. Importantly make sure that the other children who have been affected by the behaviour are supported appropriately.

2, Talking about sex using adult slang

Harmful language can sometimes be a result of influences from within the child’s home or social networks or activities outside school, and on occasions can be indicative of abuse – find an appropriate time and place to talk directly to the child about the language they are using and why. You should challenge inappropriate language, both to the individuals involved and for the benefit of others around them.

3, Following or leading others into ‘private’ spaces

If you notice children following others into toilets or changing rooms to look at them or touch them, or if you become aware of children spending increased time alone together (especially if an older child has befriended a younger one), check in with them each, individually, to find out what is going on and monitor the situation carefully.

4, Repeated questions about sexual activity

It is normal for children to be inquisitive and to ask questions relating to sex and sexual behaviour. However, you should be concerned if a child persistently or frequently asks questions about sexual activity despite already being given an answer or if they are asking questions above their age and understanding. In the event of repeated inappropriate questions, consider investigating further by asking questions about why the child wants to know, and why they might be asking – it could lead to insights into the cause and to whether concerns should be investigated further.

5, Talking about sexual activity seen on TV/online

If a child’s conversation with another indicates that they may be viewing sexual images or pornographic material online, take the opportunity to talk to them – it is important to understand why and how they are viewing this material. The act of seeking these images may be part of the child’s growing sexual curiosity. However, viewing such material is not appropriate and can cause harm, and it is important to ascertain if they are being encouraged to do this by someone else. This insight can help you determine if it is necessary to escalate this to an external authority. If you do not want to talk to a pupil directly about what they might be watching, you can talk more generally about the behaviours displayed in visual sexual material, and how adopting these could affect them and other children. For a helpful guide, see SWGfL’s resource Let’s talk about porn.

6, Displaying abusive or sexually violent behaviour

Abusive or sexually violent behaviour – online or offline – can include using sexually aggressive language, coercive control, or manipulation. If you believe that any pupil has been involved in, or might be the victim of, any of these types of activities, talk to them gently to establish if there is a cause for concern.

If you believe that there has been a serious incident, follow your child protection procedures. Learning about the cornerstones of sex and relationships in primary school provides an opportunity to talk about healthy relationships, both online and in person, and the importance of maintaining appropriate behaviour and being respectful of others in both settings.

7, Inappropriate sexual contact

It is not uncommon for children at primary school to be in close contact with one another during playtime or in the classroom, however staff should always be alert to any inappropriate contact between children. Pupils should be informed in lessons about what is appropriate and inappropriate touching and empowered to speak out if it happens to them or anyone they know. When approaching the subject, try to use simple language that young children will understand.

8, Sexual assault

If a pupil has chosen to tell you about inappropriate or abusive sexual behaviour towards them by another child (or by an adult), you should of course respond immediately following your child protection procedures. Ensure the child understands that telling you won’t get them into any trouble and reassure them that they are not to blame for anything that has happened to them, whether it be at school, outside or at home. You should then take on the responsibility on behalf of the pupil. If the incident involves another child at school, it is important to ensure that both the victim and the child displaying the harmful sexual behaviours are supported and protected from the possible reaction of other children, and that the reasoning behind the child displaying the behaviour is investigated.


If you believe a child may be displaying any of the harmful or inappropriate sexual behaviours described, you can receive support and access to relevant resources from the Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service. The service, launched in January in partnership with the Marie Collins Foundation, provides advice for teachers and other professionals across England, who encounter or have concerns about harmful sexual behaviour among the children and young people they work with. 

  • Carmel Glassbrook is the harmful sexual behaviour support service lead at SWGfL.

Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service

Funded by the Home Office and developed in collaboration with the Department for Education, the service is available from Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm, on 0344 225 0623 or via Visit

Further information & resources

  • Chaffin, Letourneau, & Silovsky: Adults, adolescents, and children who sexually abuse children. In The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment, Myers et al (eds), Sage Publications, 2002.
  • DfE: Statutory guidance: Relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education, June 2019:
  • Hackett: Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours, Dartington: Research in Practice, 2014:
  • Headteacher Update Podcast: Effective safeguarding, February 2022: Part 1: Part 2:
  • SWGfL: Let’s talk about porn:

Headteacher Update Summer Edition 2022

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via

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