Each school should have a named safeguarding lead who can assess concerns about the sexual behaviour of a child or young person, new guidelines say.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has published guidance to support practitioners in their work with children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour.
NICE define harmful sexual behaviour as ‘when children or young people engage in sexual discussions or acts that are inappropriate for their age or development.’
While most children grow out of these behaviours, NICE reports, among the small number of those who commit sexual offences there is evidence that shows early opportunities to recognise and address their behaviours were missed.
‘Harmful sexual behaviour has gone under the radar for too long,’ said the head of development and impact at NSPCC and member of the guideline development group, Jon Brown.
Mr Brown also explained the three core components underpinning the new guidelines.
He said: ’There are three key messages in this guidance: that children and young people should be treated as just that, not as mini sex offenders; that the approach should be shaped to the individual, it’s not a one size fits all process; and finally that steps to change behaviour will only be effective if the family and support network understand there is an issue and are supportive.’
As well as a named safeguarding lead, the guidelines recommend practitioners should consider engaging with families and carers before beginning an intervention.
They also call for a joined up approach by universal services, child health services, children’s social services and the voluntary sector when responding to concerns about a child or young person’s sexual behaviour.
‘Inquisitive behaviour is a normal part of growing up and it is natural for children to ask about different body parts or be curious about the differences between girls and boys,’ Professor Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive of NICE, said.
‘However there is also a minority of children and young people who engage in sexual behaviour that is not appropriate for their age or development.
‘This guidance is about preparing teachers, nurses, social workers and others to recognise harmful sexual behaviour when it occurs and ensure they can work across team boundaries so that problem behaviour is not ignored or missed and children and young people receive the help they need.’
Maeve Murphy, clinical nurse and member of the guideline development group, warned there is a quantitative and qualitative disparity in the provision of services throughout the country to tackle these issues.
She said: ‘This guideline is about encouraging collaboration and support between services so that these gaps can be addressed. It’s also about encouraging practitioners to recognise when there is a problem and seek advice.’