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Problematic Sexual Behavior

Up to this point in the Manual we have provided guidance on understanding, preventing, responding to, and reporting child maltreatment perpetrated by adults against the children and youth who are your students. However, children and adolescents can also be subjected to maltreatment by their peers. Problematic Sexual Behavior (PSB), as defined earlier, involves sexual behaviors between children that lie outside of normative or typical sexual behavior. PSBs are child-initiated behaviors involving sexual body parts (i.e., genitals, anus, buttocks, or breasts) that are developmentally inappropriate and/or potentially harmful to themselves or others. As you will see, our understanding of this issue is an evolving one. Our goal in including this section is to provide educators and others with the latest research, information, resources, and guidance as well as an update on the actions the Commonwealth is taking to enhance interagency collaboration and to build effective intervention and treatment strategies.

In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness as well as a number of research studies about the high number of children (0-18 years) who are sexually harmed by other children or adolescents. Among the reported cases, early research indicated that over one third (35.6%) of all incidents of child sexual maltreatment in the U.S. are committed by other children or teens. However, more recent survey studies of older adolescents and parents of younger children found that as many as 70-77% of the sexual assaults and abuse experienced by children and teens were committed by other children or teens. The difference in these estimates has been attributed to the fact that the earlier studies relied either on case information that had been reported to the authorities or on information being recalled retrospectively by adults who were harmed as children. Conversely, the newer studies used anonymously gathered parent reports (for children up to age 9) and self-reports from youth ages 10-17.

Thinking of children or youth as capable of causing sexual harm or engaging in problematic sexual behavior with other children or youth can be difficult to consider and challenging to address. We must be cautious, however, not to look at children with problematic sexual behavior through the same lens as adult sexual offenders. Even though some of the behaviors of children and adolescents with PSB may resemble those of adult sexual behavior, the reasons for the behavior are quite different. Research has shown that PSB in childhood (and the risk of reoffending) arise from combinations of individual, family, social, and developmental factors which are in contrast to the motivations of adult sex offenders and their low levels of responsiveness to treatment. , . Research also shows that children with PSB are at minimal risk to reoffend, or to become adult sex offenders, especially if they receive appropriate treatment. , , In fact, a recent meta-analysis of children and adolescents with PSB who received appropriate intervention (education, skills training, and therapy that included parent engagement) concluded that the recidivism rate was less than 3%.

Another caution for educators and other caregivers to be aware of (especially those unfamiliar with the issue) is that it’s not always easy to tell the difference between normal sexual curiosity and behaviors that are problematic or potentially harmful or abusive. The following may be helpful in that regard.


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Monitoring Behavior
How-To in 3 Steps

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Step 1

Developing the Monitoring Protocol

  • Determine how your Code of Conduct is being adhered to and where additional policy or training may be needed.
  • Include language indicating all staff have the responsibility to observe and report inappropriate or concerning behaviors displayed by staff or by youth. 
  • Consult your child safety team to identify areas of strength and higher risk activities where monitoring would be especially important.
  • Define the people who must be informed when staff, volunteers, or children observe inappropriate or harmful behavior.
  • Outline the steps all staff and volunteers must follow when reporting suspected abuse.

Step 2

Promoting a Culture of Safety

  • Encourage staff to view safety as a priority and mutual responsibility, encourage questions, establish ongoing communication, and provide support to build trust.
  • Provide positive feedback when observing expected and appropriate behaviors. 
  • Ensure leadership is present, models appropriate behavior, supports positive interactions, and intervenes when needed. 
  • Conduct annual surveys and audits to gather information from staff, youth, and parents including questions about boundaries and appropriate behaviors.
  • Equip parents with information about your child sexual abuse prevention plans.

Step 3

Sustaining the Monitoring Protocol

  • Use individual supervision, performance reviews, and staff meetings to talk about the Code of Conduct and provide staff feedback on observed behaviors. 
  • Provide ongoing trainings that reinforce your Code of Conduct and Code of Ethics. 
  • Ensure all concerns are addressed and any harmful behaviors are reported to the Department of Children and Families and law enforcement.
  • Review the results of the staff surveys and internal audits to identify areas for improvement, staff accountability, and transparency. 
  • Assess your protocol and implement changes based on findings.