Practitioners need improved skills to deal with harmful sexual behaviour

Children’s workforce needs improved knowledge and skills to support children with harmful sexual behaviour

More work is needed to ensure the children’s workforce have the knowledge, skills and confidence to effectively support children and young people with harmful sexual behaviour, according to a report.

In the context of increasing awareness of harmful sexual behaviour as an issue affecting many children across England, the Local Authorities Research Consortium (LARC) set out to investigate the understanding and needs of the children’s workforce in this field.

Whilst some of the workforce rated their knowledge and skills in this area highly, this varied according to the particular tasks involved, the survey of over 500 professionals working across a range of agencies found.

Harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) can be defined as “Sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others and/or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult,” says the report citing Hackett, Holmes and Branigan, 2016.

However, in spite of a lack of a statutory definition, most practitioners and carers felt that they knew what HSB was. However this level of awareness could be further raised to improve early identification of children in need of support.

Practitioners had a fairly high degree of confidence in their knowledge and skills for assessing and identifying children with HSB. However, only nine per cent of practitioners and carers strongly agreed that they were confident in identifying children with HSB.

Many practitioners and carers felt that they did not necessarily have the knowledge and skills for working directly with children displaying HSB, including significant proportions of those who had worked with several of such children over the previous year.

Fewer than half of managers and leaders felt confident leading multi-agency partnerships or designing and commissioning services.

Most respondents said that they had seen at least some increase in the numbers of children with HSB in the previous two years. Respondents reported experiencing a number challenges in working with children displaying HSB. These included the development of positive trusting relationships with the children concerned and balancing the needs and safety of the child, their peers and staff working with them. Work with children with HSB had a notable emotional impact on many of those carrying it out.

Most practitioners and carers felt they were able to access a range of support and guidance that impacted positively on their work in this area. Many, however, felt that they would benefit from additional development support, particularly training, team meetings focused on the topic, team-based learning, formal peer-learning and being able to consult with a specialist.

Just 35 per cent of practitioners and carers had accessed training on harmful sexual behaviour in the previous three years and that figure was even lower for professionals working in health and education. The majority of those who had received training on issues around HSB felt it had impacted positively on their work.

There is a need for local areas to consider increasing training and other skills development opportunities for those working with or caring for children displaying HSB. Responses demonstrated that supervision, peer support and advice from senior colleagues all play a vital role in building the skills and knowledge of the workforce.

Supervision was seen as playing an important part in helping practitioners and carers to manage the emotional impact of the work and was associated with increased confidence.

A perceived lack of specialist services and placements for children displaying HSB was felt to be one of the key challenges in working in this area and just a minority of respondents were aware of a specialist service in their area. In addition, 24 per cent of those said that specialist service thresholds were set too high.

Encouragingly, most managers and leaders felt supported by wider partners in the work with children displaying HSB, the report found.

The report recognises that many of the potential enablers to increasing workforce knowledge skills and confidence are relatively low cost and go beyond traditional training. Team-based learning; reflective group and one-to-one supervision; structured peer-learning activities; shadowing; protected time for self-directed study and access to managers’ expertise were all cited as being helpful.

“Thinking creatively about how such activities can contribute to the development of the workforce may prove to be more cost-effective than relying only on traditional training,” said the report.

Dez Holmes, Director of Research in Practice, said:  “Children displaying HSB deserve the best support possible, and so the professionals and foster carers who help them deserve to be as well-equipped as possible.  This research shows that more can be done to build the knowledge, skills and confidence of those undertaking this rewarding but challenging work.”

The report calls for local authorities and their partners to adopt effective and cost effective measures, including:

  • Embedding peer support and opportunities for learning as a team, for example, through case clinics or 'surgeries' within or between agencies.
  • Strengthening supervision for those working directly with children displaying HSB.

Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said: “Children displaying harmful sexual behaviour are often very vulnerable. Many have experienced neglect or abuse, and need the best possible support so they can recover from past experiences and lead healthy adult lives. We must listen carefully to professionals who are warning of an increase in harmful sexual behaviour, and that new forms are emerging, based on social media and the internet.

“Professionals must have the support they need to feel confident in taking difficult decisions that balance the needs of children with the safety of other young people.

“As a top priority, local authorities and other key organisations should enable staff to discuss the challenges they face, through one-to-one supervision, team learning opportunities and ‘case clinics’, where agencies can come together on effective practice and problem solving.

“We must get this right so that every child has the best possible opportunity to grow up safe and healthy,” she added.

Workforce perspectives on harmful sexual behaviour




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