School Counselors' Roles in Cases of Child Sexual Behavior

By James, Susan Hackbarth; Burch, Kelly M. | Professional School Counseling, February 1999 | Go to article overview

School Counselors' Roles in Cases of Child Sexual Behavior


James, Susan Hackbarth, Burch, Kelly M., Professional School Counseling


It is a common but confusing situation when a young child behaves sexually in the classroom. Teachers and other school personnel face a dilemma. At certain stages of development, young children may masturbate, talk dirty, or explore the bodies of playmates. Yet some children's sexual behavior not only seems inappropriate, it suggests a more serious problem. Often parents and teachers call school counselors for help in such cases. Counselors serve as consultants because they have training and experience in child development, mental health, child-abuse indicators, and reporting procedures.

However, the decision to report or not to report is a difficult one for well-trained professionals. Research clearly and consistently records the damaging emotional effects of untreated sexual abuse. The literature also indicates that sexual abuse has been prevalent in society despite a long history of cultural denial (Olafson, Corwin, & Summit, 1993). Yet, the number of devastating false accusations is increasing (Hechler, 1993). Some authors feel that the pendulum has swung from silence to hysteria (Second Presbyterian, 1991).

In spite of the times, the professional school counselor needs to make wise interventions when children behave sexually. On one hand, the counselor wants to avoid hysteria and the trauma of false reports. On the other hand, the counselor has an ethical duty to recognize and report signs of abuse (American School Counselor Association, 1993). To handle such cases, the school counselor needs to be aware of developmental sexual behavior and symptoms of sexual abuse. The professional school counselor promotes healthy sexual development through the roles of consultation, counseling, and coordination. Prevention activities help prepare school personnel before these common situations occur.

Developmental Sexual Behavior of Young Children

As a consultant to teachers and parents, the elementary school counselor needs to be a specialist in child development. Information about developmental sexual behavior of children will assist parents and school personnel in handling particular situations in a calm and healthy manner.

Unfortunately, research and knowledge about young children's developmental sexual behavior are limited. Several things are known. Children's sexual behavior-including curiosity, interest, and experimentation-is progressive over time (Gil & Johnson, 1993). Child development is influenced by culture and family, life experiences, and organic capacities. Sexual behavior is typical in young children. Sexual development coincides with physical, emotional, psychological, cognitive, and moral development (Gil & Johnson, 1993). Preschool Sexual Behavior

It is common for preschoolers to be curious about private parts. Genital and bodily exploration is almost universal at this age. Mild masturbation is common. However, self-exploration and self-stimulation are random and sporadic. Some children fondle the genitals of playmates or become involved in undressing games. They show interest in showing and viewing body parts (Gil & Johnson, 1993). Because of their naivete, preschoolers are more likely than older children to be caught by adults (Shaffer, 1996; Sigelman & Shaffer, 1995). This type of sexual play does not suggest abuse because it occurs among equals, similar in development and sexual curiosity (Second Presbyterian, 1991).

Preschoolers ask many questions and want to know from where babies come. They like to play marriage, house, and doctor. They may cuddle, kiss, touch, and tickle. Adults are often surprised at how thoroughly children imitate what they have seen. However, it is unlikely for children to play beyond what they have experienced. When playing doctor, children may poke various body parts and ask about pain. However, it would be uncommon for a preschool child to imitate a pelvic exam (Gil & Johnson, 1993). Preschoolers delight in using slang words for body parts and bathroom matters (Gil & Johnson, 1993). …

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