Children as young as five are displaying worrying sexual behaviour at school, prompting concerns that teachers are ill-equipped to differentiate between whether students are victims of sexual abuse or are imitating what they see in music videos or internet advertising, new research reveals.
Lesley-anne Ey, a lecturer in child development, educational psychology and child protection at the University of South Australia, said research shows teachers feel they don't know enough about problematic sexual behaviours to confidently manage increasing incidences in Australian schools.
In newly published research in the journal Sex Education, Dr Ey asked more than 100 teachers from government, independent and Catholic primary schools across Australia about their experiences with children's problematic sexual behaviours, and their management strategies in schools.
She said she was surprised to discover that 40 per cent of teachers involved in the research reported witnessing problematic sexual behaviour in schools, including simulated intercourse, attempts to coerce other students into sexual conduct, and in one case, a year 4 child who threatened to rape other students.
Dr Ey said teachers felt confident about their mandatory reporting requirements but less confident about how to deal with children displaying worrying behaviour.
"Teachers should know the questions to ask so they can recognise whether such behaviours are prompted by potentially criminal activity that a child is seeing or experiencing at home or at school, or whether the child is simply copying actions they see in increasingly sexualised music videos, advertising, and internet content," Dr Ey said
Dr Ey said children as young as eight had smartphones and devices, giving them access to a range of online content, including pornography.
"They can take these devices anywhere and often it is hard for parents to know what they are accessing online," Dr Ey said.
Dr Ey said her research showed teachers wanted to be better trained so they could identify and deal with children displaying sexual behaviours.
"If kids are acting out inappropriately, whatever the reason, it's a problem. But the issue for many teachers is knowing how to respond to what they see," Dr Ey said.
"We don't want kids being treated or labelled as deviants because they are copying behaviour they understand to be normal because they see it at home or on television.
"At the same time, we don't want teachers to miss what could be abuse, because they don't understand what is and isn't typical sexual behaviour among a particular age or developmental group."
Dr Ey said that Australian schools are educating children about how to keep themselves safe but the level of education differs between states and territories.
"Educating children about how to identify inappropriate touching, declining invitations to touch others inappropriately, saying no when they feel uncomfortable, recognising coercion or bribes, recognising inappropriate secrets and reporting any of these to an educator or trusted adult - these are imperative to empowering children to keep themselves safe," she said.