How can we teach children and young people to learn how to be safe?

Authors Carolyn Gelenter, Nadine Prescott, & Belinda Riley of Teaching Protective Behaviours to Young Children discuss the various ways children and young people can be taught to stay safe.

One would have to live completely in isolation to be unaware of the significant number of incidents being uncovered about the abuse of children and young people by adults in powerful positions, using those positions not only to cover up their crimes, but also to create a sense of disbelief.

We suspect that many adults, like ourselves, were shocked to hear names such as Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and more recently Sir Clement Freud on that list.

As co-authors of Teaching Protective Behaviours to Young Children First Steps to Safety - an easy to use practical manual to teach children how to develop an awareness of personal safety and identify, express their feelings and empower them to learn skills to help them stay safe - we asked ourselves why we felt this way. As authors of this book and professionals in education - a speech and language therapist, a social worker and an advisory teacher - we were well aware of the staggering statistics on child abuse and neglect.

There is a lot of research and evidence about how children are at risk of harm or abuse. This research indicates that abuse and neglect are both under reported and under recorded. One in four young adults was severely maltreated during childhood and one in seven young adults has been severely maltreated by a parent or guardian.

One in nine young adults has experienced severe physical violence at the hands of an adult and one in nine has experienced contact sexual abuse during childhood. (Child Abuse and Neglect in the UK Today, Radford et al, 2011). Where cases involve celebrities and politicians this often makes sensational news, however sadly the statistics reflect that most abuse is carried out by people already known to children and young people, often trusted adults in their lives.

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This knowledge, as well as our collective experiences in education, are the factors that drove us to collaboratively design a practical manual for teachers to educate, support and empower children to help them understand their bodies and their feelings and take control over situations where they find themselves feeling uncomfortable, or where something just doesn’t 'feel right'. These skills, understanding and knowledge can be learned when children are very young and continue to develop as they face different challenges in adolescence and as they develop into young adults.

Often the question is asked: ‘Is there more abuse, or have we just developed better pathways of reporting that abuse?’ We would ask: ‘Does it really matter?’ What’s more pertinent is that abuse is still occurring despite the amount of money that has been spent on security systems and advanced police checks on adults working in settings that contain children and young people. And even more so that reported abuse levels are not diminishing despite these interventions, surely demonstrates that we are concentrating resources at measures that are not having the required effect.

This is why it is so important to develop an early intervention tool which focuses on giving children the skills they can learn to prevent possible abuse. This is the aim of First Steps to Safety- a practical easy to use step by step guide to teaching children from 4-7 years of age, as well as older children with special educational needs, the early skill sets they will need to help them become knowledgeable about how their thoughts, feelings and bodies are all interconnected and to help them know about practical strategies they can use in everyday life to help stay safe.

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Many years ago as a newly qualified teacher in Sydney Australia I went on a pioneering training day all about teaching very young children of 3 and 4 something called ‘protective behaviours’. The concept behind this was that children as young as 3 can be taught how to identify and name feelings and learn how to say ‘NO’ assertively when they recognise their discomfort.

In the UK today ‘The Protective Behaviours Consortium’ (PBC) has become the national organisation for Protective Behaviours. PBC provides courses and resources with up-to-date research and information.

In our day-to-day work in schools, we find that most staff are still unfamiliar with the concept of ‘Protective Behaviours’ and think that ‘safeguarding’ is primarily about keeping children safe through the use of sophisticated technological systems or locked doors. (We often joke that one needs a PhD to gain access to some schools because their systems are so complicated!).

This seems to be the case despite the Ofsted framework which specifically states that ‘children should be taught to keep themselves safe’ (Section 30, p.9 ‘Inspecting Safeguarding in Maintained Schools and Academies’, April 2015).

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This needs to, and can start from a very early age, through the use of games and songs that reinforce body parts (e.g. Simon Says and Heads, Shoulders, Knees & Toes) and identifying and naming what has been traditionally called ‘private parts’ such as penis and vagina. If we as adults can’t name those body parts, how are children ever going to be able to see them or talk about them in some kind of normalised way? We are setting up systems that fail children if we are asking them to talk about things they feel uncomfortable about, but we don’t support them to identify and name the very body parts which are the underlying focus of safe-guarding concerns.

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As the authors of the teaching manual, 'First Steps to Safety' our experience leads us to know that despite our growth in knowledge and research, practice supporting safeguarding still relies largely on external systems. ‘Teaching Protective Behaviours to Young Children First Steps to Safety’, goes some way to laying the foundations of supporting children to be able to identify, name and take ownership of their own bodies. They learn to name, identify and understand, that what they think is related to how they feel emotionally as well as the physical sensations in their bodies. They learn that situations that might feel scary might be good for them or fun, like a trip to the dentist or a ride on a roller coaster. They also learn that some things might feel good, like eating lots of sweets but may not be good for you. The programme also helps them to identify their own support network to ensure that no matter what the situation is they can also tell someone. The manual is divided into 10 sessions with all the activities and resources needed to plan and deliver the session provided in the book and on a CD.

- Carolyn Gelenter, Nadine Prescott, Belinda Riley

Featured Title

  • Teaching Protective Behaviours to Young Children

    First Steps to Safety Programme, 1st Edition

    By Carolyn Gelenter, Nadine Prescott, Belinda Riley

    This programme aims to provide children aged 4-7 years with awareness and strategies for keeping safe. Although it may be difficult to accept, children and young people from any community, including those with disabilities, can be put at risk of harm, abused or hurt, regardless of their age, gender…

    Paperback – 2013-10-24

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