What Teachers and Child Care Providers Can Do to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse

Protecting Children from Sexual Harm:
What Teachers and Child Care Providers Need to Know

We all know the importance of making schools and daycare setting places where children feel and are safe. Here are some steps that teachers and child care professionals can take to help protect children and prevent sexual harm.

Know the facts about abuse

Do children sexually touch other children?

Yes. More than a third of those who sexually abuse children are under the age of 18. Most of the time child sexual abuse is defined as sexual activity between children whose ages differ by a minimum of 3 to 5 years. But sexual abuse can also occur between children of the same age when one child is more powerful than the other (for example, bigger or more popular). For more information see our prevention guidebook, "Do Children Sexually Abuse Other Children".

Learn about age-appropriate sexual development

Knowing what's expected of children at different developmental stages helps us identify sexual behaviors that are healthy and typical. With younger children, for example, sexual exploration usually takes place between friends and has a game-like quality to it. Usually, when an adult tells the children to stop the behavior, the behavior will cease or diminish. To learn more see Age-Appropriate Sexual Behaviors.

Learn the warning signs 

Knowing the behavioral warning signs that could indicate child sexual abuse makes us more alert to the possibility that an adult is at risk of abusing a child, or that a child has a sexual behavior problem or may be experiencing sexual abuse. Learning how to spot situations that could be problematic or risky gives us the opportunity to step in and take protective action. See Warning Signs That a Child or Teen May Be At-Risk to Harm Another Child and Signs That an Adult is At-Risk To Harm a Child.

Understanding warning signs can also help us recognize when someone may be experiencing sexual thoughts or feelings towards children, or when someone may not understand what is considered to be appropriate behaviors with or around children. Learn about What to Watch for When Adults are With Children.

Create policies that reduce risk

Establish policies and practices in your school or daycare that reduce the risk of sexual abuse.  Policies can mandate background checks for job applicants and volunteers, and set guidelines about how adults interact with children. For example, some policies place limits on when and if an adult may be alone with a child or youth without another adult present. Others may allow adults to touch children only within sight of other adults.

Rules to protect child care providers working from their homes

Child care providers working from their homes should set clear rules about interactions between the members of their household and the children under their care. For instance, don't let other household members change diapers or be alone with a child.  Rules such as these can protect your program against false accusations of inappropriate sexual contact. 

Reduce risk in the physical environment

Look at the physical environment from the viewpoint of someone who may want to isolate a child. Consider limiting access or locking closets or other rooms that are not in use when children are around. Consider adding windows to rooms where older youth or adults gather.

Get age-appropriate information for kids

Encourage parents to provide accurate, age-appropriate information to their kids. Many children don't know that certain types of touching is dangerous or harmful because they've never been told. For safety's sake, children must learn the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching, the accurate names of body parts, and which secrets are okay to keep and which secrets are dangerous if kept. See Resources for Healthy Sexuality Development

Encourage adults to take responsibility

No matter how much accurate, age-appropriate information children are taught, most children who have been sexually abused can't and don't tell. There are just too many pressures on them to keep silent. Adults must take responsibility to keep children safe.  

Practice speaking up

Parents rely on teachers and child care providers to be knowledgeable about child development, behaviors and safety issues. A parent may not always be able to recognize when their child is showing concerning behavior. Practice speaking up about concerning behavior you see in children, youth and other adults.

Addressing behaviors that seem questionable or confusing

When there are school safety policies in place, it's easier to identify and address behaviors that violate the policies or seem to push the boundaries. However, regardless of whether there are established policies, it's important to discuss behaviors that seem inappropriate or borderline, and to recognize when a situation is risky and needs a response. 

Speak up when you recognize concerning behaviors

Too often adults don't think they have the right to speak up unless they have 100% proof that a child is being sexually abused or is at urgent risk of being abused. The truth is that if we wait until we have absolute proof (extemely rare in cases of child sexual abuse) it's already too late to keep a child from being harmed. Learn the Warning Sign in Children of Possible Abuse to help you to recognize risky behaviors before abuse occurs.

Learn about your role as a legally mandated reporter

All states have laws that require certain professionals to report suspected cases of child abuse to the police or to child protective services. Laws vary by state, but teachers and child care providers are almost always legally mandated to report suspected child abuse. Speak with your principal, program director or licensing organization to find out about your state's reporting laws. While it's important to know about your employer's policies about filing reports, in many states you are required to report suspected abuse regardless of your employer's policy. 

Learn about reporting

Reporting suspected abuse can mean that the abuse of a child will end or will be prevented before a child is harmed. It can mean that the person who offended or was at risk of offending, the child who was hurt or at risk, and the child's family can all get the help and intervention they need. To learn about how and where to file a report report of suspected abuse see Filing Reports.