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Programs That Support Healthy Sexual Development and Behaviors

In this lesson, you will learn how to create programs that support healthy sexual development and safe environments for all children. As a program administratorPUBLICor director, you can help establish a program culture where staff feel safe asking questions about sexual development and behaviors in children and youth. As a program leader, it is equally important to be proactive to prevent sexual behavior challenges, ensure relevant information is provided to families and staff, and prepare to help families and staff respond when children display or experience sexual behavior challenges. In this lesson you will also learn how to lead others in nonjudgmental and culturally responsive ways, and work collaboratively with staff, families, and multidisciplinary teams when challenges arise.

  • Reflect on ways to support staff members when they observe sexual behaviors in children. 
  • List ways program leaders can help staff prevent and respond to sexual behavior challenges.
  • Reflect on ways to sensitively communicate with families when children exhibit or experience sexual behavior challenges.
  • Explore environmental and supervision policies that support healthy sexual development.
  • Outline programmatic supports and action plans for families of children who exhibit or experience sexual behavioral challenges.



Think back to a time when you experienced a situation or challenge that was unfamiliar. Did anyone act to help ease your worry? What helped you or others make good decisions through the situation? How did you keep the main goal or mission in mind? How did you help yourself or others remain calm? Did you learn something from the situation that helped you prevent future challenges or to feel more prepared?

When a sexual behavior incident or challenge occurs in your program, depending on the severity of behavior and the knowledge of those involved, it can feel overwhelming–it might even feel like a crisis. How can you address the immediate needs of children, families, staff, and leadership in ways that are respectful and supportive of all involved? How can you help plan for longer-term support? When challenges arise, it is important to consider the systems and steps needed to address the short- and long-term needs of the safety and healthy development of all children and youth in your program. As a program leader, it is equally important that you have systems in place to prevent sexual behavior challenges. Previous lessons in this course provide a strong foundation; this lesson builds on that material, focusing on your role as aPUBLIC director and how you can provide critical leadership to prevent and appropriately respond to sexual behavior challenges.

Supporting Program Staff

Set the Tone in your Program: Respond to Diverse Beliefs on Sexual Development

As a program administrator, your level of comfort in discussing sexual development and behavior can have a significant effect on staff. For example, you will want to use correct anatomical terms and be able to calmly ask questions when incidents arise. Emphasize that sexual development and behavior is like other domains of child development, such as cognitive and physical, and professional caregivers can use many of the same principles and practices that support child development to foster healthy sexual development and prevent sexual behavior challenges. For example, when staff members and families help children learn to set boundaries for what feels physically safe to them (e.g., saying, “I don’t want to hug right now”) and respect the physical boundaries of others, they intentionally support healthy sexual development in addition to communication, language, and social-emotional skills.

It is important to note that due to a lack of information to learn about and, for some, cultural beliefs about the taboo nature of sexual development, program staff may need more extensive support to build skills relevant to discussing and properly supporting children’s healthy sexual development and behavior. The lack of opportunity to learn about this topic affects child care staff members’ beliefs and how they view their role in supporting healthy sexual development. Consider some of the following comments or concerns you may hear staff make, and then review the guidelines:

Staff Concerns

Administrator Tips to Remember

“The children in my class are too young to learn about sex.”

Sexual development starts in infancy and continues throughout childhood.

“Talking about sex with children will just encourage them to become sexually active.”

Remember, sexual development begins at birth, and most children are curious about their bodies well before they become sexually active. Responding with brief, factual information promotes healthy sexual development.

“Only families should discuss sexual behaviors with their children.”

While it’s true that families are children’s first teachers, like any other area of child development, staff need to know how to promote healthy sexual development as well as how to prevent and respond to sexual behavior challenges. In addition, program staff are trusted individuals that families turn to when they are confused, need advice, or seek information.

“That’s not my job; you as the administrator need to take care of this issue.”

Administrators set the tone for the culture and environment of a program, but administrators and staff share the responsibility of keeping children safe and supporting children’s learning and development, including healthy sexual development.

While these staff concerns may be common, it is important for staff to understand that their primary role includes keeping children safe and supporting learning and development, including sexual development. Review the guidance around acknowledging, relating and taking action in Lesson Eight for ways to respond to staff’s comments in ways that support their feelings but also reinforce expectations for their role in executing high-quality care. As an administrator, you must take action to ensure appropriate caregiving and education takes places within your program. Collaborate with your trainer or coach, and as needed, develop action plans with staff members to build their knowledge in understanding and responding to sexual behaviors.

Assess Program-Wide Needs and Promote Preventive Practices

As discussed in Lesson Eight, it is helpful to have a baseline read of your staff’s knowledge and comfort level regarding sexual development and behavior. You can partner with your trainer or coach to collect data to assess this by asking staff to complete the My Knowledge and Beliefs self-assessment tool in the Apply section of Lesson One. This is one way to measure the level of understanding around this topic for individual staff members and your program as a whole. If you find that most of your program staff report limited knowledge on sexual development and behavior or feel uncomfortable with this topic, collaborate with coaches, a specialist, or local community agencies to plan a professional development opportunity. Refer to Lesson Eight for more suggestions on supporting program-wide learning on sexual development and behavior. Ensuring that staff have proper training, as well as opportunities, tools, and resources to understand and discuss sexual behavior is critical for children’s safety and healthy development in your program.

Aside from formal professional development, one helpful way to support preventive efforts is to normalize communication about sexual behavior. There is a tendency for child care staff to discuss children’s sexual behavior with each other, but only with families when there is a concern. Even when sexual behavior is normative, staff may feel hesitant to ask questions or talk with their teaching team and families. Help program staff gain confidence by allowing them to practice speaking about this topic with you. Model how you talk about sexual behaviors and preventive strategies, and also ask staff to practice what they would say to a coworker or family.

When staff are not sure how to respond to children’s natural curiosities about their bodies, sex, or the life cycle, encourage them to answer children's questions in developmentally appropriate ways. Inform families when you had or will have such discussions (questions about reproduction, names of body parts, etc.) in your child care program. Offer families information about typical sexual development and help them prepare for questions that might come up. These strategies, along with others throughout this course, create a program community that is more knowledgeable about sexual development and behavior, and also better primed to prevent sexual behavior challenges.

Key Prevention Strategies

Many of the same practices we use to ensure safe and healthy environments for children also help prevent sexual behavior challenges. When staff members feel uncomfortable supporting children’s sexual development or report they have limited knowledge, you can begin supportive conversations about these familiar child development strategies and systems to highlight what staff already know. Think how each strategy helps prevent sexual behavior challenges in your program. How do you currently help ensure that these systems occur in your program? How might they be adapted or emphasized to prevent sexual behavior challenges? Reflect on these questions as you read about key prevention strategies for sexual development challenges:

Active supervision is a key prevention strategy and occurs when “staff position themselves so that they can observe all of the children: watching, counting, and listening" (National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness, 2019). The learning environment is a public space and should not have any areas where staff cannot provide active supervision. Sometimes, through children’s activities and ideas, the environment changes in ways that can make it more difficult for staff to provide active supervision. It is important that staff know how to redirect ideas to help maintain line-of-sight (e.g., providing guidance when children construct a fort to ensure adults still have visual access to all the children). Lesson Three helps staff thoroughly consider elements of prevention, but staff will need support from you, trainers, and coaches to maintain strong active supervision and prevention techniques.

Programs that provide engaging opportunities for children and that support strong teacher-child relationships can ward off many challenging behaviors, including challenging sexual behaviors. Ensure you have consistent staffing schedules to maintain strong relationships between children and staff. To set the program and children up for success by leading children to engage in healthy behaviors, provide sufficient time, materials, and support for curriculum planning. When staff are proficient at routinely engaging with children during activities or through conversations, they can prevent the spread of advanced sexual knowledge (e.g. language and sexual content) among children in the program.

Teach simple rules and set clear expectations to help children understand and follow rules around safe touch and personal boundaries. Ensure that staff members work with children and youth to construct rules around what is safe touch within the program, as well as what language, behavior, and content is appropriate within the program environment. When staff collaborate with children and youth to build their boundary-setting skills, they should provide opportunities for children to respectfully share and listen to others’ preferences so children are empowered to know and respond to what feels safe for themselves and others. The Virtual Lab School Safe Environments course helps staff members or family child care providers reflect on rule-setting processes within their classroom or program. In addition, the Social & Emotional Development, Positive Guidance, and Communication & Language Development courses provide guidance on practices that help children understand their own feelings, communicate their emotions, and learn to understand and take the perspective of others.

Monitor electronic device use and protect children from sexually explicit media while in your program. You should ensure that staff are aware that children should not have access to sexually explicit magazines or books, videos, video games, computer files, websites, songs, or television programs. In addition, closely monitor children while they use electronic devices to avoid inadvertent exposure to sexually explicit media. Safety measures, such as enabling parental controls on devices are a good place to start, but they should not take the place of supervision. Monitoring children’s online interaction is just as important as monitoring their physical interactions.

Review yourPUBLIC program’s policies around media use as well as child or youth personal cell phone and electronic devise use. Collaborate with the trainer or coach in your program to make sure staff know these policies and know how to help children and families follow these policies. In addition, help staff know what to do if they hear children and youth discussing explicit media, even if the media exposure did not take place within your program. Such conversations may indicate the child or children are at risk of exhibiting or experiencing sexual behavior challenges. Depending on the nature of the comments, staff should be prepared to reiterate safe boundaries in the program and redirect children to more appropriate conversation. Staff should also involve you and the trainer or coach to see if follow-up conversations are needed with the child and family. Refer to the Safe Media & Technology Use for Children, Youth, & Families attachment in the Apply section of Lesson Four for a resource for families.

Supervise & Support

Responding to Sexual Behavior

Your Specific Role as an Administrator

This course provides all program staff with important information and tools to understand and respond to children’s sexual behavior. Each instance of sexual behavior is different, and it is your role to have an overarching view of the entire situation as it pertains to the needs of children, families, and staff. Expanding on the guidelines from Lesson Two on responding in the moment and after the fact, be prepared to step in when you assess that there are additional needs to attend to. Use these suggestions to guide your comprehensive program support as you and your staff appropriately respond to sexual behavior:

  • Help staff members remain calm and collect their thoughts. Opportunities to discuss case examples offer an opportunity to practice these skills.
  • If in the moment, help staff members redirect the behavior and ensure that all children are safe.
  • Work with staff members and the children involved to fully understand the incident or behaviors. Use the tools available throughout this course to understand and reflect on what happened. Gather information with open-ended questions. Remember to ask children, families, and staff members individually about the incident (when appropriate) to gain a more complete understanding of the behavior.
  • Appropriately document the incident and behaviors and brainstorm a short-term support plan or preventive plan, if needed. Use the tools available to help determine the need to engagePUBLIC a specialist.
  • With relevant staff members, lead engagement withPUBLIC appropriate specialists when the behavior appears non-normative or if you want additional support in determining the severity of the sexual behavior displayed or help in responding appropriately.
  • Take the lead in communicating with families, along with relevant staff members.
  • Lead the action planning process for your program’s more immediate response. Work with the relevant staff members to create a short-term support or prevention plan. What additional observations, supervision, and support will you collectively need to better understand the behavior and prevent future challenges? Communicate the plan with all appropriate staff and family members. Provide developmentally appropriate education and reinforce healthy behaviors.
  • Support multidisciplinary teams soPUBLIC specialists, staff, and families know each other’s roles and responsibilities
  • If applicable, work withPUBLIC a specialist on other strategic responses in the program to best support the children involved and their families.
  • With the support of the trainer or coach, follow up with staff to ensure support plans are implemented appropriately and, if needed, additional documentation is complete. Brainstorm adaptations in program support and supervision plans as necessary.
  • With the support of your trainer or coach, review prevention plans for the program as a whole to ensure that all staff know how to implement appropriate prevention techniques.
  • Some serious sexual behavior challenges in children and youth may include behaviors that that are considered illegal sex acts as defined by statutes in the state or local area where the behaviors occurred. Work withPUBLIC a specialist for guidance on when law enforcement, child protective services, or other agencies should be involved.

Supporting Teams’ Use of Program Tools

After a sexual behavior incident occurs, work with staff and teams to use program tools to determine next steps. As a program administrator, it is your role to review these documents and ask follow-up questions. Follow-up questions allow you to guide staff members to determine if a sexual behavior is of concern or normative. Follow-up questions also keep you, as the administrator, knowledgeable about challenges with regard to specific children and teams. Finally, follow-up questions help you know when a team needs general support and coaching on sexual development and behavior. You may find instances where you disagree with how a team interprets children’s sexual behaviors. The questions in tools such as the Sexual Behavior Reflection Tool, help you guide teams’ use of a developmental and comprehensive frame to determine the severity of incidents and to assess if behaviors can easily be prevented with universal strategies.

Take a moment now to review the Sexual Behavior Reflection Tool and think of questions you might pose to program staff to deepen your understanding of an incident and also staff’s ability to think about sexual behavior comprehensively.

Sexual Behavior Reflection Tool
Is the behavior random or infrequent?
Is the behavior typical for the child’s age and developmental ability?
Is the behavior driven by curiosity, exploration, and playfulness?
If other children are involved, is it mutual and good-humored?
If other children are involved, do they know each other well and are they of a similar age and development (<2 years)?
Is the behavior easily redirected?
Normative Sexual Behavior?

Sexual Development Factors: Case-by-Case Decision Making

As discussed throughout this course, several factors affect children and youth’s sexual development and behavior. In each unique case or incident, knowledge of these factors is necessary to understand whether or not a child exhibits a sexual behavior challenge and, if so, the severity of that challenge. One must consider:

  • Culture and family norms
  • Development
  • Function of the behavior
  • Frequency and participation
  • Environment
  • Media
  • Effect on others
  • Redirection

Though you will consider all of these factors, direct care staff may need the most help from leadership when analyzing children’s development and function for sexual behaviors. You, with trainers or coaches in your program, will likely need to be part of the process when staff complete the Sexual Behaviors Reflection Tool, Sexual Development Definition and Factors, and other tools. Even when a more seasoned teaching team completes these forms without you, always review this documentation.

As discussed in Lesson Eight, understanding how development affects children’s behavior is complex, particularly when staff identify strongly as a caregiver for a specific age group or care for children with disabilities or delays. In addition, most families have a more limited knowledge of child development, and some may look to you, as the leader of the program, for guidance on how to understand children’s behavior in relation to their developmental abilities. When staff or family members encounter or ask questions about sexual behavior, help them think about children’s individual development by asking them the following questions:

  • What behavior occurred?
  • What do we want to happen?
  • What can the child do?

Also covered in Lesson Eight, remember that all behavior has meaning or serves some function. Determining the function of children’s sexual behavior requires careful thought about children’s cognitive, language, social-emotional, and physical abilities. When discussing incidents of sexual behavior with staff members or families, model careful reflection and recognize that functions may not always be clear. Although some children can tell you the reason they engaged in a behavior, many children, especially children preschool-age and younger, will not understand why they engage in sexual behaviors or unsafe touch. In these instances, you will need to help staff members think carefully about children’s environments and development to determine whether the behavior is a reaction to some feature in the classroom or program environment or a more thought-out occurrence. Even when sexual behavior seems carefully crafted (e.g., a school-age child yells out a sexual obscenity to get a laugh from peers), think deeply about why children engage in these behaviors and what they “get” out of doing so (e.g., attention from peers and adults). Learn more about the functions of behavior in the VLS Focused Topics course Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviors.

Leading Programs that Support Children’s Sexual Development

Learn how to set the tone so your program’s children and staff are well-supported.

Immediate Response and Creating Short-Term Support and Prevention Plans

WhilePUBLIC a specialist will lead teams in intervention plans for sexual behavior challenges, you will coordinate the immediate response within your program, and there are a few instances in which you will lead the creation of a prevention or short-term support plan. After careful reflection and use of program tools, you will find that many of the sexual behaviors observed in your program are normative and developmentally appropriate. This does not mean that staff do not need to provide support to these children or should allow these behaviors to continue to occur. For some normative sexual behavior, you will want to help staff create a simple prevention plan and schedule to reassess the behavior after a period of time. Staff can often prevent or redirect inappropriate but normative behaviors, for example by providing closer active supervision where the behavior tends to occur (e.g., in gyms, lunchrooms, and bathrooms) and by reminding children and youth about public versus private behaviors. Lesson Four provides detailed information on strategies to promote healthy sexual development and prevent sexual behavior challenges. Learn additional prevention strategies in the VLS Focused Topics course Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviors. Any time a sexual behavior is displayed, even normative, it is important that staff let program leadership, such as a trainer, coach, or administrator, know so that they can also take appropriate follow-up action (e.g., help provide information to families and create prevention plans). If there are still concerns after implementing a prevention plan, consult with PUBLIC a specialist. For more clear-cut sexual behavior challenges, you or a coach will contactPUBLIC a specialist immediately.

For children who have either clearly exhibited a sexual behavior challenge, or a sexual behavior you need further guidance on, develop a short-term support plan while you wait forPUBLIC a specialist to provide more extensive recommendations. As an administrator, it is important that you prepare a plan with program staff for any gap between when the initial incident occurred and whenPUBLIC a specialist can provide consultation or evaluate the child. Depending on the specialist, this may be hours, days, or even weeks. Regardless of the amount of lag time between referral and evaluation, your program should commit to continued care for all children involved unless there is a high risk of serious and unpreventable harm to others. These instances are rare for children ages birth to 12. When creating short-term support plans, consider the following:

Supportive Shadowing

 A staff member may shadow, or stay near, a child who has exhibited behavior challenges and needs more support. This is a helpful way to ensure safety for everyone in the program and allows the adult to quickly intervene and model healthy skills. During shadowing, a staff member may sometimes directly play or interact with the focal child, but the key is that they are nearby, observing, recording relevant notes when appropriate, and are prepared to jump in should the child begin to display challenging behavior. Well-implemented shadowing is not obvious to the rest of the children or outsiders, and some children consider the extra attention a special privilege. As an administrator, it is important that you clearly communicate what it means to shadow a child and be explicit that shadowing should not be punitive or make the child feel excluded.

  • In teaching teams, you may need to help support a time schedule for shadowing. For example, in a classroom maintained by three staff members, the classroom team may agree to take turns shadowing a child in need of extra supervision support. Darlene agrees to stay near the child throughout the morning until the class transitions outside, at which point Jovan takes the lead through nap time, followed by Maurice through the end of the day. Notice that the team has explicitly identified who will shadow at what times–this is a critical step in helping to provide extra supervision for children exhibiting sexual behavior challenges.
  • For school-age programs, you may need to work with staff to identify a member that can adequately shadow a child through transitions or spaces within the program–for example, moving from the art studio to the playground. Help staff prepare to shadow in ways that are supportive of the child and their relationships with peers. For example, when a child wants to transition from the art studio to the playground, how could a staff member talk and transition with them in a way that communicates the child has strengths and is valued in the program or perhaps engage peers in the transition as well?
  • Shadowing and support needs for children with sexual behavior challenges will vary, therefore it is important to consider overall staffing plans. Some children with sexual behaviors may need an added staff member in their classroom. In other instances, existing staff will be able to carry out recommended strategies and supervision effectively.  

As school-age children typically have more autonomy in the program space, it is important to discuss and plan how program transitions and bathroom visits will work when. In programs where children need to change clothing or receive overnight care, it will be important to explicitly plan how supervision and support will occur during these times, when sexual behavior challenges can present more of a risk to others.

It is also crucial that when a substitute is in a classroom or program space where special supervision plans are in place, you check in with the team to ensure each member knows their roles and responsibilities to ensure continued implementation of the plan. Enlist team members and create a support system so this is feasible. Only informed adults, with appropriate training from you, the trainer, or coach, should have the responsibility of shadowing children or carrying out short-term support and preventive plans. 

Administrators and staff should be cautious before permanently removing children who have exhibited sexual behavior challenges from their program environment or classroom. Decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis and, except in cases of the most severe or harmful behaviors, children with sexual behavior challenges should remain in their classrooms. Removing children can unnecessarily exclude children from learning opportunities as well as needlessly label and stigmatize them. When making a decision to remove a child from their environment, sharing information with program staff, schools, or other similar settings should be based on the individual child’s sexual behavior challenges in those settings and the child’s privacy rights. Consult your state laws for further guidance.

Support for Program Families

Supporting Families with Children Who Exhibit Sexual Behavior Challenges

When a sexual behavior challenge occurs, you as the administrator will likely lead the process of sharing what occurred with the appropriate family members and referring families to community resources for support, if appropriate. Familiarize yourself with local supports available to families. It is critically important that you individually address the families of all children involved and that you share concrete information about what occurred as quickly as you can. Through your leadership, model and explicitly discuss how you balance transparency and confidentiality--being open and honest with staff members or family members who need to know about their children’s sexual behavior in the program while respecting the privacy of individual children and families. Delays in transparency can increase family members’ negative reactions or cause them to question why they were not involved sooner.

As previewed in Lesson Six and underscored in Lesson Eight, families of children with sexual behavior challenges may have additional life stressors as a result of their children’s needs. The importance of early caregiver engagement, particularly when children or youth have sexual behavior challenges, cannot be overstated. Administrators can support families of children who exhibit and experience sexual behavior challenges by helping provide evidence-based information and modeling healthy responses to the behaviors. You can also support family members by reviewing assessments and intervention plans, helping to provide referrals for counseling if the behavior persists, and reporting to child protective services or law enforcement agencies (in accordance with state laws) if abuse is suspected.

If you have serious concerns about a child’s sexual behavior, you must follow your program’s procedures. For all other issues in connection with children’s sexual development, it is best to involve families in line with your organization policy. Consider the following when interacting with families about sexual development and behaviors:

  • Make contact as early as possible.
  • Provide information about professional roles and assessment processes.
  • Affirm importance of the parental role.
  • Emphasize that by sharing your concern you are putting the child’s needs first.
  • Help to process emotional responses.
  • Listen to the parents’ story.
  • Be aware that each parent may react differently.
  • Expect ambivalence, hostility, or distress--try to not take the family’s initial reactions personally.
  • Avoid confrontation.

When family members have not seen their child behave in this way, it can be hard to believe it really happened. Family members sometimes feel embarrassed or upset. Reassurance and guidance about normative sexual behaviors can help with questions and concerns that many parents have. It is also normal for families to want to defend their child against accusations. Common reactions from families when discussing their child’s sexual behavior challenges include:

It did not happen. My child would not do that. Sexual behavior challenges may only occur in certain environments where some families may not observe their child. If a child denies the behavior, it is still important to keep an open mind about the possibility that the child understands that they engaged in a behavior adults disapprove of.

It's not that big of a deal. People are overreacting. Some families may be very uncomfortable with speaking about sexual behavior in children and respond by brushing it off. They may understand the importance of intervening but don’t feel emotionally able to provide the needed support or reach out for help.

If people find out there will be a record with CPS or the police. Professionals who work with children are required by law to report suspected child abuse to the child protective services (CPS) or the police. When children engage in unusual, advanced, or aggressive sexual behavior, it is possible that they have been abused or that there are challenges in the home. A qualified professional can guide you in determining if a report should be made to CPS. However, it is critical to reiterate, as discussed in this course, many children exhibit sexual behavior challenges even when there is no history of abuse or neglect.

My child is or is going to become a sex offender. Due to stigma, many people assume that children with sexual behavior challenges will become sex offenders as adults. It is important for you to give families hope and inform them that children with sexual behavior challenges who receive research-based intervention and have strong family support have a very low likelihood of becoming adult sex offenders. Empower families with this knowledge to help them learn the importance of intervening early and to give them hope.

Family Reactions

Read the scenarios below. Consider the suggested way you might approach and respond to families, and review the specific strategies offered in Lesson Eight for ways program leadership can offer added support to these families. Keep in mind that families may display a range of responses to the information that you share about their child’s sexual behavior. However, once families have had a chance to process the incident, their responses may change.


Coaching and Creating Programs that Support Sexual Development Scenarios




Peter, a 2½-year-old boy, is observed during nap time putting his hand in and out of his underpants. There are other children present in the room and the staff member shares this as a concern.

You and the staff member, Lylah, who observed the behavior speak to the family member at pickup. The staff member clearly explains the behavior to the child’s family. You explain that this is normative sexual behavior, but that you would like to work together to help Peter learn more about public and private behavior.

Family Reaction


The family member says they don’t believe the staff member. They don’t think that their child would ever touch themselves, especially not in public.  They have never observed this behavior in their child. They say that is “nasty” behavior and insist that the staff member made an incorrect assumption.

Responses to Families


Empathize with the family; acknowledge this new information may feel unsettling at first. Calmly share that sexual exploration does not always happen in front of family members and reiterate that the behavior appears normative.  Share resources around sexual development and behavior with the family. Reiterate your program’s commitment to partnering with families and sharing information about all aspects of a child’s development. Suggest ways you would like to talk about appropriate touch with Peter and listen to the family’s feedback.

Also, take the time to reassure the staff member that they were correct to share their observation. Share that you have an open door policy and that they should always feel free to express any concerns with you.



During outside playtime, an 11-year-old boy named Marcus asks two girls aged 5 and 6 years old if they would have "sex" with him and show their "boobs" to him.

The staff member remains calm and redirects the children to different ideas, separate from each other and with appropriate supervision to ensure each is safe. You and the staff member meet individually with each child to better understand what occurred and the factors involved. You engage PUBLICa specialist for help. You and the staff member call each family to share what occurred. You share your program’s immediate response and short-term support plan for supervision and support.  

Family Reaction


Marcus’ mom is concerned that he will be reported to the police. She doesn’t want him to have a record to become a sexual predator.

Responses to Families


Reassure her that you are following up with the families of all the children involved. Let her know that you are working closely with staff to identify the next step to address this issue. Provide her with information around appropriate sexual behavior and touch.

With all families, share your supervision and support plan to help mitigate future behavior. You also help plan with staff ways to ensure that strong prevention strategies are used throughout the program.

Responding to Sexual Behavior Challenges–Case Example

Outlined in the Know section above, there are a series of key steps that program administrators can take when a sexual behavior occurs to help ensure the safety of all children and families. Read the following case study and reflect on how the leadership team and staff incorporated the various strategies and principles outlined in this course.

During free time, a preschool teacher observes three 5-year-old children (Joyce, LaDonya, and Habib) in the home-living area roleplaying and having conversations. The children are expressing curiosity about sexuality. Joyce asks the other children if they know about babies and where they come from. The children start sharing sexual information and Joyce talks explicitly about different sexual acts.

Response Step
In Action
  1. Teacher remains calm and collects their thoughts.
    In the moment , staff member redirects the behavior and ensures that all children are safe.

    The teacher intervenes and redirects the children by asking if she can join them in play. She redirects the play to focus on caring for babies, modeling healthy caregiving practices.

    This continues for an additional 5 minutes before transition to outdoor play.

  2. Work with staff members and the children involved to understand the incident or behaviors.

    During the transition to outdoor play, the teacher alerts her trainer, coach, and administrator of the situation. A member of the leadership team and the staff member involved meet with each of the children individually to ask more about the free time play, for example asking the children

    • Tell me about your play in the home-living area today.
    • What sorts of things did you talk about?

    During these conversations, Joyce does not reiterate her earlier statements; she is mostly unresponsive and seems fearful.

    The staff member records all that she remembers from the children’s conversation.

  3. Appropriately document the incident and behaviors and brainstorm immediate short-term support plans.

    Using the Sexual Behavior Reflection Tool, program leadership and staff members discuss the relevant factors to gauge whether or not the behavior is normative. Based on Joyce’s behavior, the administrator and staff determine that they should involve PUBLICa specialist. Together, leadership and staff fill out the appropriate initial documentation. In addition, together leadership and staff begin to brainstorm ways to prevent future incidents in the short-term.

  4. With relevant staff members, lead engagement with PUBLICappropriate outside supports.

    Administrator contacts PUBLICa specialist and uses any additional guidance from them to drive next steps.

  5. With relevant staff members, lead communication with families.

    Administrator calls families of each child involved individually to explain what happened, share what the program has done thus far to seek guidance and support (engagement with PUBLIC a specialist ), and the short-term plans for appropriate supervision to prevent future incidents. During these conversations, the administrator emphasizes care and concern for the children and provides families with resources on sexual development and behavior. When speaking with each family, the administrator does not share the names of the other children involved.

    For Joyce’s family, the administrator explains that while roleplaying is typical, talking explicitly about sexual acts is not age-typical behavior, and hence they have engaged PUBLIC a specialist for more support.

    If families express they want their child or other children removed from the program, the administrator may explain the program’s policy regarding supporting all children and being as inclusive as possible, and that next steps will be determined in consultation with PUBLIC appropriate specialists . The administrator assures all families that they will continue to monitor the behavior and keep them informed

  6. Communicate with the applicable program leadership.

    Administrator alerts appropriate individuals in their chain of command.

  7. With trainer, coach, and relevant program staff, lead the action-planning process for the program’s more short-term plan response.

    Administrator works with trainer or coach and the preschool classroom staff to:

    1. Establish a shadowing plan for Joyce for the next several days. The team reviews how to shadow, the healthy behaviors they want to model for Joyce, and the schedule for who will shadow when.
    2. Establish a teacher to be actively present in the home-living area, as well as during restroom breaks over the next several days to help observe in these areas and redirect as necessary.
    3. Establish plans to share information on healthy sexual development and behaviors with families throughout the program in classroom and program newsletters and pamphlets for families, including information on age-appropriate books for questions about reproduction.
    4. Make sure that all staff members are prepared to record additional observations as necessary and know how to redirect if the behavior reoccurs.
    5. Brainstorm with staff ways to embed reminders about safe touch, personal boundaries, and appropriate school talk into curricular activities and daily interactions.
    6. Alert staff that members of the leadership team will visit the classroom more frequently over the next few days to support the staff and children.
  8. Work with PUBLICa specialist on other strategic responses in the program to best support the children involved and their families.

    Administrator listens to PUBLICa specialist's guidance about specific ways they can support Joyce, the other children involved, and their families. As appropriate, universal strategies or targeted supports are integrated into the teaching team’s lesson planning.

  9. Follow-up with staff to ensure that action plans are implemented appropriately.

    Administrator and trainer or coach visit the classroom frequently over the next several days to observe the environment, check in with the staff on how the plans are working, and how the children are doing. Administrator reviews the staffing plan at the start of each day, and if a substitute is needed, supports communication among the staff to ensure that all staff members know how to support one another.

  10. Review prevention plans for the program as a whole to ensure that all staff know how to implement appropriate prevention techniques.

    Administrator and trainer or coach plan mini-training with case examples to help ensure that staff members know different prevention techniques, particularly the importance of active supervision, and how best to immediately respond if children display sexual behaviors.

Notice that throughout this case example, the administrator plays a central role in leading communication, engaging staff in reflection and planning, and coordinating with the appropriate staff, leadership, and outside agencies. Use the case study example in the Explore section to brainstorm what you would do in response to a sexual behavior incident.


Complete the Responding to Sexual Behaviors activity to reflect on one program’s response to a sexual behavior incident. Plan how you would respond to this incident as an administrator or leader in your program. What additional questions do you have? Discuss your responses with a colleague.  


Review the following guide, Action Planning for Short-Term Response, to think about your immediate responses. Consider your responses following a sexual behavior incident.

This course has introduced many strategies for supporting children’s sexual development and behavior. In Lesson Seven, we offered a practice inventory for direct care staff. The Sexual Development and Behavior in Children & Youth: Leadership Practice Inventory below is for Program Managers and/or Training & Curriculum Specialists. Use this inventory to reflect more deeply about the practices that you use to support staff members’ knowledge and understanding of children’s sexual development and behavior and how you support children with problematic sexual behavior. After completing the inventory, discuss with each other how you might improve some of your program practices.


Attribute a belief of shame or disgrace


True or false? It is best practice to always remove children who exhibit sexual behavior challenges from other children in the classroom or program.
You are supporting staff who work with children and youth who exhibit sexual behavior challenges. Which strategy is least helpful?
You have asked Pauline and Jackie, two teachers in your yellow daisy room to complete the Sexual Behaviors Reflection Tool&nbsp;because at lunch today, a 3-year-old exhibited a sexual behavior challenge. Which option is a best practice for your teaching team?
References & Resources

Counterman, L. & Kirkwood, D. (2013). Understanding Health Sexuality and Development in Young Children. Voices of Practitioners (8)2, 1-13.

Future of Sex Education Initiative. (2012). National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K-12 [a special publication of the Journal of School Health].

Hagan, J.F., Shaw, J.S., Duncan, P. (Eds.). (2008). Theme 8: Promoting Healthy Sexual Development and Sexuality. In Bright Futures: Guidelines for healthy supervision of infants, children, and adolescents (3rd ed.) (pp.169-176). Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network & National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth. (2009). Sexual Development and Behavior in Children- Information for Parents and Caregivers. Retrieved from

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Understanding and Coping with Sexual Behavior Problems in Children, Information for Parents and Caregivers.

National Children’s Alliance. (2015). Understanding Children and Youth with Problematic Sexual Behavior. Retrieved from