HUSHeducation are recognised providers of Body Safety Education programs to preschools and primary schools around Melbourne. During National Child Protection Week in September this year we were able to connect with a huge audience of people from all walks of life – each one concerned about keeping our children safe. One area which we at HUSHeducation are particularly interested in is Body Safety Education for children and families living with disability. It’s a sad truth that these children are particularly vulnerable to child sexual abuse.
Body safety education, to me, is about providing children and their families with the right to be – and feel – safe. It’s about giving children the tools and the information they need to be safe from child sexual abuse – for instance teaching them to recognise and name their feelings as well as the messages they may be getting from their bodies; talking about safety networks, correct names for the private and personal body parts, and learning to exit an unsafe situation by saying ‘stop’ and ‘no’ and telling a trusted adult.
It’s also about giving parents and carers the facts they need to make informed decisions which are critical for the safety and wellbeing of their child, their family – and the whole community.
While no-one in our community is immune to abuse, children and young people with disability are, unfortunately, at greater risk. Reasons for this increased vulnerability include:
- A potential lack of good understanding of social relationships, personal boundaries, protective behaviours, sexual awareness and an understanding of what ‘abuse’ or inappropriate touching – for instance – is.
- A requirement for intrusive personal care or even the physical inability to resist or avoid abuse.
- If communication is difficult, children with disability can find it hard to let someone know if abuse is occurring.
- Behavioural issues which are sometimes dealt with in a more ‘physical’ manner by carers etc.; and indicators of abuse might be wrongly attributed to behavioural issues.
- Increased dependence on others to have needs met, and care may be provided by someone other than a parent or primary carer.
- Children may accept sexual abuse if they have low understanding ,low self-esteem or a low perception of their abilities.
There are steps parents can take to help keep a child with disability safe from abuse. A good place to start is connecting with mainstream services and resources, including the child’s school – and also letting the child know they have a right to feel safe at all times and that if something is wrong, they can tell someone they trust.
Other suggestions for parents include
- Being clear about their expectations in regards to protective behaviours with service providers and getting to know the people who work with their child, including observing interactions between workers and the child.
- Ask questions about the care provided and the level of supervision and monitoring (Obviously the same applies to any child in school, kinder or day care).
- Know the risk assessments in place for any staff – including volunteers, who might have contact with a child.
Just as parents of children without disabilities would – parents of children with disability need to
- Teach the child about their bodies and which areas are private. Also teach them about relationships and personal boundaries.
- Give information about being safe in a way the child can understand – this might include using symbols and pictures as well as words – and always repeating information.
- Teach the child to say ‘no’ when someone – anyone – makes them feel scared, sad or uncomfortable.
- Help the child to understand and identify who they can trust and go to if they feel unsafe.
- Parents/carers need to be aware of where their child is and with whom
- And for older children – educate and monitor the child’s use of internet, chat rooms and social networking sites.
The best place to start body safety with any child is at home; from the very earliest stages of life – with teaching and modelling consent, using correct body terminology, and supporting a child’s right to choose how they interact ‘physically’ with others – for instance they do not have to hug or kiss grandparents or ‘always do what every adult tells them’.
There are a number of good story books, body safety songs and games for children, as well as books for parents, carers and educators. There are also posters, games and other resources available – many of which can be ordered through the ‘shop’ link on the HUSHeducation website.
Creative parents/carers might like to have a go at making body posters with removable swimwear or underwear for teaching about private areas of the body, or sourcing puzzles and body cut-outs from art and craft shops for ‘at-home’ activities.
In my work with children with intellectual disabilities I have discovered that teaching resources need to be visual and explicit with information repeated a number of times – even daily or weekly at first. A small amount of knowledge can be presented in each lesson and in a number of ways – always including ‘hands-on’ activities as well as spoken and visual.
Children on the spectrum might have quite different learning needs to children with processing or verbal difficulties; which will differ again for children and young people with behavioural and/or emotional difficulties. Social stories are useful, as is role-playing various scenarios.
It’s also important to not underestimate a child’s ability to understand and retain information if it’s presented in a manner most appropriate to their needs.
Finally, parent’s cannot assume that their child is always with a safe adult – they need to teach the child protective behaviours and provide opportunities for their children to practise and experience social situations. Kids with disability need to be allowed to be assertive, confident and take the same risks as their peers and siblings.
- Teach about public/private behaviours, places, body parts
- Surprises not secrets
- Constant repetition – ask kids to rephrase or give an example
- Revise, ritual, rules
- Concrete examples – images, videos, anatomically correct dolls, 3D models,
- Visual, aural and tactile resources
- Go slow, be flexible, be very literal
- Make sure all the people in the child’s circle use the same terminology
- Use inclusive resources
Margie Buttriss is an internationally recognized sexuality educator based in Melbourne, Australia; she is also a teacher and the mother of four adult children. Through her business HUSHeducation she teaches Body Safety Education, Sexuality Education and Adolescent Health to children, young people, parents and teachers. You can find out more at www.husheducation.com.au and www.facebook.com/husheducation.