A global review finds children who take part in school-based programs designed to
prevent sexual abuse are more likely to report it to an adult than children who have
received no such education.
A global review finds children who take part in school programs to
prevent sexual abuse are more likely to report it.
For the review, published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, researchers examined
published studies covering nearly 6,000 elementary and high school children in several
countries around the world.
They found that of those children who received education in how to prevent sexual
abuse, around 14 in 1,000 disclosed some form of sexual abuse, compared with 4 in 1,000
of children who did not receive it.
However, lead author Kerryann Walsh, an associate professor in the faculty of
education at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and colleagues
note their results should be interpreted cautiously because of the “moderate” quality of
They also conclude more research is needed before it can be said that school-based
programs can actually reduce the incidence of sexual abuse.
Estimates suggest that worldwide at least 1 in 10 girls and 1 in 20 boys experiences
sexual abuse. Children who experience sexual abuse are more likely to become victims of
sexual assault when they grow up. They are also at higher risk of health and other
problems in later life, including depression, suicide, eating disorders, drugs and
Several countries – some since the 1980s – run school-based sexual abuse prevention
programs that teach children how to recognize, react to and report sexual abuse. The review included data on 24 studies covering a total of 5,802 elementary and high
school children in seven countries: the US, Canada, China, Germany, Spain, Taiwan, and
Programs used various methods to teach children how to stay safe
The studies examined various types of program designed to prevent sexual abuse. These
ranged from a single 45-minute session to eight 20-minute sessions on consecutive days,
note the authors.
While the programs varied widely, some of the content was similar. For example, they
taught the children about safety rules, body ownership, “private parts,” how to
differentiate between different types of touch, types of secrets, and who to tell.
The programs used various formats to deliver their messages, including film, video,
DVD, theatre plays and multimedia. These were supplemented with other resources such as
songs, comics, coloring books, games and use of puppets. Teaching methods also varied
from rehearsal and practice to role-play, discussion, and feedback.
Prof. Walsh and colleagues found some evidence that such programs can increase
children’s knowledge about sexual abuse – four of the trials showed children remembered
what they were taught six months later.
The review also showed that children who took part in sexual abuse education programs
were more likely to try and protect themselves in a simulated abuse scenario than
children without such education. The scenario involved a stranger asking them to
accompany them out of the school.
The authors found little evidence that children experienced unnecessary worry or
anxiety after taking part in the programs, and there were no reported adverse side
Further research needed to assess whether the programs prevent sexual abuse
In discussing their findings, the researchers explain the difficulties of trying to
assess whether children have grasped the skills required to keep themselves safe and
report abuse. “Even if a child demonstrates that they know how to behave in a certain
scenario, it doesn’t mean they will behave the same in a real situation where there is
potential for abuse,” states Prof. Walsh.
She explains that role plays using actors and research assistants cannot mimic real
life situations. For example, we know that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone
the child already knows.
In conclusion, the researchers say their findings support the need to inform children
and protect them against sexual abuse. However, they urge that research needs to continue to evaluate sexual abuse prevention programs in schools and explore whether they actually prevent sexual abuse. Prof. Walsh
“To really know whether these programs are working, we need to see
larger studies with follow-up all the way to adulthood.”
In October 2014, Medical News Today learned of a study that found childhood psychological abuse is as harmful as sexual or
physical abuse. Researchers suggested that children who experience emotional
abuse and neglect face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who
suffer physical or sexual abuse.