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Responding to students exhibiting sexualized behavior

Students with sexualized behavior are one of teachers' biggest concerns. While sexual behavior -- touching, masturbating, making lewd gestures or engaging in pretend sexual play -- is relatively unusual, it can be understandably upsetting and confusing for educators, who often are not sure how best to respond and get mired in questions regarding the effective way to address the situation. What if there is an underlying issue at hand? What if the behavior is nothing but simple self-discovery, but in an inappropriate setting?

When Jessica Minahan, a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator, and I wrote "The Behavior Code," we wanted to create a guidebook for anyone dealing with children and their challenges -- sexualized behavior included. Some sexual behavior is normal. Kindergarten-age children can be fascinated by body parts and their functions, and as they age into elementary school, may often joke about such things. (Laughing when the teacher says "but" is just one example of this.) However, sexualized behavior is problematic when it is displayed in the classroom and a child disregards personal boundaries of other students or a teacher.

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Sometimes sexual behavior can be a clue in diagnosing emerging mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, or even in recognizing a student's cognitive difficulties.

Below, I elucidate why sexual behavior happens in the classroom, while offering some tips for educators on how to respond.

1. Make sure to identify causes of sexualized behavior in schools. Typically, three groups of students present sexualized behavior: impulsive students, students with social deficits and students with a history of trauma. Each group, and each individual student, requires a tailored approach.

Impulsive kids act before they think. When these students exhibit sexualized behavior, it's helpful to supervise the kids and redirect them when possible. Emphasize "slowing down," self-monitoring and thinking before acting or speaking are all useful self-regulation techniques that become more efficient with practice. If the behavior continues, however, a psychological/psychiatric evaluation can be appropriate. Sexual behavior such as masturbating can sometimes be compulsive and an irresistible urge, much like nose picking in the classroom. The student knows they shouldn't do it but it happens anyway. For these students, try techniques that are used for other compulsive habits, like introducing self-monitoring, making the symptom inconvenient (copying a paragraph from a text book when an incident occurs or being assigned school chores, for example), or having the student use their imagination to practice resisting the impulse, all of which can lessen the occurrence of the behavior.

Students with social deficits have difficulty picking up on social clues and the unspoken rules of interaction. When these students exhibit sexualized behavior, they often don't understand that what they're doing is wrong. It's crucial to assist the student in gaining the necessary social skills to behave appropriately.

2) Don't assume abuse. A majority of children with sexualized behavior have never been abused. However, those students with a history of trauma may exhibit sexualized behavior, simulating what they've been exposed to. For these students, it's important to minimize the student's exposure to the cues that lead to an anxious response and remind the student of the traumatic experience. These triggers can be anything from people to smells, rooms or words. At the same time, when appropriately supported in a safe environment, a child can benefit from gradual exposure to certain triggers in order to learn to manage their distress.

3). Be gentle, but firm. Have a strategy. Most of the time, there is more going on than meets the eye. It's a delicate balance to protect all parties involved, while simultaneously holding children accountable for their actions and helping children with behaviors that they likely don't understand. When responding to sexualized behavior, it's important for the teacher to get their point across without shaming the child. Short, to-the-point sentences such as "that makes me uncomfortable" are appropriate responses. Educators may also establish a "secret signal" with students to alert them that their behavior is inappropriate. In the case of a student with trauma, if a trigger emerges, the secret signal can excuse them from an activity or even the classroom. For students who masturbate in class, providing fidget toys can be a helpful distraction. And educators should always err on the side of gently providing boundaries. Sometimes, students with sexualized behavior seek personal interaction like hugs. Offering handshakes or verbal affirmations are better alternatives. Educators can request a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) for a student with sexualized behavior as well. This will help identify the antecedents to identify patterns for when inappropriate behavior may occur and will help shape interventions.

Sexualized behavior in students can be a struggle for teachers to discern how to most appropriately respond, but more often than not, there's an underlying cause that can be treated and worked with. It's essential for schools not to rush to disciplinary action and to rally around both teachers and students with invaluable resources and support.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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