When to teach, when to tell?
Sexual exploration among pre-schoolers is normal, but some activities cross the line
Becky Johnson, smokymountainnews.com, May 9, 2007
When a workshop on proper and improper sexual behavior in preschoolers premiered at a childcare conference in the region a few years ago, more than 60 childcare workers packed the session, surprising even the organizers.
The reason for the popularity became clear during the question and answer session. Each teacher had a list of scenarios from their classroom they wanted to share and were craving a setting where it was OK to talk about them.
It's a conundrum childcare workers often find themselves in. They don't know whether to dismiss an incident as normal or be alarmed. Failing to make the right judgment call can land a childcare center in hot water with the state, as teachers at First United Methodist Child Development Center in Waynesville learned two years ago.
A handful of children displayed an interest in both their own private parts and those of others that went beyond what the state considers normal. The state revoked the center's five-star status and put it on probation, not only for allowing the incidents to happen in the first place but for failing to report them to the Department of Social Services as a potential sign of sexual abuse.
Often, a childcare center's first inclination is to correct the behavior considered inappropriate since very young children don't yet know what's right and wrong.
Teaching kids not to expose or touch their own private parts or those of others is much like laying down the rules for any other behavior. You don't knock over another child's blocks. You wait turns for the slide. You don't take another child's crackers.
Until children learn what's right and wrong, behavior considered 'inappropriate' in the adult world "including sexual exploration" is bound to happen under the watch of childcare centers. While most parents of young children have witnessed such sexual curiosities, society registers shock and declares the behavior abnormal. Even discussing it is risky, Stamm said.
It wasn't until the third or fourth incident with the same children that childcare workers at First United Methodist realized they should be concerned.
What is OK
What's normal exploration and what's not is something childcare workers struggle with daily. KARE's workshop on proper and improper sexual behavior in pre-schoolers continues to be a top draw at childcare training conferences and is offered on demand for childcare centers that request it.
Some might be surprised by what's considered normal, according to the litmus test Beckner uses. For example, children touching themselves is very normal.
As shocking as it seems to some, preschool children do masturbate and it doesn't always mean they've been abused or learned the behavior from someone, according to experts interviewed for this article. That said, children should be taught to refrain.
Children wanting to see an other's private parts is also normal. Even children touching each other's privates, if purely exploratory in nature, can be normal.
Children can be equally intrigued with private parts of others of the same sex, said Catherine Laveck, an instructor at Western Carolina University in the Birth through Kindergarten childcare program
What's not OK
Other incidents that occurred between children at First United Methodist child care center fall in the 'troubling' category, however, according to experts.
In one case, a preschool-aged girl and boy got undressed during naptime and lay on a cot facing each other, one touching the other's private parts.
Another incident that crossed the line: a preschool-aged child inserted an ink pen into the bottom of another child.
Potentially, there could be an explanation for both incidents. Perhaps the child accidentally saw a sex scene on television, or saw their mother take the temperature of a baby sibling with a rectal thermometer.
It's hard to take an incident in isolation and determine whether it falls in the red flag category without having witnessed it yourself or knowing whether the child was prone to other sexual behaviors as well.
A third instance that occurred at First Unite Methodist Child Development Center also seems to falls in that category. One preschool-aged boy followed another into the bathroom. The two boys showed each other their private parts, and then one boy allegedly kissed the other's penis, according to one boy's account to his parents.
Laveck agreed the incident crosses into the 'cause for concern' category.
A forth incident that happened on the playground troubles Laveck for the same reasons. A preschool-aged boy pulled down another's pants and allegedly kissed the boy's bottom. Looking is normal, but kissing private parts is unusual, Laveck said.
These four incidents have one thing in common: they mimic adult sexual behavior. That's the rule of thumb Beckner teaches in her class.
When to report
First United Methodist Child Development Center was cited by the state for failing to report troubling behavior to DSS as a potential sign of child abuse. In those instances "namely the pen incident, cot incident and excessive personal touching by one student" the children's behavior could have been a sign of child abuse and should have been reported.
Laveck agreed as well.
Of course, there are side effects to reporting every little incident. For starters, the child gets interviewed by a social worker. That can be traumatic, no matter how skilled the social worker is.
Childcare workers have to use their own judgment. If two children are caught in the bathroom showing each other their private parts, it does not necessarily trigger a call to DSS, Laveck said.
Laveck calls it 'redirecting', as in redirecting the child's attention to more appropriate behavior. If the sexual behavior continues to occur, however, it could be a red flag of something going on in the child's life, Laveck said.
The same child at First United Methodist was involved in several of the incidents cited by the state. The same child frequently touched herself, colored her private areas with a magic marker on two different occasions "both of which got the center cited for failure of supervision" and was involved in both the cot and pen incidents.
When one of the childcare workers asked the child about her behavior, the child said she had learned it from her older sibling. The childcare worker expressed concern to the parent over the child's sexual behavior. A resolution was not reached, however. The center was cited for failing to report the child's excessive interest in masturbation "and her claim that it came from an older sibling as suspected child abuse to DSS.
Not so good side effect
The childcare center had an easy option at its disposal.
Unfortunately, childcare centers are increasingly doing just that, said Stamm, the HCC childcare instructor. Childcare centers are scared of state regulations "and of bad media publicity" and take the easy way out.
The publicity over First United Methodist could prompt childcare centers to be even more quick to expel, said Sharon Davis, also a childcare instructor at HCC.
Marsh Parris, director at First United Methodist Child Development Center during the 2005 incidents, said she would have dismissed the children involved if she could do it over again.
Childcare centers don't want their entire program jeopardized by the behavior of a couple of children. Today, some centers have zero tolerance for biting, a common developmental behavior for some children in the under-2 age bracket, Davis said.
Stamm's own daughter was a biting terror until she was socialized otherwise. It worked, Stamm said. She's now 29 and hasn't bitten anyone in years. But during the thick of her biting phase, her childcare center had its work cut out.
Lack of supervision?
The main citation faced by First United Methodist Child Development Center was lack of supervision, or neglect. Several of the incidents went unnoticed by a teacher at all, such as the child that colored her private parts with a magic marker or the boy pulling down another boy's pants on the playground. Others weren't noticed by the teacher until it was too late, like the cot incident and pen incident.
Some of the incidents occurred in a just a few seconds, while others obviously went on for at least a couple of minutes before the teacher noticed. What constitutes lack of supervision is yet another area of gray for childcare workers.
Take the incident where one boy went into the bathroom behind another, and the two showed and touched private parts. When interviewed by the state, the teacher said she didn't realize the second boy had followed the other into the bathroom. Locklear sees two problems here:
According to state law, a childcare worker is responsible for anything that happens to a child in his or her care, said Davis, the HCC instructor. However, the center isn't charged with lack of supervision every time a teacher fails to stop a child from doing something they shouldn't.
Locklear said the state recognizes there are "some natural tendencies" in children. The difference with First United is that incidents kept recurring among the same few children. Those particular kids should have been watched more closely, Locklear said.
In this case, however, incidents were repeating.
The standards for childcare centers are certainly higher than what parents are held to.
Two of the incidents that got First Methodist in trouble occurred inside a playhouse inside the classroom. The playhouse was later removed from the classroom. Laveck said a playhouse is not intrinsically a bad thing in a childcare setting.
Locklear said opening up the line of sight in a room is always preferable.
Other incidents occurred under the slide on the playground, out of sight in the bathroom or behind a bookcase in the classroom. First United Methodist ultimately took numerous measures to improve teachers' line of sight. Concave mirrors were installed in classrooms and on the playground, and bookshelves were given Plexiglas backs so teachers could see through them.
Another incident "one involving a child touching another's bottom" happened while the teacher was putting up cots after naptime and was distracted. The state cited the teacher for "leaving the room". Actually, the cots were stored just outside the door, but it did cause the teacher to turn her back for a few seconds. It wasn't much different than if the cots were stored in a closet, but those few seconds were deemed a lack of supervision.
There's no easy litmus test for deciding whether lack of supervision occurred, Davis said.
Making the decisions that faced a couple of the teachers at First United Methodist carries a huge responsibility that often seems out of proportion to the low salary of childcare workers. An entry-level childcare worker can make half what a public school teacher makes.
The low pay and high risk for liability make it a tough industry in which to attract quality workers.