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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.

"They wanted to know where is it on the spectrum and what you would do about it", said Emma Beckner with the Kids Advocacy Resource Effort, a non-profit that fights child abuse in Haywood County and had organized the workshop.

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.

"The most important job is to teach children appropriate ways to behave and socialize", said Marsh Parris, the long-time director of First United Methodist Child Development Center until her retirement a year ago.

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.

"Our job is to socialize", said Gerard Stamm, a child psychologist and instructor in the Haywood Community College child development program. "Socializing takes time."

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.

"We are talking about socializing sexual displays in children", Stamm said. "It is a loaded issue."

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.

"We were in disagreement about whether it was normal or not normal", Parris said of the time. "That's another hindsight situation."

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.

"What we tell teachers is that it is very normal for children of that age to touch themselves", Beckner said. "They are exploring their bodies and that is very typical behavior in a preschooler."

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.

"Don't overreact and don't scream or yell. Tell them 'We don't touch ourselves in front of people. Those are our private parts and we keep those private'", Beckner said.

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.

"They are just starting to notice boys and girls are different", Beckner said. "They might be noticing that girls and boys go potty different. It is just curiosity."

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

"Preschool age boys showing each other their parts is typical, even if an adult is in the restroom with them", Laveck said. "The adult's roll is to redirect them, to say 'Remember those are each other's private parts and we keep those private.'" 

Stamm agreed.

"You give rules to kids. You have to explain that you don't do this to someone else's body and tell the other person you don't let someone do this to your body", Stamm said. "It's like telling the child you don't go out in the street."

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.

"That would be a concerning thing", Beckner said. "That was a thought-out process to get to that point. Typically children at that age would not know that two people come together naked closely. That looks like adult sexual behavior."

Another incident that crossed the line: a preschool-aged child inserted an ink pen into the bottom of another child.

"That's a red flag", Beckner said. "Kids don't typically know to insert something into a body part."

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.

"There are some very innocent circumstances, or it could have been something nefarious where a child has witnessed something similar in their own homes with adults and they are replaying it", Laveck said.

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.

"That is an instance you would wonder about", Beckner said. "Most kids don't go there in their thought process."

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.

"If you can recognize it as a sexual act or sexual behavior it probably is", Beckner said. "Preschoolers will model what they see or hear. Our main concern is where did this child learn this?"

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.

"All those incidents should be a red flag that something was happening to that child", said June Locklear with the state Division of Child Development. "They should have been reporting that information."

Beckner agrees.

"The first place everybody goes is, did something happen to this child", Beckner said. "You would want to know: did they see it, did they hear about it, did they have it happen to them?"

"If it concerns you or if it gives you that funny tummy feeling, even if you don't know if it's a report, we advise people to call DSS anyway", Beckner said. "You want to be more safe than sorry. Even if it is just a little bit over the line, it could still be concerning."

Laveck agreed as well.

"The childcare worker doesn't need to validate it or substantiate it, but they do need to call DSS and report the suspected abuse", Laveck said.

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.

"You can say 'Hey buddy, pull your pants up and get out there and play'. That you might not report to anybody and you just say 'Man he was experimenting'", 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.

"You have to do more than try to explain it away when it continues to occur and comes out in different ways",  Locklear said.

Not so good side effect

The childcare center had an easy option at its disposal.

"The church could have taken a very different approach and said 'We could get rid of the problem by getting rid of the child'" Locklear said. "The center didn't go that route, however, and that's admirable of them", Locklear said.

"All you do is pass the problem along to another facility",  Locklear said.

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.

"If it is on hazy ground, they would rather expel the child",  Stamm said.

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.

"If I knew then what I know now, I would have done that", Parris said.

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.

"What is incumbent on the giver of the childcare service is watching this kid and being right on top of this kid and preventing him from biting until the kid is socialized",  Stamm said. "But when it is happening, all hell breaks lose."

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.

"The way the rule is written is that children must be visually supervised at all times", said Locklear. "We know that is not possible. The only way to do that is have the children in a straight line in front of you and you always walking backwards. The intent of the rule is that the staff should be aware enough about the location of children."

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: 

the teacher should have noticed the second boy disappeared into the bathroom and 
that the first boy had been in the bathroom longer than normal.

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.

"You can identify children that may have a propensity to engage in sexual behavior that is crossing the line",  Locklear said. "If you know that the child did it once, what do you put in place to ensure it doesn't happen again? If the teacher deals with it directly and effectively then it usually isn't something that is repeated."

In this case, however, incidents were repeating.

The standards for childcare centers are certainly higher than what parents are held to.

"Something that is acceptable in the child's own home is not acceptable in a child care setting", Locklear said. "My child can fall down and break their leg at home and it is not a failure to supervise the child."

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.

"Some programs have playhouses in classrooms and on playgrounds and it isn't a issue", Laveck said. "The next crop of children you could put the playhouse back in there and it could never be used for nefarious purposes again."

Locklear said opening up the line of sight in a room is always preferable.

"We're not saying that having a fort in a room is a bad thing, but if you know you do not have direct line of supervision then you should always be able to place yourself in and around the area children use", Locklear said.

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.

"That is going to be something the state is charged with deciding", Davis said. When judging, Davis suggested putting yourself in the childcare worker's shoes.

"If you were in that situation, how would you judge yourself? Was it your fault that it happened?", asked Davis.

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.

"It is not a lucrative job to go into", Stamm said.

The low pay and high risk for liability make it a tough industry in which to attract quality workers.

"There is nothing to say for going into childcare other than a love for children and wanting to teach children", Parris said. "From a practical standpoint there is no reason anyone would want to go into childcare."

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