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Children's Conceptualization
of Sexual Abuse Prevention
as Taught by
"Keeping Ourselves Safe"

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 1999-1

Children's Conceptualisation of some child sexual abuse prevention concepts as taught by 'Keeping Ourselves Safe', a New Zealand Prevention Programme

C C M Woolley & T C M Gabriels, School of Psychology, Massey University, New Zealand. Email: C.C.Woolley@massey.ac.nz
Keywords: sexual abuse prevention, children, developmental

C C M Woolley
T C M Gabriels

School of Psychology,
Massey University
New Zealand


This paper will present selected findings of a study which combined quantitative and qualitative methodologies to investigate how children conceptualized sexual abuse prevention concepts as taught by the Keeping Ourselves Safe Programme (KOS), a New Zealand preventative programme. Participants were 96 primary school children, aged between five and eleven, who had recently completed the KOS programme. Twelve students were selected to take part in a follow-up interview. A modified version of the Child Knowledge of Abuse Questionnaire - Revised (Tutty, 1994) was used to evaluate knowledge levels of key prevention concepts. A qualitative analysis of children's own stories and explanations provided insights into the way they constructed meaning from the concepts presented to them during participation in the KOS programme. Results support previous findings that children's knowledge of factors surrounding sexual abuse increases with age. Responses indicated that children had difficulty identifying high risk situations and that common misconceptions were maintained after completion of the programme. Ways in which developmental factors may impinge on learning of preventative concepts are considered.

Children's Conceptualisation of some child sexual abuse prevention concepts as taught by 'Keeping Ourselves Safe', a New Zealand Prevention Programme


Child abuse prevention programs have become the preferred option for dealing with the issue of childhood sexual abuse in the hope that they will equip children with skills and knowledge to minimise the risk of abuse occurring (Finkelhor, 1986). Numerous studies have demonstrated that a range of interventions have been effective in increasing knowledge levels of sexual abuse concepts in children of primary school age (Briggs, 1991; Carroll, Miltenberger, & O'Neill; Tutty, 1992). However, it is unclear if increased knowledge levels translate into appropriate behaviours in high risk situations and therefore a reduction in the likelihood a child will be victimised. As pointed out by Leslie Tutty (1997) assessing behavioural changes has proven a challenging task for people working in this field. Ethical issues around simulating a potentially abusive situation, combined with the fact that most abusers select children known to them have made it exceedingly difficult to assess a child's ability to generalize and demonstrate his/her ability to use prevention concepts effectively.

There is ample evidence that a child's cognitive and emotional level of development has a significant effect on his or her ability to integrate and utilize prevention concepts (Blumberg, Chadwick, Fogarty, Speth, & Chadwick, 1991; Briggs & Hawkins, 1994; Tutty, 1997). Older children consistently obtain higher knowledge scores and appear to learn more following participation in a prevention programme than their younger peers. Synthesising ideas that are exceptions to the way in which they view the world seems particularly difficult for younger children. Understanding that sometimes it is OK to say 'no' to an adult, that not all secrets need to be kept, that people known to the child might be abusive, and the difference between good and bad touches are difficult concepts to comprehend (Tutty, 1994). This paper will report on findings relevant to two of the above mentioned concepts, the notion that familiar people may be abusers and differentiating different types of 'touch'. An in-depth report of the complete study is being prepared for publication.

Research findings indicate that the idea that a person known and trusted by the child might try to touch them inappropriately is a particularly difficult concept to grasp. Most young children (below the age of seven) have difficulty understanding that a 'good' person could give them a 'bad' or 'confusing' touch. This concept appears to be incongruent with their cognitive level of development (De Young, 1988). Briggs (1991) evaluated the responses of five to eight year old children, who had participated in a Keeping Ourselves Safe programme, to a range of safety questions and found that children viewed their parents as safe people who would protect them. Even parents who had been reported to the authorities for abusing were seen as safe by their offspring.

Teaching children to identify the nature of a touch has also proven to be a challenge. To date there is limited research available to allay commonly expressed fears that children may over- generalise knowledge resulting in unnecessary fear and/or misconstruing appropriate touch (Tutty, 1997).

A key objective of the present study was to explore children's perceptions and interpretations of safety concepts presented to them through the Keeping Ourselves Safe (KOS) programme. This programme was developed by the NZ Police and the Department of Education and is specifically designed for use with New Zealand children. The KOS programme defines sexual abuse as unwanted touching. Children are taught to use their feelings to help them differentiate between 'touching they like' and 'unwanted touching'. KOS stresses that the decision as to whether a touch is acceptable or not is made by the child. This is based on the assumption that children will be left open to abuse if they have to rely on adults to instruct them as to what is appropriate and what is not (New Zealand Police & Department of Education, 1987). Pupils are also instructed that some parts of their body are private to them and should not be touched by others, unless there is an acceptable reason such as a need for medical attention. Teachers are encouraged to discuss a range of touch concepts rather than focus on hand touching only (New Zealand Police & Department of Education, 1987; New Zealand Police & The Ministry of Education, 1994).

One of the aims of the present study was an attempt to qualitatively evaluate children's depth of understanding and the nature of their reasoning about prevention concepts based on their responses during interviews. It was hoped that analyses of their stories and explanations could provide unique insights into the way meaning was constructed from the information presented to them.


Ninety-six children ranging in age from 5 to 11, took part in the study. All students had recently completed a child sexual abuse prevention programme, Keeping Ourselves Safe (KOS) through their local primary school. The first stage of data collection consisted of participants completing the Children's Knowledge of Abuse Questionnaire-Revised (CKAQ-RII) within a few days of finishing the KOS programme. The questionnaire was administered verbally, to small groups of children, by teachers who had been given detailed instructions on how to administer the measure. Children who had difficulty completing the questionnaire independently received individual assistance. Minor modifications were made to the CKAQ- RII, in consultation with teaching staff, in an effort to make the instrument more culturally appropriate for use with New Zealand children.

The CKAQ-RII is a 33-item self-report measure which was designed by Leslie Tutty to evaluate knowledge levels of key sexual abuse prevention concepts in children between the ages of six and twelve. The instrument consists of two sub-scales, Inappropriate Touch (24 items) and Appropriate Touch (9 items). The latter is a relatively recent addition for which psychometric data is as yet not available (Tutty, 1997).

The second stage of the data collection consisted of in-depth interviews with twelve students, two from each class, who were selected by the school principal on the basis of perceived average ability and developmental level. These children were encouraged to generate their own answers to open-ended questions and imaginary situations and were consulted as experts on “what kids know about keeping themselves safe”. Sessions were recorded on audio-tape.


Information derived from quantitative data support previous findings that children's knowledge of abuse concepts increases with age. Table 1 shows the mean score, per age group, on the Child Knowledge of Abuse Questionnaire Revised-II (CKAQ-RII). Mean percentages and standard deviations (SDs) of correct responses are also included.

Table 1:    Mean and Mean Percentage Scores of Correct Responses
on CKAQ-RII (33-items) by age.

Age N Mean Mean % SD


Total sample









Children were assigned to one of three discrete age groups. Allocation to respective grades was based on the Canadian school system whereby Grade 1 consists of 6-7 year old children, Grade 3's are aged 8-9, and Grade 6 consists of 11-12 year olds who are the most senior primary school pupils.

Table 2 shows the mean percentage of correct responses for the CKAQ-RII by grade. Separate mean scores for the 24-item CKAQ-R and the 9-item sub-scale on appropriate touch are also presented.

Table 2:    Mean proportion of correct responses for the CKAQ-R (24 items) and Appropriate Touch (Appr. Touch) sub-scales and combined scores as reflected in CKAQ-RII score for Grade 1 (aged 6-7), Grade 3 (aged 8-9) and Grade 6 (aged 10-11).


CKAQ - R Sub-scale
Appr. Touch
Mean %
Mean %
SD Mean % SD
Grade 1     31
Grade 3     46
Grade 6     18

Total    95







Cronbach's alpha, a measure of internal consistency, was calculated as .84 for the CKAQ- RII. The measure showed evidence of high reliability despite the fact that only a small sample without missing data was available (N 18). Separate calculations of the Cronbach's alpha for the CKAQ-R and the Appropriate Touch sub-scale yielded alphas of .85 and .50 respectively. Therefore results confirmed reported findings that the Inappropriate Touch sub-scale of the CKAQ-R has good reliability, even though only a relatively small sample was used. The Appropriate Touch sub-scale on the other hand was found to have poor reliability.

An analysis of variance with factors Grade and Gender yielded a significant main effect for grade F (2,94) = 9,421, p < .0001, but not for gender. The analysis of variance did not show an interaction effect between grade and gender (p = .845).

Qualitative Findings and Discussion

As mentioned above, concern has been expressed that children may misconstrue appropriate touch after participation in a safety programme (Tutty, 1997). An outline will be provided of ways in which children conceptualized different types of touch, as revealed during interviews.

Six and seven year old pupils believed that 'good' and 'bad' touch can be determined on the basis of the physical consequences. Children specifically stated that a touch is bad “if they hurt you” and provided many examples to illustrate this point. Hitting, strangling, punching and kicking were quoted as examples of bad or unwanted touch. Good touch, on the other hand, was described as a soft touch, kissing, hugging and patting. Some of these younger students were aware that certain parts of their body should not be touched and said they would use this as an indicator to distinguish different types of touch.

A significant component of the KOS programme consists of behavioural training. Children are taught anatomically correct names of body parts and are instructed that certain parts of their body are private and should not be touched by others. While students were aware of both 'rules', especially the younger ones had some difficulty integrating these separate bits of information. A typical example was provided by a six year old boy who shared his belief that 'good' touching is not painful and that his “private parts” should not be touched by anyone. He then expressed concern about the appropriateness of his parents touching his body before resolving his dilemma by stating “if dad hits you with a soccer ball that would be all right but if someone else hits you with a soccer ball that is different”. Rather than be concerned about incongruencies he created a new 'rule' which integrated the separate pieces of information into a meaningful whole, for him. A similar tendency was observed in some of the other students.

Older children (9-11 years of age) asserted that they use their feelings to help them discriminate good versus bad touch. They identified their feelings as an integral part of themselves and believed that they could rely on their own sense of right and wrong to help keep themselves safe. However, the expectation that unwanted touch is painful was also common among some of these children, although they qualified their statements by adding that how they felt about the experience was important as well.

The finding that most children equate bad touch with painful experiences rather than sexual touching might explain a significant difference in scores of two similar items on the CKAQ- R. One item asks about the possibility of having their “bottom” touched in a confusing way by a relative, versus being touched in “a way that feels bad” by a trusted person. Only 28 percent of children in the oldest age group condoned the former statement compared to 78 percent of the latter. Of the children in the youngest age group 6 and 32 percent endorsed the items respectively. Developmental theory proposes that children place new knowledge within the context of existing experience. Therefore, if within the context of their life experience bad touch equals pain, they may conceptualize sexual abuse along a continuum of physical hurt.

The interviews revealed that none of the children believed that abuse could happen in their own family, although some acknowledged that sexual behaviours could take place in the families of other children. Some children expressed concern about parental reactions to a possible disclosure, or to the telling of a secret. Their preferred prevention strategy was saying 'no' or trying to avoid the person they felt uncomfortable with before they would consider telling a trusted person. This reinforces the fact that parental education and involvement in any prevention programme is crucial if programs are to be effective.

Students were taught to use people's behaviours as an indication of trustworthiness rather than their appearance or position in life. Results show that the majority of children did not apply the recommended guidelines in their responses to 'what if' scenarios in the interview. Only two children declared they would base their judgement on a person's behaviour. The remaining children believed they can trust people they have known for a long time, and people who are family.

To summarise, findings showed that children were unlikely to misinterpret appropriate touch following participation in the KOS programme. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case in that some children created their own stories in an effort to make sense out of the information provided without compromising their strong need to view parents and caregivers as safe people. Even the older children, while aware of the possibility familiar people may be unsafe, expressed a strong belief this could only happen in other people's families. It was further found that the majority of children were aware that sexual abuse usually involves touching but most lacked a clear understanding of what kind of touch this may involve. The belief that a 'bad' touch always feels uncomfortable or makes you feel bad inside was found to be misleading. In our opinion it is advisable to further refine developmentally appropriate information with concrete instructions and role-plays to facilitate children's ability to conceptualize abuse and to reduce the incidence of common misconceptions.


Blumberg, E. J., Chadwick, M. W., Fogarty, L. A., Speth, T. W., & Chadwick, D. L. (1991). The touch discrimination component of sexual abuse prevention training: Unanticipated positive consequences. Journal of Interpersonal violence, 6, 12-28.

Briggs, F. (1991). Child protection programmes: Can they protect young children? Early Child Development and Care, 67, 61-72.

Briggs, F. & Hawkins, R. M. F. (1994). Follow up study of children of 5-8 years using child protection programmes in Australia and New Zealand. Early Child Development and Care, 100, 111-117.

Carroll, L. A., Miltenberger, R. G., & O'Neill, H. K. (1992). A review and critique of research evaluating child sexual abuse prevention programs. Education and Treatment of children, 15, 335-354.

De Young, M. (1988). The good touch/bad touch dilemma. Child Welfare, 67, 60-68.

Finkelhor, D. (1986). Prevention: A review of programs and research. In D. Finkelhor & Associates. A sourcebook on child sexual abuse. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications.

New Zealand Police, & Department of Education (1987b). Keeping Ourselves Safe: Getting help. Wellington: Learning Media Ltd.

New Zealand Police & the Ministry of Education (1994). Knowing what to do (Rev. ed.). Wellington: Learning Media Ltd.

Tutty, L. M. (1997). Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Programs: evaluation who do you tell. Child Abuse & Neglect, 21 (9), 869-881.

Tutty, L. M. (1994). Developmental issues in young children's learning of sexual abuse prevention concepts. Child Abuse and Neglect, 18, 179-192.

Tutty, L. M. (1992). The ability of elementary school children to learn child sexual abuse prevention concepts. Child Abuse and Neglect, 16, 369-384.


C C M Woolley & T C M Gabriels © 1999. The authors assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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