What is Peer-on-Peer Abuse?
‘Children can abuse other children.
This is generally referred to as peer-on-peer/child-on-child abuse and can take many forms.’
Keeping Children Safe in Education (2021)
Peer-on-peer abuse is behaviour by an individual or group, intending to physically, sexually or emotionally harm others. It can happen to children of a similar age or stage of development and can be harmful to the children who display it as well as those who experience it.
Peer-on-peer abuse can happen in a wide range of settings, including:
- at school
- at home
- in someone else's home
- in the community
It can take place in spaces which are supervised or unsupervised. Within a school context, for example, peer-on-peer abuse might take place in spaces such as toilets, the playground, corridors and when children are walking home (Contextual Safeguarding Network, 2020).
Online peer-on-peer abuse is any form of peer-on-peer abuse with a digital element, for example:
- online abuse
- coercion and exploitation
- peer-on-peer grooming
- threatening language delivered via online means
- the distribution of sexualised content and harassment
As children develop healthily, it is normal for them to display certain types of behaviour. It is important that adults who work or volunteer with children can identify if any behaviour has become harmful or abusive, and respond proportionally to keep all the children involved safe.
It is essential that all our staff understand the importance of challenging inappropriate behaviours between peers. Peer-on-peer abuse will never be accepted or dismissed as ‘children being children’. Downplaying certain behaviours, for example dismissing sexual harassment as ‘just banter’, ‘just having a laugh’, ‘part of growing up’ or ‘boys being boys’ can lead to a culture of unacceptable behaviours, an unsafe environment for children and in worst case scenarios a culture that normalises abuse leading to children accepting it as normal and not coming forward to report it. (KCSIE 21)
If one child causes harm to another, this should not necessarily be dealt with as peer-on-peer abuse: bullying, fighting and harassment between children do not generally require multi-agency intervention. However, it may be appropriate to regard a child’s behaviour as abusive if:
- there is a large difference in power (for example age, size, ability, development) between the children concerned; or
- the perpetrator has repeatedly tried to harm one or more other children; or
- there are concerns about the intention of the alleged child. If the evidence suggests that there was an intention to cause severe harm to the victim or to exploit them, this should be regarded as abusive whether or not severe harm was actually caused.
What are the indicators and signs that a child is being abused by their peers?
Indicators and signs that a child may be suffering from peer-on-peer abuse can also overlap with those indicating other types of abuse and can include:
- failing to attend school, disengaging from lessons, or struggling to carry out school related tasks to the standard ordinarily expected
- physical injuries
- experiencing difficulties with mental health and/or emotional wellbeing
- becoming withdrawn and/or shy; experiencing headaches, stomach aches, anxiety and/or panic attacks; suffering from nightmares or lack of sleep or sleeping too much
- broader changes in behaviour including alcohol or substance misuse
- changes in appearance and/or starting to act in a way that is not appropriate for the child's age
- abusive behaviour towards others
Abuse affects our children and their presenting behaviours in different ways and the list above is not exhaustive. Children who present with one or more of these signs are not necessarily victims of abuse and their behaviour will depend on their individual circumstances.
ALL staff are alert to behaviour that may cause concern and think about what the behaviour might signify. We actively encourage children to share with us any underlying reasons for their behaviour, and, where appropriate, to engage with their parents/carers so that the cause(s) of their behaviour can be investigated and understood with the appropriate support in place.
We recognise that any child can be vulnerable to peer-on-peer abuse due to the strength of peer influence, especially during adolescence, and staff should be alert to signs of such abuse amongst all children.
Which groups of pupils are most vulnerable to being abused by their peers?
Extra consideration should be given for pupils who may have additional vulnerabilities due to protected characteristics.
Individual and situational factors can increase a child’s vulnerability to abuse by their peers. Research suggests that:
- peer-on-peer abuse may affect boys differently from girls (i.e. that it is more likely that girls will be victims and boys perpetrators). However, all peer-on-peer abuse is unacceptable and will be taken seriously;
- children with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND) are three times more likely to be abused than their peers without;
- some children may be more likely to experience peer-on-peer abuse than others as a result of certain characteristics such as sexual orientation, ethnicity, race or religious beliefs; and
- children who are questioning or exploring their sexuality may also be particularly vulnerable to abuse.
What factors influence sexualised behaviour?
Many factors influence sexual behaviour, including:
- lack of sex and relationships information
- lack of privacy
- boredom, loneliness, anxiety, confusion or depression
- family/carer conflict or information and support needs
- lack of rules, appropriate consequences or boundaries
- emotional, physical or sexual abuse
- sexual exploitation and/or trafficking
- communication difficulties
- sexual excitement or curiosity
- attention or relationship needs
- gender issues
- copying the behaviour of other children and young people
- copying behaviours seen on the internet or TV
This is not an exhaustive list and we may need specialist support to clearly identify the reason for the behaviour and the correct intervention.
Dealing with unhealthy sexual behaviour at an early stage can help to prevent subsequent sexually harmful behaviours from developing.
It is important to develop appropriate strategies in order to prevent the issue of peer-on-peer abuse rather than manage the issues in a reactive way.
Firstly, and most importantly, is recognition that peer-on-peer abuse can occur in any setting even with the most stringent of policies and support mechanisms. In which case it is important to continue to recognise and manage such risks and learn how to improve and move forward with strategies in supporting children to talk about any issues and through sharing information with all staff.
We actively seek to raise awareness of and prevent all forms of peer-on-peer abuse by:
- educating Governors, the Senior Leadership Team, staff, and volunteers, pupils, and parents about this issue. This will include training all Governors, Senior Leadership Team, staff and volunteers on the nature, prevalence, and effect of peer-on-peer abuse, and how to prevent, identify and respond to it. This includes:
- contextual safeguarding;
- the identification and classification of specific behaviours; and
- the importance of taking seriously all forms of peer-on-peer abuse (no matter how low
level they may appear) and ensuring that no form of peer-on-peer abuse is ever
dismissed as banter or part of growing up.
- providing a developmentally appropriate PSHE and Relationships Education curriculum which develops children’s understanding of acceptable behaviour and keeping themselves safe;
- ensure that there are clear and consistent boundaries to what is considered to be acceptable behaviour and children will understand the consequences of unacceptable behaviour or language;
- creating a culture where pupils feel able to share their concerns openly, in a non-judgemental environment, and have them listened to;
- having a robust online safety programme which develops children’s knowledge, understanding and skills, to ensure personal safety and self-protection when using the internet and social networking;
- having robust monitoring and filtering systems in place to ensure children are safe and act appropriately when using information technology in school; and
- pupils are frequently told what to do if they witness or experience such abuse, the effect that it can have on those who experience it and the possible reasons for it, including vulnerability of those who inflict such abuse.
There may be instances where staff feel it is necessary to go beyond teaching delivered through the curriculum in immediate response to a child’s behaviour. This may include targeted work with individuals or groups to address behaviour which puts the child or others at risk, or behaviours which are repeated or habitual.
How will the school respond to peer-on-peer abuse?
A member of the safeguarding team (DSL/Deputy DSL) will discuss the concerns or allegations with the member of staff who has reported them and will, where necessary, take any immediate steps to ensure the safety of the child/all children affected.
The DSL/Deputy DSL will use their professional judgement to determine whether it is appropriate for alleged behaviour to be dealt with internally and, if so, whether any external specialist support is required. This may include consultation with children’s social care and/or any other external agencies on a no-names basis to determine the most appropriate response.
Further information about the school's response to peer-on-peer abuse is included in the school's Peer-on-Peer Abuse Policy.