Safe Strong and Free: Abuse prevention workshops for young children

– Tanya Beetham

In May 2017 SSF commissioned the Centre for Child Wellbeing and Protection to evaluate its programme. The evaluation was started by Andressa Gadda, and it was completed by Tanya Beetham and Jane Callaghan. This research was undertaken between January 2018 to June 2019. This blog outlines some of our key findings and recommendations.

The Safe Strong and Free (SSF) project is an abuse prevention programme aimed at young children to reduce the vulnerability of young children to abuse and assault. The programme consists of a series of three workshops that are delivered to all pre-school children in all nurseries in the Highlands. Workshops are interactive and include three topics: Bullying, Strangers and Secrets. The workshops aim to educate children about what is bullying, what is a stranger, what kinds of secrets they should and shouldn’t keep, and that their bodies belong to them only. In age-appropriate ways, children are taught what to do if they find themselves in an unsafe situation, and they are helped to identify safe adults they can trust if they need to tell someone that they or someone they know is not safe.

The primary aim of our evaluation was to consider the extent to which key messages are learned and applied by the children. There is very little existing evidence about what works in these kinds of workshops delivered to young children, therefore we do not know a lot about what helps young children to engage with these kinds of messages and put them into practice if they need to. We conducted a two-year evaluation that adopted a mixed-methods approach. We aimed to gather the views of children, parents and nursery staff.

We observed workshops and invited some children to take part in a follow-up activity with the researcher. We also observed everyday life in two nurseries. Observing everyday nursery life helped to see how children engage with the workshop messages, and how nurseries might embed some of these messages into their every-day practices. We found that in general, children engage well with the workshops. They particularly enjoy the interactive activities. It can be difficult to maintain the engagement of some children especially when groups are larger, or there are more distractions in the environment. Additionally, the skills and qualities of SSF project workers are valued a lot. For the most-part, they are able to keep children engaged, interested and focused. Children seem to mostly understand key messages, but we found that reinforcement, repetition and embedding the key messages into the culture and routines of nurseries and schools is beneficial. It is also necessary to consider accessibility and inclusion for children who have disabilities, additional support needs or who are not under the care of their parents or have parents who are identify as LGBTQ+.

We also consulted with nursery staff and parents/carers. Nursery staff and parents/carers of children who participated in workshops were invited to complete a questionnaire or an online survey. We also interviewed early years practitioners to explore their views about the SSF workshops in more depth. We found that the SSF workshops were highly valued. Parents were grateful for the opportunity to discuss these topics with their children particularly topics they may find difficult to raise themselves. We found many examples of children putting into practice key messages, especially around bullying and strangers. It is important to note that some children are confused by the secrets workshop, and some parents do not feel confident about talking about this with their children. This raises a useful point for us to reflect on, about how we might support children, parents and staff to feel more confident with this topic. However, for most children, most of the key messages seem to be understood well, though most participants felt reinforcement and refresher workshops would be beneficial. Learning is therefore viewed as on-going and this is more possible if key messages are embedded into everyday lives of children. Additionally, most parents and staff told us that they want to be involved and help children learn. We therefore found that it is important that workshop materials and resources are accessible to nursery practitioners and parents in a way which suits them and is accessible to different abilities, including literacy and language needs.

Additionally, we know little about how to support children with additional support needs, and this is also an area that has seen little research attention, despite the increased vulnerabilities of this group of children. We therefore worked with SSF to evaluate the delivery of a pilot workshop at one school for children with additional support needs. We observed workshops and interviewed parents/carers and school staff. We found that most children were enthusiastic to participate in workshops and some remembered key messages and could repeat them. Visual and interactive resources were highly valued, as were the skills, qualities and flexibility of the SSF project worker. This work requires the project worker to adapt materials to each individual child, and communication needs are a central part of this. Parent and school involvement are key to embedding this learning, and the workshops acted as an opportunity for parents to increase their awareness through education about the vulnerabilities of their child.

Our recommendations include:

• Interactive and visual materials are very useful for children – they help children to keep engaged and interested.

• Positive relationships are important between schools, SSF and children. These partnerships promote trust, sharing of knowledge and can help parents and nurseries/schools to promote the workshop messages. Embedding the SSF messages in nursery and school culture can be a useful way of helping children to engage more meaningfully with the workshop messages.

• Group size and environment are important considerations when delivering workshops that address sensitive topics and that might be tricky for some children. We found that smaller group sizes and environments that were private, the same each week, and with minimal distractions worked best.

• Opportunities to refresh and reinforce key messages is crucial • Inclusion and accessibility are important issues to talk about. Children come from a diverse range of families including parents/carers who are LGBTQ+, children who are care experienced, children from different ethnic backgrounds and those who do not use English as a first language. SSF value inclusivity and non-marginalisation and we suggest that project staff should continue to be sensitive to difference.

• Supporting children with additional support needs is complex and raises important issues – it is important not to exclude those from participating in workshops in mainstream schools, and it is necessary to do more research to evaluate programmes such as this delivered to children with additional support needs in order to build the evidence base.

We are pleased to share the report here:

You can find more out about SSF’s work at:

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