SEL as a Component of Child Sexual Abuse Prevention

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is critical to empowering youth with the skills to recognize, report, and refuse sexual abuse, as well as to preventing youth from offending.

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Child sexual abuse is widespread.

Child sexual abuse is reported to affect one in four girls and one in 20 boys in the United States, with likely a higher number of actual cases due to vast underreporting, with those affected often experiencing long-lasting negative effects.1

Some youth might be at a greater risk.

Child sexual abuse affects youth from all backgrounds. There’s also increased risk of vulnerability for youth who identify as LGBTQ,2 are living in foster care, disabled, homeless, or have run away.3

SEL is integral to a comprehensive research-based child sexual abuse prevention program, with a multifaceted approach that helps children feel safe and supported and helps prevent child sexual abuse.8

Child sexual abuse is preventable.

The most effective way to prevent child sexual abuse—including responding to diverse needs4—is twofold. Train all the adults who interact with youth, and teach students the skills for recognizing, reporting, and refusing sexual abuse.5 An early, school-based child sexual abuse prevention program6 can accomplish this with a comprehensive approach that includes research-based strategies for policies and procedures, staff training, student lessons, and family education.7

Child sexual abuse is reported to
affect 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 20 boys in the United States

SEL lays the foundation for prevention.

  • One focus of prevention for young people is to empower and promote skills that prevent victimization and that lead to disclosure if targeting or victimization occurs.5
  • Evidence-based SEL programs teach children skills to be assertive and ask for help in difficult and dangerous situations; assertiveness skills lay the foundation to recognize unsafe and sexually abusive behaviors, immediately report those behaviors to an adult, and assertively refuse the situation when possible.8
  • SEL strengthens protective factors that decrease a child’s vulnerability to potential harm.9
  • SEL can also help prevent people from engaging in harmful sexual behavior before it occurs, by fostering their empathy, conflict management, and interpersonal and healthy relationship skills.10
  • SEL provides benefits to kids across all backgrounds.11

Policy Recommendations

  • Create a framework for schools to equitably provide developmentally appropriate, evidence-based awareness, prevention, and protection instruction concerning sexual abuse and assault.
  • Create a framework for schools to provide periodic evidence-based educator training on prevention, identification, and intervention for sexual abuse of young people.
  • Provide sustainable funding streams for schools to implement SEL as a Tier I intervention on a continuum of student supports.
  • Provide funding to support research-based prevention strategies and to continue research to improve and evaluate promising prevention practices.
  • Develop programs and other supports that specifically address youth who might be at greater risk.
  • Develop programs and other supports that are responsive to diverse influences on disclosure and reporting.
  • Promote students’ access to social-emotional competency development in educational settings.


  1. Finkelhor, D., Shattuck, A., Turner, H. A., & Hamby, S. L. (2014). The lifetime prevalence of child sexual abuse and sexual assault assessed in late adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(3), 329–333. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.12.026

    Hornor, G. (2010). Child sexual abuse: Consequences and implications. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 26(6), 358–364. doi:10.1016/j.pedhc.2009.07.003

  2. LGTBQ youth have a unique set of lived experiences, documented in the following research, that demonstrate an increased risk for maltreatment, physical abuse, and childhood sexual abuse:

    Burwick, A., Gates, G., Baumgartner, S., & Friend, D. (2014). Human services for low-income and at risk LGBT populations: An assessment of the knowledge base and research needs (OPRE Report No. 2014-79). Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

    Friedman, M. S., Marshal, M. P., Guadamuz, T. E., Wei, C., Wong, C.F., Saewyc, E. M., and Stall, R.. (2011). A meta-analysis of disparities in childhood sexual abuse, parental physical abuse, and peer victimization among sexual minority and sexual nonminority individuals. American Journal of Public Health, 101(8), 1481–1494. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.190009

  3. Institute of Medicine & National Research Council of the National Academies. (2014). Confronting commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States: A guide for providers of victim and support services. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/18798

    Gluck, E., & Mathur, R. (2014). Child sex trafficking and the child welfare system. State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center. Retrieved from

    Wilczynski, S. M., Connolly, S., Dubard, M., Henderson, A., & Mcintosh, D. (2015). Assessment, prevention, and interventions for abuse among individuals with disabilities. Psychology in the Schools, 52(1), 9–21. doi:10.1002/pits.21808

    Smith, N., & Harrell, S. (2013). Sexual abuse of children with disabilities: A national snapshot. Washington, DC: Vera Institute of Justice, Center on Victimization and Safety. Retrieved from

  4. Fontes, L. A. & Plummer, C. (2010). Cultural issues in disclosures of child sexual abuse. Cultural and Disclosure Issues, 19(5), 491-518. doi:10.1080/10538712.2010.512520
  5. Finkelhor, D., & Dziuba-Leatherman, J. (1995). Victimization prevention programs: A national survey of children’s exposure and reactions. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19(2), 129–139. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(94)00111-7
  6. Nickerson, A. B., Tulledge, J., Manges, M., Kesselring, K., Parks, T., Livingston, J. A., & Dudley, M. (2019). Randomized controlled trial of the Child Protection Unit: Grade and gender moderators of CSA prevention concepts in elementary students. Child Abuse & Neglect, 96, 1-12. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2019.104101
  7. Committee for Children. (2014). Child protection in schools: A four-part solution. Retrieved from
  8. Committee for Children. (2014). Second Step review of research: Child protection. Retrieved from
  9. Gibson, L. & Leitenberg, H. (2000). Child sexual abuse prevention programs: Do they decrease the occurrence of child sexual abuse? Child Abuse & Neglect, 24(9), 1115–1125. doi:10.1016/s0145-2134(00)00179-4
  10. Basile, K. C., DeGue, S., Jones, K., Freire, K., Dills, J., Smith, S. G., Raiford, J.L. (2016). STOP SV: A technical package to prevent sexual violence. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from
  11. Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017) Promoting positive youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, 88(4): 1156–1171. doi:10.1111/cdev.12864