School-based education programmes for the prevention of child sexual abuse

  • Review
  • Intervention




Child sexual abuse is a significant problem that requires an effective means of prevention.


To assess: if school-based programmes are effective in improving knowledge about sexual abuse and self-protective behaviours; whether participation results in an increase in disclosure of sexual abuse and/or produces any harm; knowledge retention and the effect of programme type or setting.

Search methods

Electronic searches of Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, CINAHL, Sociological Abstracts, Dissertation Abstracts and other databases using MESH headings and text words specific for child sexual assault and randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were conducted in August 2006.

Selection criteria

RCTs or quasi-RCTs of school-based interventions to prevent child sexual abuse compared with another intervention or no intervention.

Data collection and analysis

Meta-analyses and sensitivity analysis, using two imputed intraclass correlation coefficients (ICC) (0.1, 0.2), were used for four outcomes: protective behaviours, questionnaire-based knowledge, vignette-based knowledge and disclosure of abuse. Meta-analysis was not possible for retention of knowledge, likelihood of harm, or effect of programme type and setting.

Main results

Fifteen trials measuring knowledge and behaviour change as a result of school-based child sexual abuse intervention programmes were included. Over half the studies in each initial meta-analysis contained unit of analysis errors. For behaviour change, two studies had data suitable for meta-analysis; results favoured intervention (OR 6.76, 95% CI 1.44, 31.84) with moderate heterogeneity (I2=56.0%) and did not change significantly when adjustments using intraclass coefficients were made. Nine studies were included in a meta-analysis evaluating questionnaire-based knowledge. An increase in knowledge was found (SMD 0.59; 0.44, 0.74, heterogeneity (I2=66.4%). When adjusted for an ICC of 0.1 and 0.2 the results were SMD 0.6 (0.45, 0.75) and 0.57 (0.44, 0.71) respectively. Heterogeneity decreased with increasing ICC. A meta-analysis of four studies evaluating vignette-based knowledge favoured intervention (SMD 0.37 (0.18, 0.55)) with low heterogeneity (I2=0.0%) and no significant change when ICC adjustments were made. Meta-analysis of between-group differences of reported disclosures did not show a statistically significant difference.

Authors' conclusions

Studies evaluated in this review report significant improvements in knowledge measures and protective behaviours. Results might have differed had the true ICCs from studies been available or cluster-adjusted results been available. Several studies reported harms, suggesting a need to monitor the impact of similar interventions. Retention of knowledge should be measured beyond 3-12 months. Further investigation of the best forms of presentation and optimal age of programme delivery is required.

Plain language summary

School-based programmes for preventing child sex abuse may improve knowledge and self-protective behaviours but also increase anxiety; further research is needed

Childhood sexual abuse is a serious problem for school aged children worldwide. There is no consistent definition of sexual abuse. Some studies restrict sexual abuse to instances of sexual body contact with the child, while others define sexual abuse as any sexual behaviour in a child's presence. Whatever its form, childhood sexual abuse can have a very negative impact on a child. The United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child states that "children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, physically or mentally" and the international community needs to investigate ways this can be done effectively. One widespread method used is to teach school aged children, using school-based programs, about child sexual abuse and how to protect themselves from it. It is important to know if this approach works, for how long it works and if it causes any unintended harm to children and adolescents. This is the purpose of this systematic review.

While this review found improvements in knowledge and protective behaviours among children who had received school-based programs, these results should be interpreted with caution. The reasons for a need for caution is that there were problems with the way that many of the original studies were analysed, children's knowledge was tested only a short time period after the program, the studies were conducted in North America and therefore may not apply to other countries and cultures, and several studies reported harms, such as increased anxiety in children. Potential harms need to be closely monitored in future studies and existing school based programs. It is difficult to know if the changes in children's knowledge and protective behaviours seen in the studies will result in prevention of child sexual abuse. As such, school-based programs should, at best, be seen as part of a community approach to the prevention of child sexual abuse.