Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Education Honours


School of Education


Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences

First Advisor

Dr Collette Tayler

Second Advisor

Dr Dawn Butterworth


Over the past decade, child sexual abuse has gained increasing recognition as a problem of social consequence and significant proportion in Australia. Children have the right to be safe at all times and adults have the responsibility to preserve this basic right for all children. The risk and the growing statistics on the prevalence of abuse has led Australia to follow the United States and develop child sexual abuse prevention programmes. The programme used in WA schools is the WA Health Syllabus, Prevention Education Supplement (1990). Prevention education relies on children recognising when they feel unsafe. The aim of this research project was to explore the reasoning used by young children in making judgements about the safety of selected scenarios. The research takes a case study approach, using subjects from the pre-primary/year one class at a small community school. The researcher was the class teacher and chose to conduct the research in the class in order to maximise the opportunity to maintain an environment of familiarity, comfort and care for the children The children involved in the study were between four and six years of age and would traditionally be viewed as belonging to the pre-operational stage of cognitive development as outlined by Piaget (1932) and the pre-moral stage of moral development as outlined by Piaget (1932/1962. In Berrick. 1991); Kohlberg (1969) and Freud (1961). The research explores whether young children can judge selected prevention education scenarios using the abstract concepts of safe and unsafe, as these are vital to the success of most prevention education programmes When the responses from the four children were compared, although there were differences in their judgements and reasoning, several issues of note emerged from the data. Those include: 1. All of the four children used the touch barometer to measure the child's feelings rather than the safety of the scenarios. 2. Two of the four children had some difficulty with the terms safe and unsafe. 3. All of the children displayed the characteristics of a child in the pre-moral stage of development. However, they also demonstrated a developing autonomous conscience and made judgements consistent with this development. 4. All of the children recommended that the child in the scenario reject the potential abuser, even though they were not always able to judge the situation as unsafe. 5. All of the children were able to recognise that a situation was unsafe if there was a threat of physical harm to the child depicted in the scenario. The findings from this research study add support to the concern expressed by previous researchers about the legitimacy of the use of the terms safe and unsafe with young children. The research highlights the importance of exposing all young children to a developmentally appropriate prevention education programme, in its entirety, to increase their knowledge of safe and unsafe situations and provide them with support strategies for coping with abusive situations, should they arise. The recommendations made for policy and practice reflect this need. This research also suggests that some young children may have a developing autonomous conscience beyond the limitations of the "pre-moral" developmental label, indicating a need for further research on young children's moral development.