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Implementing Sex Education

Planned Parenthood Educators: Implementing Sex Education

So you have volunteered to teach sex education in your school or program … or perhaps you have been “drafted” to do so … or maybe you see an obvious gap in information about this topic and feel compelled to do the right thing? Whatever reason brings you to this place, you are about to undertake an exciting, valuable, necessary, and complex journey.

Many educators feel anxious or tentative in tackling the topics of sex, sexuality, and sexual health. They may feel overwhelmed about where to start or confused about what to teach and when to teach it. Planned Parenthood is here to help. As the nation’s oldest and most trusted provider of sexual health care, and with a national network of sexuality educators, we can help you advocate for comprehensive, medically accurate sex education in your school or program. We can also help you develop or choose a curriculum and implement it with confidence.

Planned Parenthood believes that parents and guardians should be the primary sexuality educators of their children. As with other complex issues, many parents may need support, resources, and expertise from schools and other organizations. It is important that young people receive age-appropriate sexual health information and develop practical skills for keeping healthy. Educators can help families by providing culturally meaningful learning opportunities in safe and nonjudgmental environments so that young people can learn about sexuality in a healthy and positive context.

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What Is Comprehensive Sex Education?

Sometimes, people mistakenly believe that “sex ed” refers only to sexual behavior (e.g., sexual intercourse) and not the full array of topics that comprise sexuality. These include information and concerns about abstinence, body image, contraception, gender, human growth and development, human reproduction, pregnancy, relationships, safer sex (prevention of sexually transmitted infections), sexual attitudes and values, sexual anatomy and physiology, sexual behavior, sexual health, sexual orientation, and sexual pleasure.

Comprehensive sex education covers the wide array of topics that affect sexuality and sexual health. It is grounded in evidence-based, peer-reviewed science. Its goal is to promote health and well-being in a way that is developmentally appropriate. It includes information and communication skills building as well as values exploration. Ideally, sex education in school is an integrated process that builds upon itself year after year, is initiated in kindergarten, and is provided through grade 12.

What Are Abstinence-Only Programs and Why Don’t They Work?

Abstinence-only programs (also called abstinence-only-until-marriage programs) promote abstinence from sexual behavior. They strictly exclude discussion of other important sex ed topics, especially those concerned with birth control, safer sex, and sexual orientation. In fact, abstinence-only programs often provide inaccurate and alarmist misinformation about the effectiveness of condoms, contraception, and safer sex.

Advocates for Youth is a not-for-profit organization that champions efforts to help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health. It posts helpful online information about the scientific evaluation of abstinence-only programs and how they fail our children.

Why Is Sex Education Necessary?

Sexuality is an integral part of each person’s identity. Learning about our sexuality and achieving sexual health and well-being are lifelong processes that begin at birth and continue throughout our lives. Although parents and guardians are the primary sex educators of their children, children also receive messages about sexuality from many other sources. Some of them may have more negative than positive impact. Schools and other community-based organizations can be important partners with parents to provide young people accurate and developmentally appropriate sex education.

The goals of comprehensive sex education are to help young people gain a positive view of sexuality and to provide them with developmentally appropriate knowledge and skills so that they can make healthy decisions about their sex lives now and in the future. Medically accurate sex education is an investment in our children’s future — their well-being. Our “return on investment” could be a generation of young people who have heard more helpful messages about sexuality than the provocative media images and/or silences they currently witness. It could be a generation of women and men comfortable in their own skin; able to make well-informed, responsible decisions; form healthy relationships; and take care of their bodies.

Who Supports Sex Education in School?

Public opinion polls show that most Americans support sex education. Parents and students want sex education to be taught in our schools. National surveys underscore parental support for school-based sex education. For example, a 2004 survey conducted by National Public Radio, the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Kennedy School of Government documented that more than 90 percent of parents support sex education in our schools. The study also showed that the vast majority (93 percent) of parents found that the sex education programs in their children’s school were either very helpful or somewhat helpful to their child in dealing with sexual issues.

How Is Comprehensive Sex Education Effectively Implemented?

Comprehensive sex education is a systematic and layered education process that supports youth and their families and helps them acquire the sexuality-related information, skills, and motivation necessary to act in ways that are congruent with their values. While parents and guardians are their children’s primary sex educators, the majority of them feel that they need support and/or professional expertise to lead the way. Schools, as well as faith groups and community-based organizations, all have a role to play. In fact, the nature of our education system in America puts schools in the ideal position to take the lead in this process.

Ideally, sex education would be taught each year in our schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Like all school subjects, the information and skills that are taught are age-appropriate, reflect best-practice, and build on the previous year’s learning. According to the late Dr. Douglas Kirby, senior research scientist for ETR Associates in Scotts Valley, CA, and a nonpartisan expert on the effectiveness of school and community programs in the reduction of adolescent sexual risk-taking behaviors, (Public Health Reports, 190 (1997), 339-360) effective sex education

  • uses behavioral goals, teaching methods, and resources that are age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate, and culturally competent
  • is based on theoretical approaches that have been proven to be effective
  • takes place over sufficient time to cover necessary topics and skills
  • employs a variety of teaching methodologies that present the content in ways that make it relevant to the student
  • provides basic, accurate information about the risks of unprotected sexual intercourse and how to avoid unprotected sexual intercourse
  • includes activities that address peer pressure and cultural pressure
  • practices decision making, communication, negotiation, and refusal skills
  • utilizes teachers who are well-trained, comfortable, and believe in the program

With this in mind, educators may need guidance in how to select the goals, the information, the activities, and the methodologies to effectively teach about sex and sexuality. There are many highly regarded curricula, teaching tools, and professional development opportunities that teachers may find helpful. As with all resources, educators are urged to preview the material for the appropriateness of the content for their particular needs and the standards of their communities.

Select an option from the drop-down list at the bottom of this page to find additional resources on implementing sex education

How Do I Implement Comprehensive Sex Education?

It can be normal to feel overwhelmed by the task of developing and implementing comprehensive sex education in your school or program. Some educators find it helpful to talk with other professionals — mentors and/or supervisors — who have already implemented comprehensive sex education. It is important to get support from your school or organization. Here is a helpful checklist that may help prepare you for this important task.

  • Assess your own attitudes, values and beliefs.
  • Involve parents, school faculty, administration and staff, community leaders, and student leaders early in the process. You can benefit from their collective wisdom, help assure the development of culturally appropriate content, and garner wide-spread support.
  • Increase your comfort level with the topics.
  • Research what is already being done on this topic by your school, organization, or community. Identify the greatest gaps and needs in the students’ knowledge and skills.
  • Brush up on content and seek out appropriate professional development opportunities.
  • Partner with other teachers and youth-serving professionals to help ensure effectiveness and to add depth and breadth to your sexuality education program.
  • Research and select an established, evaluated sex education curriculum or develop a curriculum of your own. Use your state department of education, school board policies, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. as places to start.
  • Double-check that the content of your lessons balances the need to impart information, to develop skills, and to inspire motivation.
  • Review various teaching methodologies and incorporate them into each lesson plan.
  • Once you have developed or selected a curriculum, send out a communication to parents/guardians (and other stakeholders) and offer them opportunities to familiarize themselves with the content.
  • Carve out adequate time to implement the lessons.
  • Develop a strategy for creating a safe learning environment.
  • Develop and practice a protocol for answering difficult questions.
  • Develop and implement an evaluation plan for your program.
  • Develop and implement a plan to get feedback from all stakeholders.

So Now What?

While this may feel like a huge undertaking, break it down into discrete steps such as

  • Assess the needs.
  • Research solutions.
  • Garner support.
  • Develop a plan.
  • Develop or select a curriculum.
  • Create lesson plans.
  • Gather resources.
  • Have fun!

It may help to keep in mind that you may be the only adult who will ever talk to a young person about sexuality in an honest, accurate, and nonjudgmental way. Your good intentions, your positive, healthy attitude, your nonjudgmental tone, and the information you offer may be more than appreciated — it may save a young person’s life. 

Armed with knowledge about comprehensive sex education, you now need to jump in!  Talk with a mentor or colleague, browse your local library, or surf online to become acquainted with the breadth and scope of resources available. 

Contact Planned Parenthood educators near you to talk with and learn more about this important topic. Many Planned Parenthood affiliates provide consultation and training to assist with implementing sexuality education programs.

Select an option from the drop-down list below to find additional resources on implementing sex education.

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Implementing Sex Education