Comprehensive Sex Ed Responsive to Age, Community Standards

Pamela Merritt

A new McCain ad suggests that Obama supports teaching about sex in kindergarten. In age-appropriate comprehensive sex education, what do students really learn, and when?

Sen. John McCain has released an ad attacking Sen. Barack Obama for his
support of age appropriate sex ed, suggesting Obama supports education that would teach kindergartners about sex before they learn to read.

Obama’s and McCain’s positions sum up both sides of the debate
over when and how to educate youth about human sexuality.  Advocates of abstinence-only programs warn that teachers will be forced to bring adult themes to young students, summoning images
of kindergartners being instructed on the proper way to put a condom on a
banana.  Supporters of comprehensive sex
education counter that, rather than provide one curriculum for all ages, age
appropriate comprehensive sex education programs take into consideration the
age and developmental level of the students, along with community values. 

Though political candidates and their supporters are forever
declaring their position for or against comprehensive sex education, they spend
little to no time explaining what, in their book, comprehensive sexual
education is.  How and why educators
develop age appropriate sex education programs is also rarely discussed.  Would supporters of abstinence only programs
re-think their position if they better understood how age appropriateness
factors into comprehensive sex education? And do pro-choice, pro-sexual health
voters actually know what is taught in comprehensive sexuality education, by
grade level? As both major political parties proceed in support of differing
platforms — the Democratic
Party’s 2008 platform includes support
of age-appropriate comprehensive sex
education while the Republican
Party Platform maintains support of abstinence only education
— now is a
good time to revisit age appropriate comprehensive sex education.

The Sexuality Information and Education
Council of the United States
(SIECUS) defines sex education as a lifelong
process of acquiring information and forming attitudes, beliefs, and values
that encompasses sexual development, sexual and reproductive health,
interpersonal relationships, affection, intimacy, body image, and gender
roles.  SIECUS has developed Guidelines for
Comprehensive Sexuality Education
(Kindergarten through 12th grade) through
a national task force of experts in the fields of adolescent development,
health care, and education.  The
guidelines provide a framework of the key concepts topics, and messages that
all sexuality education programs would ideally include.

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Monica Rodriguez, Vice President for Education and Training
at SIECUS, explained that age appropriate comprehensive sex education is based
on what research has revealed about youth emotionally, cognitively and
physically: ""Basically, what someone wants to insure (parent to child or
educator to child) is that the information is presented in a way that is
developmentally and age appropriate for a young person," she explains. For instance, if teaching about puberty, she’d take this approach:

"Puberty starts at about 9 or 10 in girls so I need to make
sure I’m addressing this topic with girls starting in 4th and 5th grade for
sure.  By 6th grade it is a history
lesson. I need to recognize that some girls will not be near starting while
others will.  The information can’t be
too graphic but provide basic information and lay the foundation to prepare
them for what is coming.  We know that
kids that age are very concrete thinkers – they need to see it, feel it and
touch it.  Models work better than
abstract drawings.  Some kids learn
through experiencing things, so I would have them make models.  In 4th grade, I would have them name the body
parts and talk about hormones and what changes will happen and reinforce that
it is normal.  Whereas for high school
students, I would go into more specific details about hormones etcetera."


But, says Rodriguez, if a six-year-old were curious about the changes her body would undergo, that young person might not need specific details.  Says Rodriguez, "I have a six-year-old niece who is curious
about periods.  She thinks it is gross and
she is worried that it is going to happen to her." What message does her niece get? "The age appropriate message for her was, when
you get older you will get your period and it is kind of gross.  But you know what?  You just deal with it and it is a natural
thing that happens in the body."

Challenges of Age-Appropriate Instruction

Rodriguez acknowledged that a challenge many educators face
is that they are usually teaching to a group. 
"You have to keep it broad for the group," says Rodriguez. "Developmental levels will vary in a group and it is important for the
educator to realize that and for the curriculum to allow for that."  According to Rodriquez, educators should
answer things broadly and then pull out students who need more detailed
one-on-one information.

Another challenge to developing age appropriate
comprehensive sex education curricula is the issue of community standards.  Rodriquez explains that in a typical public
school system, each school district has its own rules and policies.  Each building and classroom also has its own
rules.  The age appropriate comprehensive
sex education curriculum has to be developed in partnership with community
buy-in.  A curriculum
committee – teachers, parents, community leaders – approve the
curriculum and present it to the school board.  The board then determines what is acceptable within that

Rodriguez points out that in some communities teachers
aren’t allowed to answer any questions not addressed in the approved curriculum
while in other communities’ educators have set up anonymous question boxes
where students can ask anything.

When asked how school districts handle protest to a board-approved curriculum, Rodriguez acknowledged that "The most vocal people are
often the ones who determine what happens. 
People who organize and get others involved can get a curriculum pulled
and abstinence only one put into place. 
That curriculum might not truly reflect the community standards but
rather the standards of a vocal few."

Rodriguez offered the example of a community where opponents
of an approved age appropriate comprehensive sex education curriculum persuaded
their school board to require students to have permission slips signed by a
parent or guardian before being allowed to participate in the class.   "Those women organized to try to get the
curriculum pulled but 95% of the parents signed the slips."  In the end, the community reaffirmed that the
curriculum met their standards.

Not only do communities not need to worry that
kindergartners will be faced with condoms and bananas, but comprehensive sex
education has research on its side. 
Studies have found that abstinence-plus
programs have a positive impact on sexual behavior
, comprehensive
sex education holds the most promise for preventing teen pregnancies and
sexually transmitted infections
and that comprehensive
sex education is better at reducing teen pregnancy than abstinence-only
.  Age appropriate
comprehensive sex education does not silence parents or communities.  Despite protests to the contrary, individuals
and agencies at the federal, state, and local level are all involved in making
curriculum decisions that ultimately determine what students learn in the

The facts go a long way to dispel fears surrounding age
appropriate comprehensive sex education, but supporters of abstinence-only
programs continue to promote their anti-knowledge agenda.  Pro-choice voters must factor in the need to
defend and promote age appropriate comprehensive sex education or we’ll be
looking at four more years of abstinence-only funding — and the consequences of
the failure to educate our youth that goes hand-in-hand with it.

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