Why sex education should start in kindergarten (hula hoops recommended) – NPR

by | Sep 12, 2022 | Education

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Emine Yilmaz for NPR

A class of fifth-graders are sitting through an hour-long sex-ed lesson at Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48 in Indianapolis. Some fidget, others giggle. And they have a lot of questions. How old do you have to be to start using tampons? What’s acne? It’s April, and sex ed teacher Haileigh Huggins does her best to answer them all. One boy asks, “Can boys have babies?” “No, they cannot get pregnant,” she tells him. “Because they both would have sperm cells right? There wouldn’t be an egg cell.” Huggins is trained to teach age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education. But she only has an hour with these students — and that’s just enough time to cover the basics, like puberty and reproduction. When most people think of sex ed, those are the lessons that often come to mind. But comprehensive sex ed goes beyond that. It’s defined by sex ed advocates as a science-based, culturally and age-appropriate set of lessons that start in early grades and go through the end of high school. It covers sexuality, human development, sexual orientation and gender, bodily autonomy and consent, as well as relationship skills and media literacy.

With abortion access changing in many states, advocates for comprehensive sex ed say it’s more important than ever. But, like so many things related to schools, sex education is highly politicized. Only three states require schools to teach age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education: Washington, California and Oregon. That’s according to SEICUS, a group that advocates for progressive sex education policies. In other states, what students learn about sex ed depends on what school leaders choose to teach.

And yet, research shows these lessons can lead to better health outcomes for students. “The major finding of the research is that comprehensive sex education scaffolded across grades, embedded in supportive school environments and across subject areas, can improve sexual, social and emotional health, as well as academic outcomes for young people,” says Eva Goldfarb, a researcher at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She is co-author of a 2020 paper on the topic. “Even though it may seem like sex education is controversial, it absolutely is not,” says Nora Gelperin, director of sex education and training at Advocates for Youth — an organization that promotes access to comprehensive sex education. She says comprehensive sex ed is “always in the best interest of young people.” Here’s what it looks like, for different age levels from grades K-12:
Elementary school: Consent, personal boundaries and healthy relationships Age-appropriate sex ed for kindergartners introduces topics like consent, identifying who is in your family and the correct names for body parts. “When we’re talking about consent with kindergartners, that means getting permission before you touch someone else; asking if it’s OK if you borrow somebody’s toy or pencil or game, so that kids start to learn about personal boundaries and consent in really age- and developmentally appropriate ways,” says Gelperin, who was part of a team that released the first national sex education standards in 2012.

When we’re talking about consent with kindergartners, that means getting permission before you touch someone else; asking if it’s OK if you borrow somebody’s toy or pencil or game …

Nora Gelperin

Gelperin loves to use hula hoops to teach young kids about bodily autonomy: Each student gets one, and is instructed to ask for permission to go inside someone else’s hula hoop. The hoops are an analogy for boundaries. “If someone is touching you inside your boundary in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it’s OK to say no and talk to a trusted adult,” Gelperin tells students. Another good lesson for younger children is how to identify those trusted adults. Mariotta Gary-Smith, a sex ed instructor based in Oregon, asks students to write a list of people they …

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