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Shanker Blog: Making the Case for Multidisciplinary Sex Ed

Assuming you lived in a state that provided access to sex education, which of your courses would deliver this information? Most sex education is taught in biology or physical health classes with one or two lesson units between middle and high school. One compelling argument that I have found recently is a case to teach sex education in a multidisciplinary approach spanning several years of a student’s education in both social studies and physical science courses. Doing so could drive down teen pregnancy, empower youth about their own sexual health, and change the narratives and misinformation teens receive about sexuality. 

Leaders in sex education have begun to incorporate lessons on health as early as preschool. Early childhood sexuality education standards from The Future of Sex Ed include discussions on parts of the body, touching, and relationships with family members and friends. Middle school curriculum covers gender, puberty, relationships, and sexual orientation. High school students then receive content on sexual health, contraception, consent, and gender and sexuality. Sustained, age appropriate lessons are crucial to developing healthy teens, and it’s time to rethink the traditional academic delivery of content. 

Maryland, for instance, has implemented a sustained approach to teaching sexuality education throughout middle and high school.  A recent article in the Washington Post explains one health educator’s approach to presenting seventh graders with information about consent. Courtney Marcoux uses contemporary analogies to connect with her 7th grade students, but this is not the first time they have been exposed to the term “consent.” As of July 1, 2018, students in Montgomery County, MD are exposed to lessons on consent in 5th, 7th, and 10th grade. This is because the state passed legislation requiring these discussions in middle and high school. In response to the #MeToo movement, the bill ultimately aims to teach consent in sex education classes as a tactic to reduce sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses.

The Multidisciplinary Model 

Stranger-Hall and Hall make a strong argument for the incorporation of comprehensive sex education content into existing courses in social studies, health, and science. The researchers introduce a multidisciplinary approach that would merge lessons on consent, ethics, and decision making into modified social studies courses. Lessons on sexual health, reproduction, pregnancy, methods of contraception, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections would be introduced in biology or physical health education classes. I believe this approach has the potential to improve the development of teen health overall. 

My home state, Connecticut, has also adopted a sexual health education curriculum that reflects, “the biological, socio-cultural, psychological, and spiritual aspects of sexuality.” The Connecticut State Department of Education includes expectations for long-term delivery of comprehensive sexual health education from prekindergarten to 12th grade in designated health, science, or social science classes. The policy includes measurable learning outcomes with specific content standards for PreK and Kindergarten, grades 1 through 4, 5 through 8, 9th grade, and 12th grade. Social-emotional learning, positive health behaviors, and communication skills are the fundamental learning outcomes of the curriculum. Connecticut’s model empowers students with useful skills and crucial health information. 

Regular exposure to sex education throughout a student’s development and across course subjects will normalize conversations about sexuality and health. Data from Stranger-Hall and Hall suggest that students who completed comprehensive sex education exhibit greater awareness about sexually transmitted infections and experience lower rates of teen pregnancy. Teaching sexual health outside of the confines of traditional biology and physical science gives the student a perspective on the decision making process and consequences involved in sexual activity. As an integrated sex education curriculum expands into social science courses, more research is needed on outcomes of students who have experienced the multidisciplinary approach. 

What’s next? 

One major challenge of implementing a multidisciplinary sexual health curriculum is the appropriate training and certification of teachers. Connecticut is taking teacher preparation seriously. Well trained teachers and resource allocation are foundational to the state’s multidisciplinary model.  The next hurdle is district approval. Districts would need to understand the benefits of including this information in a sustained effort to graduate students who are informed about their health and empowered to make positive choices about their sexual health and autonomy. Implementation of curricula with community approval and cultural relevance are subject to district leadership’s interpretation and advocacy. These are sizable challenges but many states have made progress in recent years to expand access to comprehensive sexual health education. Surely, the next step is a sustained, multidisciplinary approach. 

The case for a long term, multidisciplinary approach to sex education is promising in terms of social-emotional development and future health outcomes. Imagine a sex education curriculum that is embedded into a student’s learning in sustained and age appropriate ways from the time they begin school to the end of 12th grade. A multidisciplinary approach in middle and high school might be designed to incorporate lessons on ethics, consent, informed decision making, and social movements for reproductive justice and #MeToo in social studies contexts. Science or physical education courses would then cover the basics of reproduction, sexual health, and STI and pregnancy prevention in a designated health or science class. Students would be empowered by this diversified sex education content to navigate the situations and social pressures they are exposed to as they mature into teenagers and young adults.

Do you know of a program that teaches sex education curriculum in a multidisciplinary manner? Please comment below. 

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Emilee O'Brien

Emilee O’Brien is a Fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C. She is pursuing a Master’s in Educational Transformation at Georgetown University. ...