Primary school sexuality and relationships education – building the foundations
Primary sexuality education must include developmentally-appropriate discussions and information about the concepts of ‘choice’, friendships, gender stereotypes, personal safety, emerging identities and much more, write Justine Kiely-Scott and Jenny Ackland.
Comprehensive sexuality and relationships education in primary schools is more important than ever. Children are exposed to much more than their parents were at the same age. Technology, social media, and the sexualised messages of advertising, music videos and films are ubiquitous. We need to think ahead as today’s children are subjected to more than playground whispers and rumours. With the internet so accessible, it’s essential that parents and teachers are available and approachable to answer questions, as they would agree it’s preferable for a child to ask a trusted adult than go to Google for the answer.
Our students deserve more than a few lessons in the last year of primary school covering the changes of puberty as well as the basics of conception, pregnancy and birth. The shift to secondary school can be daunting and challenging, and parents want their children to make healthy and informed choices as they develop greater independence and become young adults. To provide students with the best skills, primary sexuality education must include developmentally-appropriate discussions and information about the concepts of ‘choice’, friendships, gender stereotypes, personal safety, emerging identities and much more.
The Victorian government’s curriculum document Catching on Early1 is a practical resource for primary teachers. This document outlines why sexuality education is important. Some of the reasons include:
- Healthy choices: Sexuality education assists young people to make healthy choices, reduces misinformation and helps to clarify and strengthen positive values and attitudes.
- Children want to know: Most children are curious and want to know. Children know much more than we think they do and a good quality sexuality education program provides them with accurate information and the right language to ask questions.
- Correct information: Sexuality education provides young people with support and guidance to deal with the conflicting messages and misinformation from media and society.
- Navigate puberty: A comprehensive and good quality program helps young people to navigate puberty. They learn what to expect and how to manage the changes. A good program will take all their questions seriously and provide them with age-appropriate answers.
- Parents want sexuality education in schools: Parents want sexuality education to be taught in primary schools but also want to be informed about what content will be taught and when.
- Sex education is important for boys too: In many instances, boys have been left to work things out on their own. In the past, adults thought it was important that girls had information about their development i.e. how to manage periods, but boys didn’t receive relevant information about their changing bodies.
- Protective against child abuse: Sexuality education can be protective against child abuse. Educating students about appropriate touching and helping them to identify a support network of trusted adults is critical. Understanding the function and correct names of genitals is also empowering.
- Challenge gender stereotypes: Sexuality education programs provide a forum for students to challenge and question society’s narrow ideas of what it means to be female and male. Providing a safe space to question strict gender rules can help children who don’t fit the stereotypes to feel included.
- Bring diverse families into the classroom: Discussions about the importance of families and diversity of families is essential. Not all families look the same some children may have single parents, divorced parents, same-sex parents, blended families or grandparents bringing them up.
One element of a good sexuality education program is providing sequential lessons from Foundation to Year 6 so that students develop the ability to talk about relevant and age-appropriate aspects of sexuality without unnecessary embarrassment. Building a language base means they can communicate clearly and understand their developing bodies and emerging identities. By starting this education in lower primary, teachers can capture the uninhibited way students often talk about their bodies and ask questions before natural self-consciousness and possible embarrassment creep in.
One school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs has decided to implement a whole-school sexuality and relationships education program from Foundation to Year 6. The topics covered from the Foundation to Year 2 are simple and may not even look like topics that come to mind when we think of ‘sex ed’. Students explore ideas about growing up, family, individual differences, what it means to be a girl or a boy, personal safety and the names of reproductive parts. The Year 3 to 6 program builds on the former topics and moves on to include the dynamics of friendships, the concept of choice, how babies are conceived, physical, social and emotional changes of puberty and a greater understanding of diversity. By providing students with a comprehensive program, they will acquire the knowledge, confidence and necessary building blocks to form a solid foundation as they make the important and often challenging transition to secondary school and encounter issues of greater complexity and significance. By showing they value this area of the curriculum and ensuring the sequential program becomes a standard part of the curriculum, this school is providing the best possible education for their students, not only making sure they receive knowledge but also skills and understanding.
Supporting parents as partners
Parents support sex education in schools and want to be a part of the conversation. Research shows that parents want to be informed about the content of the program, know that skilled teachers will deliver the lessons and be reassured that teachers ‘remain sensitive to the diversity of values among their students and their families’2. Some parents can find it difficult to talk to their children as they feel constrained by the lack of or limited sexuality education they had at school. Schools can help build parents’ skills by providing information sessions that cover what will be taught at school, tips for answering difficult questions, how to talk to their children as well as providing a list of quality resources they can refer to, including websites and books. It’s also important to understand that while schools can provide a good sexuality education programs, it is parents who know their child best and they can make sure they are available to answer their child’s questions. In addition, diverse cultural and religious backgrounds inform this type of education so it’s imperative that parents share personal values, attitudes and expectations with their children to help shape and enrich discussions that have been had at school.
Respectful relationships education
Families are where children first learn how to relate to other people and soon after friendships form important building blocks to all relationships in life. Discussions about respectful and healthy relationships must start early. Topics including how to be a good friend, what a healthy friendship looks like and who young people can talk to if they need support are all integral parts of respectful relationships education in primary schools. Discussing friendships should also include the opportunity to discuss how age differences can affect power and control, and how a young person – whether child or teenager – can learn to assert him or herself in friendships without fear of hurting someone’s feelings.
The Victorian Government recently announced a new ‘Respectful Relationships Program’ which is to be taught from Foundation to Year 12. The program’s aim is to teach awareness of the skills needed to form respectful relationships and more specifically to challenge gender stereotypes that can lead to gender-based violence and disrespectful attitudes to women.The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) states that, “Early interventions with children and young people can have a lasting effect on their relationships in the future… On the basis of current evidence, violence prevention and respectful relationships initiatives among young people can make a real difference, producing lasting change in attitudes and behaviours.”3 Providing awareness and language skills around this topic are central to children and young people being able to communicate their views effectively and understand they have a right to respectful relationships and that there are support networks available to them.
Social media and sexuality education
Not only should a sexuality education program explore friendships and how we interact with one another face to face, but also include guidelines and discussions on how we interact on social media. Most young people’s social contact is carried out on smartphones, tablets or computers. According to a recent survey, 78% of eight-nine year olds and 92% of 10-11 year olds have used a social network.4 In the upper years of primary school and beyond, direct messaging, group chats, texting, Instagram and Snapchat are popular ways of sharing information and being in touch. Children need to understand how to safely use social media and understand the respect and etiquette they should use when communicating with others. Explaining clearly that although it may seem easy to say things behind the façade of a device, what is said can be hurtful and damaging for both the sender and the receiver. If a child isn’t willing to say face to face what they are willing to send, then they need to think carefully about sending or posting something. A priority is making sure young people learn to become aware of the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle mechanisms of bullying, marginalising or excluding someone online. The same goes for thinking before sending pictures or posting photos. Students should know that photos are never permanently erased so they have to carefully consider what will be made public, not just as a short-term consideration. Young people will always act impulsively and they will make mistakes but schools can have frank and open conversations about the snags of social media and if this can start in primary school, all the better.
Sexually explicit material online and sexualisation in the media
Children are capable of being critical consumers of media and technology. Their lives are already, and will continue to be, saturated by digital messages and links to the World Wide Web. Teachers claim there is consistent anecdotal evidence that some students in Year 5 and 6 have been exposed to pornography or are seeking out pornography online. Research backs up this claim. One Australian survey of 9-16 year olds found that 44 per cent had seen sexual images online.5 Another study found that among 13 to 16 year olds in Australian schools, 93 per cent of males, and 62 per cent of females had seen pornography.6 Sexualisation is rife, billboards advertising everything from perfume to jeans are overtly sexual, popular song lyrics are saturated with sexual references and this exposure can drive natural curiosity.
Parents and educators can choose to ignore the potential exposure to this material or be very clear early on about what they want children to understand. Firstly, computers at home and at school need to have appropriate filters. Secondly, children should be actively supervised when using computers and not left for hours on end searching sites. Finally, children need to know that if they ever see something online or someone shows them something that they find upsetting or distressing, or that they know is age inappropriate, they should tell a trusted adult.
Parents need to stay calm and give themselves time to respond to any disclosure. The quickest way to cause a young person to ‘clam up’ is to have an extremely emotion reaction to something they’ve told you or you’ve found out. Whether the child has sought out the material, stumbled across it or been shown something by another child, the response should be consistent. Parents can help children understand that that sexually explicit material is not made for children and could even be damaging for their development. Parents and teachers can prepare ahead of time, by thinking about what they would do if a child told them they’d been accessing or exposed to sexually-explicit material online. The response will be different for everyone but teachers and carers need to be ready to respond in a calm and measured way and provide support for young people who are exposed to this material at a young age.
Discussions about gender stereotypes
Gender stereotypes are culturally-embedded ideas about how we should behave as males and females. From kindergarten, children have formed the fixed ideas of what it means to be a girl or a boy, woman or man and often believe these narrow social constructs are true and therefore unchallengeable. Stereotypes can limit a girl’s and boy’s ability to reach their potential. For example, the box that a ‘real male’ is hemmed in by may limit their ability to unselfconsciously express emotions both positive and negative. The idea that boys wear blue, don’t cry, are the decision makers and leaders, are interested in sport, are forceful, aggressive, tough and strong must be challenged. Likewise, the belief that all girls are pink loving, overly emotional, gentle, caring and submissive is extremely restrictive. Attitudes like these serve to restrict personal choices and development of individuality. They also act against awareness and celebration of diversity. In upper primary school, discussions about the contrasting language that is used to describe the behaviour of females and males can also be explored, for example girls who show leadership or are assertive are called ‘bossy’ and boys ‘strong leaders’ or boys who like more domestic activities are labelled ‘prissy’, ‘girly’ or even worse ‘gay’.
The Victorian government maintains that by questioning gender stereotypes early we, as a society, can work to reduce the incidence of domestic violence. Conversations about gender stereotypes lead to further discourse around power and gender in secondary school. Whilst this might seem a very sophisticated subject, it can be discussed in an introductory and developmentally appropriate way at the primary level. Students can learn from a young age that gender stereotypes limit their options at school, work, in sport and within their families and socially. We need to expand children’s thinking and encourage them to understand that diversity and difference should be celebrated not scorned. If we can be more accepting of diversity and alternative ways of being, then hopefully fewer children will be teased, ridiculed and bullied for moving outside the narrow boxes that have traditionally defined what it means to be female and male in our society.
Whilst schools don’t use the word ‘consent’ with primary students they should discuss the concept of ‘choice’. Explicitly teaching the ‘age of consent’ or ‘sexual consent’ at primary level is not appropriate, that is a conversation for older students, but talking about how people are free to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to things particularly in the context of friendships and private parts of bodies is important. Students need to develop a clear understanding about giving and not giving permission and have those decisions respected by parents, carers and friends. If we can let young people know that their opinions and choices are valued and respected, then this can have a positive impact on their concept of respect and choice when it comes to friendships and, later in life, intimate relationships.
Personal safety is a topic that some teachers and parents will avoid because they are afraid it may be too confronting, scary and negative for primary students. But personal safety can be taught in a non-confronting way. In the younger years, educating students about appropriate and inappropriate touching is simple and clear. This message not only includes adults or teenagers touching a child but also children touching each other. Obviously, it’s okay for children to touch themselves but they need to understand this is something that is done in private and not in class or in front of others. Students need to receive clear messages about what to do if they ever feel uncomfortable or unsure and how to tell an adult and keep telling until someone listens. Explicitly teaching that we never keep secrets about our bodies is a crucial part of this education. Reinforcing that secrets and surprises are one that have a positive and happy outcome, and should never make someone feel unhappy or guilty is also important. Primary students need to be told that if something does happen that makes them uncomfortable, feel unsafe or is inappropriate, it’s never the child’s fault. Part of teaching about personal safety is making sure student can identify a support network at home and at school, in a way that’s simple, clear and easy to understand.
Children have the right to a high-quality sexuality education program that not only provides them with facts and information, but also aims to build ability to talk about and understand their bodies, as well as shape their attitudes and beliefs about the world and their place in it. If principals get behind their school’s sexuality education program and make sure their staff have the expertise and confidence to teach the program successfully, then that will lead to better outcomes for students. Primary students deserve more than just the basics. If schools can expand the curriculum to incorporate a broader range of topics including respect in relationships, then young people will have a solid foundation from which to express themselves and their needs as they grow and develop.
- Catching on early: sexuality education for Victorian primary schools, DEECD, 2011
- Parents and sex education – parents’ attitudes to sexual health education in WA schools, Department of Health, Western Australia, 2010
- Respectful Relationships Education Violence prevention and respectful relationships education in Victorian secondary schools, DEECD, 2009
- Like, post, share: Young Australian’s experience of social media, Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2013
- Risks and safety for Australian children on the internet: full findings from the AU Kids Online survey of 9–16 year olds and their parents, Green et al, 2011
- Safety in cyberspace: adolescents’ safety and exposure online, Fleming et al, Youth & Society, 38(2): 135-154, 2006
- Catching on Early: Sexuality Education for Victorian Primary Schools, DEECD, J Walsh, 2011
Sexuality education topics to be covered from Foundation to Year 2:
- growing up and changing, human development across the lifespan
- identity, unique self and celebrating diversity between people
- talking about how families are different and how families are the same
- differences and similarities between boys and girls
- naming basic reproductive parts
- discussing friendships and respect in friendships
- introducing the concept of choice
- exploring and questioning gender stereotypes
- personal safety
- beginnings of a baby – when the sperm and the egg join
Sexuality education topics to be covered in Year 3-6:
- how babies are conceived, pregnancy and birth
- diversity in families and different ways babies can join families
- what puberty is and how to manage it
- names and functions of male and female reproductive body parts
- friendships and respectful relationships
- emerging sexuality, responsibility and independence
- developing a greater understanding of choice and consent
- continuing to challenge gender stereotypes
At the primary level, quality sex education has been shown to:
- help increase children’s personal safety
- help increase children’s confidence and self esteem
- make children better able to make healthy decisions as they grow older
At the secondary level, quality sex education has been shown to:
- delay the first experience of sex
- reduce STIs
- reduce instances of unplanned pregnancy
- reduce instances of coerced sexual activity
- reduce instances of sexual assault
- increase confidence and ability to negotiate consensual sexual activity that is mutual, respectful, communicative and safe
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