Sexuality education for youth in a special education class

Originally Published: March 1, 2002 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: August 27, 2012
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Dear Alice,

I am wanting to know about material and suggestions. I am teaching middle school special education students that function at about a 2nd and 3rd grade level. I am teaching them health, nutrition, and many other things. What I am having difficulty with is teaching about "sex ed" itself. We have talked about the human body and all the parts and how most of it works. It is hard because the parents want them to understand this area for mainly their own safety, good touching, etc., but also don't want to put ideas into their heads that, OH! we can do that. So many things in their body and learning are at low levels, but their sexuality seems to continue to grow. It is hard to find stuff at a level they can do or understand. Thank you for your help.

Dear Reader,

Teaching developmentally appropriate information about sexuality is part of the foundation for young people to become sexually healthy adults. Young people are curious about their bodies and have lots of questions. If you have mentioned reproductive anatomy in discussions about the human body with your students, then you have begun the process of teaching sexuality education.

Depending on the level of the student's ability, educators who work with developmentally challenged populations approach sexuality education in a variety of ways. Some educators teach a comprehensive sexuality education program that is developmentally appropriate for the students in their class. A comprehensive sexuality education program addresses:

  • Anatomy and physiology, including puberty, body image, sexual orientation, and gender identity
  • Relationships, including families, friendship, love, and dating
  • Personal skills, including values, communication, decision making, and assertiveness
  • Sexual behavior, including sexuality throughout life, masturbation, abstinence, and human sexual response
  • Sexual health, including contraception, abortion, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual abuse, and reproductive health
  • Issues related to society and culture, including gender roles, sexuality and the law, diversity, and sexuality in the media

This may seem like a long laundry list, but sexuality education includes many topic areas, similar to other subjects, such as English, math, and social studies. The only differences are the messages, and for your class, that would be messages that are appropriate for students in 2nd and 3rd grades. Others focus on developmentally appropriate curricula that address specific topics, such as puberty or sexual abuse prevention.

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) provides annotated bibliographies on a variety of sexuality issues. These list commercially available curricula that you can implement in your class. In addition, SIECUS provides over one hundred sexuality education lesson plans on their curriculum website.

As you mentioned, some parents and caregivers are concerned that sexuality education may put ideas into their child's head. The reality is that sexuality education programs do not increase sexual activity. (Take a look at Librarian likes Go Ask Alice!, parent is concerned for a study related to this topic that was published in a 1997 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Research.) Teachers and parents can monitor the needs of young people by being aware of signs that they may display indicating that they might be receiving too much or too little information. Some might put their hands over their ears or "tune out" if someone is providing them with information when they are not ready. Yet, others might indicate that they want more information, and, in fact, as they mature, may need information and skills for STI and pregnancy prevention.

Parents need to be their children's primary educators, sharing their family values and beliefs about many issues including sexuality. Arranging a meeting for parents and sharing the lesson plans before the program begins often helps place them at ease. Let them know that the information that their children will be learning is age-appropriate and that school-based sexuality education programs can complement the sexuality information and values that may be taught at home.

To help parents feel more comfortable and encourage communication with their children, the book, Sexuality: Your Sons and Daughters with Intellectual Disabilities by Karin Melberg Schwier and Dave Hingsburger might be helpful.

Alice