Sexuality education for youth in a special education class

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,

Learning appropriate yet useful and relevant information about sexuality is part of the foundation to becoming sexually healthy adults for all youth. Young people of all ability levels are generally curious about their bodies and have lots of questions. Though your students may have an intellectual disability — which impacts adaptive behavior and educational performance — this doesn't negate their right to know about their bodies and exercise their own sexual agency and self-determination. Their bodies, like those of most middle schoolers, are going through the hormonal maelstrom of puberty, so it definitely makes sense that “their sexuality seems to continue to grow.” By providing them with the same age-appropriate information that you would teach to their non-special-education counterparts, you'll be enabling your students to navigate their changing bodies and evolving sexual desires in a safe and healthy way. Keeping this in mind might be beneficial as you navigate your forays into teaching sexual education to your students! 

Now, onto your game plan. If you have mentioned reproductive anatomy in discussions about the human body with your students, then you have already begun the process of teaching sexuality education. Step 1: complete! Educators working with people with disabilities approach sexuality education in a variety of ways, depending on the level of the student's ability. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), one of the leaders in comprehensive sexuality education in the country, strongly recommends that students’ ability levels impact how content is taught but not the content itself. What this means in practice is teaching all of the usual middle school topics but altering the teaching methods to be appropriate for the intellectual abilities of your students. A comprehensive sexuality education program typically 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 encompasses many topic areas, just like other school subjects such as language arts, math, and social studies. The only difference is how the messages are communicated, and for your class, that would be via activities and teaching modalities that align with the ways your students learn best. SIECUS provides annotated bibliographies on a variety of sexuality issues and lists 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. Of particular interest to you might be SIECUS’s special edition on sexuality education for youth with disabilities, which includes several lesson plans specifically designed for students with disabilities. Additionally, the book, Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, might be another useful resource as it provides guidance on which sexual education topics are most applicable based on age group. Not only does this resource serve to promote a positive and healthy view of sexuality, it also allows you to identify the topics that are most applicable to your students if you prefer to create your own curriculum rather than adapt a commercially available one.

As you mentioned, some parents and caregivers are concerned that sexuality education may put ideas into their child's head, but in reality, sexuality education programs aren't the gateway to sexual activity that some believe it to be. Teachers and parents can monitor the needs of young people by being aware of signs 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 they're not ready for. On the other hand, others might indicate that they want to learn more, and, as they mature, may need information and skills for STI and pregnancy prevention. It’s sometimes all-too-easy to infantilize people with intellectual disabilities and think that they can't handle complex or mature topics, but you may find that more of your students fall into that second category than you (and their parents) expect!

Making sure that young people receive reliable and helpful information from trusted adults about sex education is crucial and that includes their parents or guardians. To put caregivers at ease, you may try to arrange a meeting with those concerned. This would provide an opportunity for you to share your plans for the program thus far and get on the same page about what needs to be taught to their children. You may choose to start by giving parents and guardians detailed information — both verbally and maybe even in the form of an information sheet they can refer back to later — about your overall goals for the program, which might include keeping students safe and healthy, giving them the knowledge and tools to managing their changing bodies and grow into adults with the agency to make their own sexual choices, and preventing sexually transmitted disease, future abuse, risky behaviors, and unplanned pregnancies. You may find it useful to emphasize all the additional benefits of a sex education curriculum, such as the opportunity to teach broader skills such as listening, self-advocacy, refusal skills, and how to establish and nourish healthy relationships. 

It may feel daunting to approach a delicate topic like this, especially when there is hesitation and pushback from parents and other external forces. Just remember that your commitment to teaching your students proper sexual education is critical to their development, and you're giving your students the tools they need to grow into the best versions of themselves!

Last updated Dec 17, 2021
Originally published Mar 01, 2002

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