One of the first, most striking and most obvious differences a teacher notices in a class of 25 students is the range of their stages of
. There will be some whose bodies are very childlike with no signs of sexual development at all. There will be some girls whose breasts have visibly developed and some boys who have obviously started their growth spurt. It can be assumed that some of these have already had their first period or experienced their first ejaculation. These early maturing girls and boys may be older than their peers as a result of having been retained at a younger age or they may just be naturally (genetically) programmed to mature at an early age. Body composition and race appear to be related to age at onset of puberty. Having a high fat-to-lean ratio and being of African-American heritage are two characteristics associated with the early onset of puberty. The reality of starting to exhibit signs of physical maturity early or late (compared to one’s peers) can have positive and/or negative emotional side-effects. Researchers have found that, for girls, maturing early or late can cause distress and feelings of low self-esteem and self-confidence. For boys, maturing early is a source of pride and can lead to high self-esteem and social success, while maturing late can cause even worse distress than that of the girls.(2)
Some 4th & 5th grade students will exhibit an open interest in and attraction to the opposite sex and others don’t at all yet. Some students may feel curious about sex and some may even feel eager to be “grown” so they will be able to start having sex. At the same time, in the same class, there will be students who have had little or no exposure to things sexual, other than what is pervasive in our society via the media. They may have given very little thought to sexuality in relation to themselves and can be embarrassed by open classroom discussion or they may just tune it out. Still other students may come from religious families where parents feel that they alone are responsible for the sex education of their children and, in fact, exercise their right to exclude their children from these classes. [Before the puberty lessons take place, parents receive a letter notifying them and inviting them to view the video their children will watch and to participate in discussion about talking with their children about sex, growing up and AIDS.] These excluded students are, however, still a part of the class and will likely be present during subsequent discussions which might arise during the rest of the year. The teacher’s job is to juggle all of this diversity when teaching about puberty, to assess the various developmental needs of her students and to create leassons and learning environments which promote each one’s continuous development.
Recent news has pointed out that puberty begins for all children at the age of six. The NY Times of Tuesday, July 1, 1997, reports on page C6 about research published in the December 1996 issue of
Current Directions in Psychological Science
. The researchers found that hormones from the adrenal glands which increase at age six actually kick off puberty. They go on to say, “Sexuality is a process of development that begins in middle childhood, not a precipitous psychological event that emerges at a single moment in time. There are several steps in the process: attraction, actual desire and finally a readiness to act on the desire.”(3) The authors found that young adults interviewed for the study remembered feelings of sexual attraction in the fourth grade, around the ages of 9 and 10. This means that in a classroom of diverse 4th or 5th graders, even the children who do not exhibit obvious signs of physical maturation have already embarked upon the process of sexual development.
The adults in this particular study are homosexual in their sexual orientation. They date an awareness of being attracted to members of the same sex as early as 4th grade. Teachers must keep this in mind when teaching about puberty, and not assume that all students will grow up to be heterosexual. This kind of denial of variation in sexual orientation is damaging to a child’s development in terms of his/her self-awareness and self-acceptance. Our task in teaching children about their sexuality begins by enhancing their self-awareness and their feelings of self-acceptance to better enable them to grow up as healthy adults.
The second aspect of student diversity which I want to address is their
about sex and growing up. “Teachers must understand that there will likely be a diverse range of sexual experience within a group of young people. Some will be sexually active, some may not yet be interested in sex. It is also important to be aware that some of the young people in the class or group may still be in the process of evaluating their own sexual orientation, so it must not be assumed that every student will be heterosexual.”(4) Some students are “streetwise.” They have already seen a lot of sexually explicit material and/or behavior either in the movies, on TV shows, or, unfortunately, in their own living environments. “Sex starts early for many young people. Nationally, nearly four in ten (37%) 9th graders have had intercourse.”(5) “By age 15, African-American males are 2.5 times more likely than white males to have had intercourse; and African-American females, by age 15, are twice as likely as white females to have had intercourse. Minority youth are less likely than their white counterparts to use contraceptives and their pregnancy rates and birthrates are twice as high”(6)
Data from New Haven show an even greater percentage of students are having sex. The SAHA (Social and Health Assessment) is a survey administered to 6th, 8th and 10th graders every other year by the Social Development Program in collaboration with the Yale Child Study Center. SAHA results show that in 1996, 20% of 6th graders, 43 % of 8th graders and 60% of 10th graders have had intercourse.(7) Fortunately, these percentages have decreased since 1992. This is, perhaps, the result of targeted curricula in Social Development classes as well as the result of a shift towards more explicit societal messages against the advisability of such early sexual activity. The 80% of 6th graders who are not having sex need positive reinforcement for continuing to make that choice. And the 20% who are having sex or are considering it need to have access to prevention education which directly addresses their needs. There are young adolescents in New Haven (as young as 14) who have been infected with HIV. Their risky behavior was having had four sexual partners in their young lives. This happens in a fashion that has been described as “serial monogamy”, that is, a teenager has only one boyfriend or girlfriend. They are monogamous for the whole time that they are together. Once they break up, it is likely that a subsequent partner will come along. The younger a child is when s/he begins to have sex, the more likely it is that s/he will have more than one sex partner. Early maturing girls who have sex at a young age are more likely to get involved with older boys, which can be a serious contributing factor to the risks of HIV infection. “For young women who are sexually active, the age of their first sex partner may influence their risk of transmission. Young women whose first sex partner was an older man (five or more years older) were less likely to use condoms and possibly at higher risk for HIV infection than young women whose first partner was the same age. The difference in age between the two partners may make it difficult for young women to negotiate condom use with their partner.”(8)
Children who engage in early sex tend to be those who are confronting many other factors in their lives which put them at risk for negative outcomes, such as living in poverty, in unstable homes, being homeless, truant or delinquent. Some of the students who have already had sexual intercourse, whether voluntarily or under coercion, have done so because of the realities of their living situations. “Adolescents may use sexual behavior to meet other needs, including touch, intimacy, and friendship needs, as well as a means of achieving peer approval and demonstrating independence.”(9) They may have been forced to start having sex as part of gang initiation or to be accepted by their homeboys in the neighborhoods, housing projects or schools. In New Haven, this does happen although it is difficult to know how widespread it is. According to the literature, force plays a significant role in early sexual experience. “Most sexually active girls under 15 were victims of sexual abuse and rape by older males. Coercion and forced sex play a significant role in HIV infection in youth, both in situations in which transmission occurs, and as a psychological wound that increases the chances someone will fail to protect themselves. National estimates indicate that 15% of males have been sexually abused as children and that male victims of childhood sexual abuse are at twice the risk of HIV infection as male non-victims. Childhood sexual abuse is associated with continued high risk sexual behavior of gay and bisexual men, particularly among men who recall their experience as coercive.”(10)
Some of these students brag about their exploits, while others keep it hidden. Some talk about sex as a tool or weapon to hurt or degrade others or as a way to prove their manhood or womanhood. Both boys and girls equate early sexual activity with adulthood. What these children fail to realize is that having sex at an early age can pose serious risks to their health and well-being. US teenagers have much higher rates of childbearing, abortion, and pregnancy than do adolescents in other developed countries, even where levels of adolescent sexual activity appear to be very similar.(11) “This raises serious questions about the education and socialization of US teens and the societal messages that adolescents receive.”(12)
“It is no accident that HIV is gravitating toward young people who are particularly vulnerable in society. Any social condition that damages self-esteem, eliminates choices and a sense of control, makes it harder to stand up for yourself, or reduces the timeline along which you imagine your life is also likely to affect your ability to insist upon safe sex.”(13) “The rate of infection appears to be growing faster among young women than any other group. The proportion of young women among US adolescent (ages 13-19) AIDS cases has tripled from 14% in 1987 to 46% of the reported cases in the year preceding July, 1996. Heterosexual sex accounts for three quarters of cases in young women ages 20-24.”(14) There is a clear need to begin to address sex education and HIV prevention strategies to these children. It is easier to initiate behavior in a healthy way than to change a negative behavior to a positive one. While the goal of puberty/sex education for these children at such high risk of getting pregnant or catching a deadly disease is to encourage them to postpone having sexual intercourse, it also has to include information and skills which will equip them to reduce the potential harm from their risk-taking activities.
In addition, any children who watch television may have been exposed to developmentally inappropriate and bizarre information about human sexual behavior. “No less than 24 talk shows specializing in the public disclosure of very personal intimacies were broadcast during a recent television season. Sample disclosures included: a woman claiming her sister began having sexual intercourse when she was eight years old; and a woman saying her father was gay. As such, these shows provide a unique—if not intelligent—source of sexuality information.”(15)
As a result of this inappropriate but pervasive exposure, students may ask questions like, “Why do people make so much noise when they have sex?” or describe scenes they’ve witnessed like, “When I was at my uncle’s house, he let me watch this movie where three people were doing it, and I saw this white stuff come out of the man’s penis.” Or tell about somebody on a talk show who did outrageous sexual things. These questions call for responses which reassure children that adult sex is not meant for children, that this is not something that “has to” happen to them now or ever. They need reassurance about the normalcy of the stage of development in which they find themselves. They also need to know that what they see in these movies or TV shows is not much like real life, but more like a fantasy, similar to other extra-human feats they might have seen in the movies. This is a good time to mention the emotional (loving and caring for another human being) side of mature sexual relationships in real life. People spend a lot of time looking for close relationships in their life. Just having sex with someone is not going to get them the intimate relationship they’re looking for.
Most adults feel adolescents, especially pre-teens, are not mature enough to handle an intimate relationship that includes intercourse. However, the high incidence of teens who get pregnant or infected with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) indicates that many teens are sexually active and do not take the precautions which could prevent these negative consequences. Education has to try to help young people who are having sex to make and carry out decisions which will encourage their development as healthy young adults. “Teaching prevention skills is like teaching reading. You can’t do it one time; you have to start at the beginning and bring kids along with a developmentally appropriate, sequenced, articulated curriculum. As skills get increasingly complex, you have to have more complex kinds of situations in which to practice those skills.”(16)
All of this diversity in experience and expectations about sex has implications for how the teacher will talk to the class about the changes of puberty and answer questions about sex, reproduction, and growing up. There is a need to achieve balance between concerns that giving “too much” information will be harmful to the children who have not visibly started to develop and, at the other end of the spectrum, concerns that early maturing children need to know more explicit and complete information before they become involved in sexual behaviors. My proposal here is to separate children according to their developmental needs and to engage them in educational activities which are most appropriate for each of them. The majority will participate in the basic puberty education ( a video and question/answer session) along with the integrated application of social skills being taught though
. The precocious 20% should have additional lessons. Programs that work best at helping this group avoid or reduce their risk-taking behaviors are intense and ongoing interventions which take place over time. They include skills-building for anticipating and avoiding potentially risky situations as well as handling them. Practicing skills is of critical importance in building the confidence to use them. Successful programs also aim to modify community norms, improve access to health care and devices like condoms which are necessary for safer practices, and are provided before the initiation of sexual activity. These high risk students need to participate in an after-school or weekend group to receive this ideal type of intervention. Some suggestions for working with them are included in the chart and sample lessons below.
“The most important thing that we can know about a person is what s/he takes for granted, and the most important and elemental facts about a society are those things that are seldom debated and genrally regarded as settled.”(17) The third dimension of student diversity which I want to address is the variety of
ethnic, religious and cultural
traditions, beliefs and values which students bring from their family experience concerning sexual relationships; and how, when and what young people should learn about human sexuality. Many of these attitudes and beliefs are taken for granted. These include a wide range of attitudes towards communicating with young people about puberty and sex, from those who feel any discussion of sex between adults and children is taboo (as in many Hispanic communities) to those who feel that parents should be talking with their children in age-appropriate ways about sex from the earliest ages on up. “With social change and acculturation, a rift may appear between what is taught in the family and what is emphasized in social institutions. Children and adolescents often become victims of incompatible demands.”(18) The teacher needs to recognize, accept and respect these divergent, and sometimes conflicting, attitudes and beliefs. S/he needs to clearly articulate the rationale for any sex or puberty education so that parents and students can understand the public health necessity for it.
Moreover, in “A Youth Leader’s Guide to Building Cultural Competence”(19), the authors highlight the many aspects of cultural diversity which influence a student’s ability to learn and to which a culturally competent teacher must pay attention. These include language and communication style, health beliefs, family relationships, gender roles (whether boys should know more about sex than girls, who’s responsible for childrearing), religion (both the beliefs and the social role), level of acculturation (how much of the traditional ways remain in effect), immigration status, political power, racism, poverty and economic concerns, and any history of oppression. An adult working with young people about sexuality education needs also to consider the following questions concerning sexuality: how do people of the same gender express feelings of closeness to each other; are certain sexual acts taboo; how is masturbation viewed; how is homosexuality viewed; how and between whom is communication about sexuality approved or forbidden.
The culturally competent teacher has become familiar with the cultural differences in meaning of children’s behavior in the classroom, including which gestures and body language indicate respect versus disrespect. For some cultural groups, including the dominant culture in the US, making eye contact shows respect for an adult. However, it shows utter disrespect in some Asian and Hispanic cultures. Moreover, socio-economic factors can profoundly affect beliefs such as the taboo, or lack of it, concerning teenage pregnancy. Young people living in poverty may have different expectations about what is possible to accomplish in this life and therefore have different opinions about the value versus the hardship of getting pregnant while still in high school. “When we consider teenagers raised in poverty—hungry, afraid of the violence and death that stalk the streets, lacking adequate medical care and social supports—we should not be surprised that our messages to say no or use contraceptives do not work. Pregnancy [or HIV] may seem like the least of their worries. In addition to comprehensive health and sexuality education services, we must provide programs that can deliver a range of educational and social services to help them develop a belief in their futures and motivate them to avoid pregnancy [and disease].(20) “For African-Americans and Latinos who live in poverty, having children is often the only way they have to prove that they are socially productive and to demonstrate their manhood or womanhood.“(21) They might feel, as well, that their body and their sexuality are the only things in life over which they can exercise control. This logically leads to the feeling that sex is a private arena and that outsiders (such as public health officials and educators) have no business telling them what to do with it.
The aural/oral tradition is a vital part of African-American tradition and can be a powerful tool for education. It is logical to use fables, stories, and proverbs to illustrate the concepts one is trying to teach. This can readily be extended to include analyzing current music videos, songs and raps. Some suggestions for incorporating this technique are included in the chart and sample lessons below.