Teacher Resource: Are Schools Teaching Sex Ed Too Late?

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Puberty education often starts at 5th grade, which is often too late.
Puberty education often starts at 5th grade, which is often too late.


As of today, about half of the states in the U.S. require public schools to teach some form of sex education. In many places, these classes begin with information about puberty starting when kids are in fifth or sixth grade. Yet there is a growing body of evidence that puberty (for both girls and boys) in America is beginning earlier than in previous generations. Researchers are debating the phenomenon’s possible links to environmental chemicals, childhood obesity, and family stress. But regardless of cause, this trend means more and more kids are already well into puberty by the time sex education happens in school.

Dr. Louise Greenspan, a pediatric endocrinologist with Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco who is studying the causes and effects of early puberty, told a reporter from Youth Radio that making the transition easier for kids means bringing puberty education into schools earlier.

“I really feel like I’m on a mission now to make sure that people understand that teaching kids about puberty in fifth grade is way too late,” she said.

This school year, The Chicago Board of Education implemented a new sexual health policy that starts the conversation (beginning with the names of reproductive body parts and the difference between good/bad touching) in Kindergarten. It’s a big departure from the district’s previous sex-ed policy, in which older students were taught “abstinence as the expected norm.” Now, sex education in the district is tailored to each grade level.

Do Now

Given evidence that many girls and boys are physically maturing faster than previous decades, do you think schools should start sex-ed at a younger age? When is the right time to start talking to kids about their changing bodies, and what are the best ways to have that conversation? Who should educate kids about puberty — parents or schools or both?

To respond to the Do Now, you can comment below or tweet your response. Be sure to begin your tweet with @KQEDedspace and end it with #DoNowSexEd


NPR radio segment: Puberty Is Coming Earlier, But That Doesn’t Mean Sex Ed Is

Let's talk about sex

This past Fall, Youth Radio teen reporter Donisha Dansby visited some Bay Area schools, to listen in and find out what it’s like for kids who start puberty early — before it’s talked about in the classroom. One Bay Area fourth grader Youth Radio spoke to was six when she says she started getting underarm hair and wearing deodorant. She was nine when she started wearing a bra. At the time she talked to Youth Radio, she hadn’t yet received any puberty education at school — which left the conversation to her mom. “Honestly, it made me feel a little uncomfortable, but I did my best,” her mom says. “I just brought her home some bras and I said, ‘Here!’ And she put them on.”

More Resources

CDE resource: Health Education Content Standards for California Public Schools
California has health education standards for each grade, including topics like hygiene and nutrition. Under the current standards, sex education does not begin until 5th grade.

Huff Post article: Sex-Ed Needs K-12 Foundation Like Math, According To New Standards
In 2013, The Chicago Board of Education approved a new sexual health education policy that would start sexual health education starting in Kindergarten. “Clearly we won’t be talking about sexually transmitted infections in kindergarten,” said Stephanie Whyte, Chief Health Officer for Chicago Public Schools. “But we’re talking about ‘good touch, bad touch,’ my body, living things reproduce, family, feelings, bullying.”

NPR radio segment: Like Girls, Boys Are Entering Puberty Earlier
Even though most of the research on earlier puberty has focused on girls, it appears that boys are also maturing faster than previous decades. A 2012 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that American boys are also entering puberty between six months and two years earlier than in earlier studies. The reasons why aren’t completely clear, but some scientists say obesity or estrogen-like chemicals in the environment may be to blame.

SF Gate article Youth Radio: College students reflect on 30 years of HIV/AIDS
It’s been over 30 years since the official discovery of HIV/AIDS, an disease which altered the conversation about safer sex and sex education in the United States. Youth Radio’s Asha Richardson talks to several California college students about the pros and cons of how they were educated about sex, and how it impacted their relationship choices as adults.

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