How can we know if sex education works?
As in any academic subject, sex education is most effective when it is taught in a sequential, age-appropriate manner, beginning when students are young and continuing through the twelfth grade. Lessons will include some intentional repetition of topics. Due to the wide range of developmental stages among adolescents, some students may be interested and ready to learn about puberty and sexuality earlier than others. In addition, repetition is a good reinforcement for past learning. So, how can we know if sex education works? Read on…
Adapted Health Belief Model
However, research has shown that knowledge alone will not change behavior. To ensure healthy behavior, four factors must be present:
- Knowledge: Students need functional knowledge about their bodies, reproductive anatomy and function, what to expect during puberty, and potential consequences of sexual behavior.
- Self-Efficacy: Students need to have a sense of vulnerability for negative consequences, balanced with a sense of control over their personal decisions.
- Skills: Students must be able to practice and perfect the skills they need to behave in a healthy manner, such as communication and refusal skills for sexual situations.
- Environmental Support: Students must have support for their healthy choices from their families, friends, school, and community in order to maintain healthy behavior.
Effective sexuality education provides students with information, builds self-efficacy, teaches skills, and encourages the use of those skills outside the classroom. Sexuality education curriculum must guide students in developing skills that allow them to behave in ways that promote positive reproductive health and prevent the negative consequences of premature sexual activity.
To be most effective, lessons should teach skills by following a four-step process called skill-based instruction:
- Explain the skill and motivate the student to learn it.
- Model or demonstrate the skill.
- Have each student practice the skill and receive feedback that helps perfect the skill.
- Apply the new skill to real life.
For students to put these skills into daily practice, we must also elicit cooperation among home, school, and community to provide an environment for young people that is supportive of these desired behaviors. Given that parents and families are the primary sex educators and the ones who teach family values and set the expectations for behavior outside of school, effective sexuality education engages families in the modeling and reinforcement of the information and skills taught.
For more information on the characteristics of effective sex education programs,
- Puberty: The Wonder Years Evaluation
- What Makes Curriculum Effective blog post
- What Makes Curriculum Effective? pdf
- Characteristics of Effective Sex Ed Programs