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Skills for Educators

All Skills for Educators

Working with Young Children: Using Teachable Moments to Respond to Children's Questions and Behaviors about their Bodies

By Peggy Brick

This month's educator skill shows you how you can help children grow up sexually healthy by responding positively to their questions and behavior regarding their bodies. It includes the following:


It doesn't take much time — just a heightened awareness and commitment — for elementary teachers to give children clear and positive messages about their bodies that can lay the foundation for their sexual health. Far more powerful than occasional formal lessons are the teacher's daily use of "teachable moments" that respond directly to a child's question or to interactions between children. This month's educator skill is designed help educators utilize daily opportunities to promote children's appreciation of their own bodies and respect for the bodies of others.

The Goals of Using Teachable Moments

Teachers can use teachable moments to help children:

  • Respect and appreciate their bodies.

  • Have an accurate vocabulary for learning about bodies.

  • Feel good about themselves as males or females and be aware of the many opportunities available to them regardless of their gender.

  • Receive accurate, age-appropriate information about the questions they ask.

  • Understand their own body rights and respect the body rights of others.

The Facts about Childhood Sexuality

Many adults are confused when they hear the words "childhood sexuality" because they equate sexuality with intercourse. Of course, sexuality is much more than sexual intercourse; it is our entire self as girl or boy, man or woman — including thoughts, experiences, learning, ideas, values and imaginings as these relate to being male or female.

Sexuality includes gender identity (the core sense that we are male or female) and gender role (the idea of how we should behave because we are male or female. Sexuality is a basic part of who we are. It affects how we feel about ourselves and all our relationships with others. We are learning about our sexuality from the day we are born, and children in the early elementary grades are very busy trying to figure it all out — all the time.

A Quick Quiz

To be sure you understand some of the key facts about sexuality in young children, look at each of the following statements and decide if it is true or false, then follow the link to the answers to see what the research tells us about children's sexual development.

1. Even if there is no formal program, children learn about sexuality in elementary school.

2. Most early elementary children are fearful of sexual topics.
3. A person's body image begins to form in infancy.
4. Children can understand that masturbation is a private activity.
5. Young children understand human sexuality best when it is taught using plants and other animals as examples.
6. Healthy and natural sex play usually occurs between friends and playmates of about the same age.
7. Early elementary children are likely to become upset if they learn how babies are actually born.

8. Young children who have received age-appropriate sexuality education are less likely to be sexually exploited and abused.

9. Boys begin to get erections when they enter puberty.
10. Children become curious about sexual intercourse when they are nine or ten years old.
11. When children do not have access to the facts about sexuality, they are less likely to worry about it.
12. Adult responses to a child's sexual questions and behaviors will be important in the child's feelings of the goodness or badness of sexual matters.

Answers to the Quick Quiz


Guidelines for Using Teachable Moments

There's nothing new about "teachable moments." Good elementary teachers frequently seize these golden opportunities to promote the intellectual and social development of their students. However, most have not been trained to utilize teachable moments in the support of attitudes and behaviors that are central to children's healthy sexual development.

The following tips may help you prepare for this responsibility:

  1. Know that it's OK to feel unsure. At the start, you may not feel comfortable answering children's questions regarding sexual issues. You may be uncertain how to design your interventions in a way that helps the children feel positive about their own bodies and the rights of others.

  2. Be proactive. Sometimes teachers miss opportunities to give a brief positive message — especially about the "okayness" of body differences. Keep your eyes and ears open for chances to help children feel that their bodies are good, that they do not need to conform to gender stereotypes, that they are capable of making good decisions.

  3. Make your responses simple. When answering elementary children's questions, less is better than more. Begin with the simplest explanations and give more details only if the children continue to be interested or ask more questions.

  4. Practice will help. Imagine the hardest questions, then practice answering them. Think back on difficult situations and imagine how a different intervention might have given a more positive message about body rights and responsibilities. Remember too that each time you respond it will get easier and more comfortable. (See the Practice Session below.)

  5. Keep your tone of voice calm and matter-of-fact. It will help to keep you "shockproof" if you remember that the meaning for children's questions and behaviors is often very different from "adult" meanings.

  6. Be aware of your body language. Children often "tune in" more to your behaviors than to your words. They may become confused if your words and your body are giving different messages. For example, be sure to look at the child and smile when you say, "I'm glad you asked that question."


Teachable Moments: Answering Children's Questions

Many teachers find the following guidelines useful. Of course, the language you use with each child or group of children will depend on your style and your knowledge of that particular child or group.

  1. Reassure the child that it is good to ask questions.
    Affirming a question may be more important than the answer itself. It makes you "askable," someone the child can depend on for help in understanding the world. You might say:

    • "That's a good question."
    • "Good for you for seeing that."
    • "I'm glad you asked!"
  1. Find out what the child thinks and is really asking.

    You might find out by asking:

    • "Can you guess?"
    • "What do you think?"
    • "Have you any ideas about that?"
    • "What have you heard about that?"

    For example:
    When a pregnant mother leaves the classroom, five-year-old Peter asks, "Why is that lady's stomach so big?" He might be wondering if there is something wrong with her.

    For example:
    When 7-year-old Jasmine asks, "Why don't I have a weenie like my brother?" she may be wondering about the differences between boys and girls, if there something missing in girls or if boys are better than girls.

  2. Decide what "messages" you want to give.

    Your messages might include:

    • It's good to ask me questions.
    • It's good to be curious about these things.
    • You can learn correct words from me.
    • You are fine just the way you are.

  3. Answer honestly and simply and use correct vocabulary.

    For example:
    When Peter asks his question about the pregnant woman's stomach, you might say:

    • "That woman is going to have a baby."
    • "She's pregnant."
    • "There's a fetus growing in a special part of her body called the uterus. It's not in her stomach."

    For example:
    When Jasmine asks her question about her brother's "weenie," you might say:

    • "Because you're a girl, you have a special body part called a vulva. Your brother has a penis because he's a boy."
    • "Girls and boys have some body parts that are different. A girl has a vulva and clitoris; a boy has a penis and scrotum."

  4. Encourage the child to give you feedback.

    You might ask:
    • "Do you understand?"
    • "Does that make sense?"
    • "Do you have any more questions?"
    • "What do you think about that?"

  5. If appropriate, help the child find resources for additional learning.

    For example:
    You might show Peter a book such as Did the Sun Shine Before You Were Born? which has clear diagrams showing the stomach and a uterus with a fetus. It has outline drawings of a boy and a girl complete with genitals. A good selection of books is very important for elementary students who need pictures to help them understand confusing concepts regarding reproduction. For additional resources, see the resource section of this month's Topic in Brief.


Practice Session

Questions to Practice Answering

Below are questions children have asked their elementary teachers. Although your answers would vary depending on what you discovered the child was really asking, you can practice by giving a general response:

Questions from Kindergarten, First and Second Graders:

  1. Why do boys have penises?
  2. Why is there blood on babies when they are being born?
  3. Why do people get pregnant?
  4. What is it like to be a man?
  5. Why do mothers and fathers fight?
  6. Why does your body change when you grow up?
  7. Why do people get married?
  8. How does a baby grow in your mom's body?
  9. Why do people get divorced?
  10. Where does the baby come from?
  11. What is it like to be a mother?

Questions from Third and Fourth Graders:

  1. What is it like to be a parent?
  2. Why are some people born boys and girls? Why can't we have choices?
  3. Why is everyone embarrassed to say the right words?
  4. Why do men have breasts?
  5. Why can't boys be kind?
  6. Why do people abuse kids?
  7. Why does it take nine months to have a baby born?
  8. How do babies come out of the mom's tummy?
  9. Why are some children born with birth defects?
  10. Why do children run away from home?
  11. What is the difference between boys and girls?
  12. How does nuclear power affect our genes?


Select a question above or choose one a child has asked you.

1. What could s/he really be asking? (What is the meaning behind it?)



2. What question could you ask to find out the meaning of the question?



3. What "messages" do you want to impart in your response?



4. Write one response that would give the message you want to give:



5. What could you say to encourage the child to give you feedback?




Teachable Moments: Reinforcing Body Rights and Responsibilities

Every day teachers can use common situations in the classrooms to teach assertiveness and empathy skills and to give abuse prevention messages.

Key teacher messages:

  1. Your body belongs to you, and you have the right to decide who may touch it.

  2. Speak up and tell others when you do not like what they are doing to you or your body.

  3. Each person's body belongs to him/herself. Touch other people only if they want to be touched and you want to touch them.

Six Steps for Reinforcing Body Rights and Responsibilities Through the Use of Teachable Moments

  1. Describe the behavior.

  2. Check the meaning of the behavior with the child/children.

  3. Encourage children to express their feelings and "speak up" for themselves.

  4. Help children understand how another child is feeling.

  5. Give clear guidelines about the behavior you expect.

  6. Help children search for alternatives in difficult situations.
For example:
Sharon puts her arm around Monica's shoulder. Monica says nothing but pulls away and frowns.

Teacher: "Sharon, I see you have your arm around Monica. Monica, do you want Sharon to put her arm around you?"

Monica: "NO!"

Teacher: "Then, tell her to stop."

Teacher: "Sharon, does Monica want you to put your arm around her?"

Sharon: "Sure."

Teacher: "Monica, is that true?"

Monica: Shakes her head "no."

Teacher: "Sharon, Monica says she does not want you to touch her. I do not want you to touch someone's body when that person tells you they don't want you to."

Imagine that a few minutes later, Sharon again has her arm around Monica. This time Monica is saying, "Stop it, Sharon. Take your arm off me!" But Sharon does not remove her arm.

Teacher: "Monica, what can you do if Sharon keeps her arm around you when you have asked her not to?"

Monica: "Move away. Tell someone."

Teacher: "Sharon, I am very concerned that you are touching Monica when she has told you not to. Do not do that again."

Note: The teacher is teaching:
  1. Assertiveness — helping Monica speak up for herself.
  2. Empathy — asking Sharon to assess how Monica is feeling.
  3. Clear guidelines for behavior: touch people only when they want to be touched.
  4. Finding alternatives in difficult situations.

Of course, the power of this six-step strategy is not in one or two encounters, but in the teacher's routine repetition of the process throughout the entire year.

When Teachable Moments Don't Work!

If a child's behavior continues after the teacher has repeatedly given clear messages that it is unacceptable, the teacher will need to assess the child's total situation. Inappropriate sex-related behaviors may indicate a child needs help if:

  1. The child consistently teases, embarrasses or makes fun of other children.

  2. The behavior is compulsive, repetitive, chronic, or the child is preoccupied with it.

  3. The child's affect is intense, anxious, secretive, confused, brooding, or angry instead of playful.

  4. The child exhibits developmentally precocious behavior and/or knowledge as compared with the child's community/cultural/peer group/family norms.

  5. The behavior occurs between children of widely dissimilar ages.


Practice Session

Body Rights and Responsibilities: Typical Teachable Moments from Elementary Schools

  1. The boys are playing a game of kickball. A girl tries to get into the game and the boys yell, "No girls!"

  2. You come upon two six-year-olds; he has his pants down, and she's looking at his penis.

  3. A boy fondles a girl's buttocks.

  4. Two children tease a girl saying, "You're fat and ugly."

  5. Four girls keep chasing a popular boy who seems upset about it.

  6. A boy watches the girls playing jump rope and the other boys yell, "Faggot, faggot!"

  7. A boy, seven, sits at his desk with his hand in pocket, fondling his penis. Another student calls out, "Joey's playing with his thing."

  8. A child tells the teacher, "Kisha keeps kissing me!"

  9. A small, awkward boy reports, "They won't let me play."

  10. Two girls are discussing their diets — they want to look like Britney Spears.


Imagine yourself responding to one of the situations above, or one you have had to deal with in your own classroom. Of course, your responses would depend on how the child/ren have responded to you, but if you practice, you can become familiar with this very helpful process.

1. Describe the behavior. (Being sure the child/ren understand what behavior you are addressing.)



2. Check the meaning of the behavior to the child/ren.



3. Ask the child/ren to "speak up" for themselves.



4. (If appropriate to this situation) ask the child/ren how they think the other child is feeling.



5. Give clear guidelines about the behavior you expect.



6. (If appropriate to this situation) ask the child/ren what alternatives they have in this situation.



Answers to Quick Quiz

1. TRUE. Elementary children are filled with curiosity — eager to discover what it means to be a boy or a girl, how their bodies work, how to relate to others. This early learning about sexuality is inevitable. The question is whether it will be haphazard or carefully planned so teachers give children positive feelings about being male or female, about their bodies, and about respectful ways to interact with others.

2. FALSE. As most teachers know, children are full of questions about bodies, birth and babies. In fact, since children are exposed to increasingly sexualized media, they are worried if they don't get appropriate responses to their questions and concerns about what they see and hear in their daily lives.

3. TRUE. Right from the start, adults give children messages about their bodies, including the genitals. Diapering, toilet training, naming of body parts — all reveal adult attitudes. When adults fail to name the genitals or when they give private parts silly names, the child is less prepared to integrate these parts of their bodies into a positive concept of self.

4. TRUE. When children learn to distinguish between private and public places, they can understand that masturbation is a private activity appropriate only in private places. A simple reminder from an adult about public/private avoids making the child feel guilty for masturbating.

5. FALSE. Although young children love watching the baby chicks hatch or the hamsters have babies, these events do not address elements of choice, decision-making and love that are so central to human sexual behavior.

6. TRUE. Occasional games of doctor, or "show me yours, I'll show you mine" are expected behaviors among young children. However, when there is more than a three-year difference in age between children, power differences make sex play a cause for concern.

7. FALSE. Developmentally speaking, the child at four is curious about the baby developing in the woman's "tummy." At five, she wants to know how it gets out and by six is asking how it got in. These are existential questions that the child will answer somehow — imagining, for example, eating watermelon seeds as the way in and belly buttons as the way out. Simple, accurate answers give the child a sense of competence and security.

8. TRUE. Of course, there's no pretending that sexuality education can prevent all child abuse, but a child who has learned that it's OK to talk about sexuality, who has names for her genitals and understands they are private, and has learned she has a right to say "no" to unwanted touch is at less risk. Children without age-appropriate knowledge are more vulnerable to an abuser's definition of things.

9. FALSE. In fact, males have erections in utero and continue to have them during childhood when most masturbate. Lack of understanding that masturbation is harmless and normal leads many boys and girls to feel guilty about the pleasure they receive from masturbating. This guilt may lead to sexual problems in later life.

10. FALSE. In fact, much earlier than nine or ten, most children have learned confusing and inaccurate ideas about intercourse from peers and the media. Once a child perceives, as many do, that the responsible adults in his life are reluctant to talk about sexual issues, he is forced to rely on unreliable sources for this important information.

11. FALSE. In fact, children handle the facts about sexuality just fine. For many, it is the lack of information, the confusing explicit sex in the media and the profound silence of many of the valued adults in their lives, that is worrisome.

12. TRUE. For example, every time an adult responds honestly and age-appropriately to a child's question about a sexuality issue, the child is learning that it's OK to ask questions about sex, that sex is not a bad and hidden mystery but something you can talk about and learn about from adults you trust.

Parts of this lesson were adapted with permission from Brick, Peggy, Montfort, Sue, and Blume, Nancy. Healthy Foundations: The Teacher's Book — Responding to Young Children's Questions and Behaviors Regarding Sexuality. ©1993 by Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey. (973) 539-9580. All rights reserved.


About the Author
Peggy Brick, M.Ed., is a sexuality education consultant and trainer. Formerly a high school teacher, she has trained professionals nationwide, including thousands of pre-school and elementary school teachers. She has authored more than 50 articles and numerous teaching manuals on sexual health education, including: Bodies, Birth and Babies: Sexuality Education in Early Childhood Programs and Healthy Foundations, The Teacher's Book and Healthy Foundations: Developing Positive Policies and Programs Regarding Young Children's Learning about Sexuality. Email: