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Topics In Brief

All Topics In Brief

Working with Preteens

This edition of Topic in Brief includes the following sections:


This edition of ReCAPP focuses on preteens. Preteen-aged youth are likely to be experiencing rapid physical development at the same time they are building relationships and ready to explore their sexuality. In this edition, we will focus on taking advantage of opportunities to establish communication and help preteens safely navigate their journey of self-discovery.


"Preteens" refers to young people in 4th, 5th, 6th and/or 7th grades, or who are about 9-12 years old. During these years — also called "early adolescence" or "preadolescence" — youth grow and change physically, socially and psychologically. Youth at this age may:

  • Enter puberty. Some girls enter puberty as early as age 10; boys typically enter puberty at age 12.

  • Become more modest and tend to seek privacy more often.

  • Experience emotional ups and downs and struggle for more independence.

  • Develop romantic crushes on friends, older teens, music and movie stars, or sometimes teachers and counselors.

  • Continue to attach importance to same-sex friends. Often, cliques form at this time.

  • Feel awkward about themselves and wonder, "Am I normal?"

  • Be strongly influenced by their peer group, even if parents remain their most important source of values.

  • Continue to learn society's expectations about appropriate behavior, and may become preoccupied with how their peers dress and behave.

  • Masturbate to orgasm.

  • Begin to use sexual language and enjoy romantic or sexual fantasies.

  • Face decisions about sex and drugs. Moreover, because they may have little experience dealing with the consequences of their decisions, they may not realize the potential impact of their actions and take risks unknowingly.

  • Consider or initiate sexual intercourse.

    (When Sex Is The Subject, 1991)


An Overview of the Issues

Many sexuality educators believe that we as Americans offer our children too little information too late. In fact, research suggests that sexuality education is most effective when youth are not yet sexually active (Kirby, 1992). Educator and author Pam Wilson (The Sexuality Education Challenge, 1994) finds that teachers often "want to have open, honest discussions" with their preteen students but feel held back by lack of support from school administrators and parents. Expressing concern, Wilson states that "if our goal is to encourage the development of sexually healthy adults, we must start early to promote positive attitudes and important skills."

Other professionals recommend that adults share more sexual health information with preteens. Some physicians, for example, share the belief that youth, especially girls, should learn about sexual health sooner than they do now (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, December 19, 2001). According to Dr. Ursula Steadman, OB/GYN with the University of Connecticut Health Center, doctors are responsible to provide good reproductive health information to preteens. Steadman advises that a girl should be offered an opportunity "to discuss issues that she is not comfortable talking about with her parents" at the onset of puberty, before she becomes sexually active. Steadman notes that, since girls are beginning menstruation as early as age 10 or 11, pediatricians should also routinely discuss reproductive health issues with their preteen patients (Waldman, Hartford Courant, 12/18).

An issue which often accompanies the physiological changes for youth at this age is the challenge of their school experience. Most students encounter a transition within the school setting from elementary to middle or junior high school. This transition is difficult for some preteens who are not ready for the added responsibility and independence. When their difficult transition from elementary school is followed by negative experiences during middle school, odds increase that a teenage girl will drop out of school and risk becoming pregnant. So preteens experiencing difficulty in school deserve special attention. (Get Organized, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 1999)

Establishing good communication with preteens is especially important while they are experiencing so many physical and emotional changes. Many teens benefit from talking about these changes. However, communicating about sexuality is very individual, and preteens vary greatly in how they approach the subject of sex. Some young people ask questions freely and often, while others are able to ask a question only when particularly puzzled by something. Still others never ask questions, which may be explained by many reasons, including:

  • They may not have a curious nature.
  • They may be shy, embarrassed, or feel a sense of shame about the subject.
  • They may prefer to find their own answers.
  • They may have picked up the message from adults around them that it's not okay to talk about sexuality.

    (When Sex Is The Subject, 1991)

However, one question that is often on the minds of preteens whether or not it is expressed, directly or indirectly, is "Am I normal?" Many preteens have doubts about whether their own developmental changes are normal and how they compare to their peers. The discomfort of having to ask if they are normal, coupled with a fear of learning that they aren't, makes some preteens dread initiating communication with adults about these sensitive issues. Therefore, adults should take responsibility for providing adequate opportunities to enable open communication with young people in a safe environment.

Health and sexuality education programs which stimulate communication between preteens and adults must be carefully considered and sensitively crafted. According to Pam Wilson (The Sexuality Education Challenge, 1994), "the messages that children receive in response to questions leave a lasting imprint on their sexual development, . . . [so] we educators must carefully critique the concepts that come through in the content, process, and environment of our programs."


What Educators Can Do

It's important that educators thoughtfully choose reproductive health and sexuality programs for their content and process and incorporate a learning environment that preteens feel comfortable participating in. Preteen youth are generally open to hearing new information. However, educators can enhance learning by setting aside adequate time for students to be reflective, time to think about how the information might apply to their own lives.

In addition, a comfortable learning environment can be fostered by setting groundrules or classroom conditions designed for students to feel safe while sharing with each other and expressing their feelings or questions.

Other suggestions for educators who work with preteens include the following:

  • Engage parents as partners. Inform your students' parents in advance about your program's content and values. Involving parents from the start can help reassure them that you respect their role as their children's primary educators. You can also assign homework that students can complete with their parents. Then, at the end of your program, send home an evaluation form for parents to provide their input about the program.

  • Use teachable moments. According to educator and author Peggy Brick, (The Sexuality Education Challenge, 1994), "Teachable moments, essential for a meaningful approach to children's sexual learning, are likely to be overlooked or misused unless teachers have had training in recognizing them and significant opportunity to rehearse using them." Try to enhance your comfort level in responding to teachable moments. If training is not available, you can form a coalition of educators to help each other address these aspects of professional development. An organized group of educators can support one another in recognizing teachable moments, developing responses and practicing responses together.

  • Take off your "adult glasses" when talking to young people. Understand what they are really asking when they ask a question, remembering that young people are more concrete thinkers than adults. Some general guidelines to follow when you respond to them:
    • Be honest and authentic in answering their questions.

    • Answer their questions with concrete, age-appropriate language, (e.g., sometimes less is more).

    • It is important to use clear, non-technical words and straightforward explanations.

      (See this month's Educator Skill entitled Answering Preteens' questions about Sexuality for more information.)


  • Remember that girls and boys develop at different rates. Preteen boys tend to laugh, disrupt the discussion and avoid talking about their feelings whereas girls may show more interest in listening, asking questions and learning from classroom activities. For this reason, some teachers prefer to separate boys from girls for sexuality education classes. Even so, many experts suggest at least some mixed gender classes to encourage dialogue between all youth. Since many elementary school teachers are female, finding adult role models who can transcend gender role stereotypes can be very important. This may require finding and using male teachers who can be trained to facilitate sessions with boys.

  • Be aware of cultural influences. Preteen social development is shaped by many environmental factors, including religion, ethnicity, and popular culture such as television, movies and music. Knowledge of these factors — as well as the ability to weave references to them throughout learning activities — can keep educators and other adults plugged into the world that preteens inhabit. Moreover, educators should have an awareness of the types of influences that will affect their students' beliefs and values to make their teaching — and students' learning — more meaningful.

  • Teach and model tolerance. Too often, children are cruel and tease each other over differences in appearance. It is not surprising then that differences in gender identification or sexual orientation (even a hint of it) are an especially dangerous weapon used for harassment. Teachers should be on the lookout for harassment and seek ways to "foster an environment of tolerance and to educate children about the impact prejudice and discrimination has on all of us." (Wilson, The Sexuality Education Challenge, 1994)

  • Encourage young people to support and help each other work through their insecurities. Look for occasions to teach youth that they have the knowledge and empathy to help each other during many difficult times. While preteens may not have much life experience and don't have all the answers, learning to listen to each other with caring and concern may be enough to help their peers, especially those who feel isolated. Educators should model and reinforce supportive behavior during class time to ensure the same quality of interaction outside of school. Learning how to give and receive emotional support can lead to positive social development, meaningful relationships, and feelings of connectedness throughout life.



More Information/Resources

Organizations and web sites with information on working with preteens:

  • Planned Parenthood Federation of America
    810 Seventh Avenue
    New York, NY 10019

  • ETR Associates
    4 Carbonero Way
    Scotts Valley, CA 95066

  • Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS)
    130 West 42nd Street, Suite 350
    New York, NY 10036

  • Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI)
    120 Wall Street
    New York, NY 10005

  • National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
    2100 M Street NW, Suite 300
    Washington, DC 20037

  • Advocates for Youth
    1025 Vermont Avenue NW
    Suite 200
    Washington, DC 20005

  • Kaiser Family Foundation
    2400 Sand Hill Road
    Menlo Park, CA 94025

  • Girls Incorporated
    120 Wall Street
    New York, NY 10005-3902

  • National Education Association
    1201 16th Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20036

  • National Parent Teacher Association
    330 N. Wabash Avenue, Suite 2100
    Chicago, IL 60611

  • National Association for the Education of Young Children
    1509 16th Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20036-1426

  • The Network for Family Life Education
    Rutgers, The State University
    100 Joyce Kilmer Avenue
    Piscataway, NJ 08854-8045

  • National Network for Youth
    1319 F St., NW, Suite 401
    Washington, DC 20004

  • American Social Health Association (ASHA)
    PO Box 13827
    Research Triangle Park, NC 27709


Suggested books and curricula:

  • Our Whole Lives
    (a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum)
    Unitarian Universalist Association
    25 Beacon Street
    Boston, MA 02108

  • When I'm Grown
    (a life skills program in three volumes)
    Advocates for Youth
    1025 Vermont Avenue NW
    Suite 200
    Washington, DC 20005

  • The What's Happening to My Body? Book for Girls . . A Growing Up Guide for Parents and Daughters
    By Lynda Madaras
    Newmarket Press
    New York, NY, 1988

  • The What's Happening to My Body? Book for Boys . . A Growing Up Guide for Parents and Sons
    By Lynda Madaras
    Newmarket Press
    New York, NY, 1988

  • Get Organized: A Guide to Preventing Teen Pregnancy (Volume 1: Focusing on the Kids)
    Edited by Tamara Kreinin, Susan Kuhn, Anne Brown Rodgers, and John Hutchins
    The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
    Washington, DC, 1999

  • Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education . . Kindergarten - 12th Grade
    National Guidelines Task Force
    Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS)
    New York, NY, 1992

  • The Sexuality Education Challenge . . Promoting Healthy Sexuality in Young People
    Edited by Judy C. Drolet & Kay Clark
    ETR Associates
    Santa Cruz, CA, 1994

  • Teach & Talk . . The Subject is Sex
    By Pamela Wilson, Marcia Quackenbush, and William H. Kane
    ETR Associates
    Santa Cruz, CA, 2001

  • Sex … The Facts, The Acts & Your Feelings
    By Dr. Michael Carrera
    Crown Publishers Inc.
    New York, NY, 1981

  • The NiteStar Program
    (a theater-based prevention program for 5th-6th graders)
    St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center
    1111 Amsterdam Ave, Scrymser 1
    New York, NY 10025


Suggested videos: