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Topics In Brief

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Working with Young Children (K-3)

This edition of ReCAPP focuses on working with young children and helping to promote healthy attitudes toward their physical development and sexuality. Educators and other adults can consciously pass on certain messages that will help young children develop self-esteem and positive attitudes toward sexuality as well as encourage responsibility for their personal health.

In this edition, we will focus on recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities to relay positive messages to young children. Starting early in childhood to promote positive messages will help set the stage for healthy adolescence and prevention of teen pregnancy.

The following sections are included in this column:


Young children — refers to children in early elementary school, from kindergarten through 3rd grade, or kids about four to eight years old. During these years, children begin to move into the world outside their homes. They begin to see themselves differently and adapt to new social situations. At this age, children may:

  • Show interest in sex play and masturbation.

  • Be very curious about pregnancy and birth.

  • Have strong same-sex friendships. Girls tend to form close intimate friendships with one or two other girls. Boys tend to play in larger groups, and their play is rougher and more oriented around activities.

  • Show strong interest in stereotypical male/female roles, regardless of parents' approach to child rearing.

  • Have a basic sexual orientation.

  • Have a new awareness of authority figures. They may see teachers as knowing more than parents.

  • Compare their own situations with those of peers and complain about lack of fairness.

  • Begin to notice peer group style of dress and speech. At this age, boys experience more pressure than girls to adhere to sex-role expectations in areas such as choice of toys, hobbies, clothing and hair styles.

  • Engage in name calling and teasing.

(The Subject is Sex, 2001)


An Overview of the Issues

Early elementary school is a time when many children begin to distinguish acceptable from unacceptable behaviors, and adults can strongly influence those behaviors. As Peggy Brick, former Director of Training and Education at Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey, points out, "In every classroom, teachers give messages related to sexuality: children see how the teacher acts as a male or female; responds to sex-related behavior, comments or jokes; sets expectations for boys and girls; and includes, or fails to include, information on sexuality issues."

Brick adds, "The question is not whether children will receive sex education in schools — they will — but whether the learning will be haphazard or thoughtfully designed to lay the foundation for development toward sexually healthy adulthood." (The Sexuality Education Challenge, ETR Associates, 1994)

A noted curriculum developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association's Sexuality Education Task Force reinforces the idea of delivering healthy messages to children. According to Our Whole Lives, Sexuality Education For Grades K-1 (Sprung, 1999), "Leaders of children in this age group are among the first adults outside the family to have a strong influence on children's perception of the larger community. The opportunity to build trust and a sense of comfort is one to cherish and handle with great care."

"Educators and other adults should appreciate that they have an "important role in helping children begin to understand and learn about themselves and their own sexuality — a crucial step to becoming healthy and responsible adults." Young children have many questions about themselves and the world around them, "from bodies to birth to babies and families. How parents and leaders respond to these questions sends messages to children about themselves as sexual beings."


What Educators Can Do

In "Sexuality Education in the Early Elementary Classroom," a chapter written by Peggy Brick in the book The Sexuality Education Challenge (ETR Associates, 1994), Brick lays out the following 12 ways that educators and other adults can help children grow up sexually healthy:

  • Provide equal opportunities for girls and boys; do not impose gender role stereotypes or use sexist language. An educator's role is to encourage learning and responsible behavior that does not discriminate. If a behavior is inappropriate, it is inappropriate for both a boy or a girl. Educators should also beware of reinforcing images of girls "being" and boys "doing" by complimenting girls on their appearance and boys on their performance.

  • Teach correct vocabulary. With each new word they learn, children grow in their understanding of the world around them and become more confident in their ability to communicate with others. When adults teach children the correct words for body parts (including reproductive body parts), "sex talk" moves from being hidden, naughty and guilt ridden to being something children can share with adults. Correct vocabulary signals that children have a right to know the answers to their questions and that adults are willing to discuss these things with them.

  • Be askable. When adults are "askable," they set the stage for the lifelong process of questioning and learning about sexuality. Adults are "askable" when they show openness to questions through their body language and facial expressions (e.g., eye contact, attentive body posture), listening skills, and acknowledgment of children's basic need to understand the world around them.

  • Provide learning opportunities that enable children to learn through their own observations. For example, a teacher may invite a pregnant mother to class several times during her pregnancy so children can ask her questions about how she cares for her pregnancy. Children may be given an opportunity to learn "parenting skills" by watching a mother or father bathe, diaper or feed her/his baby. Also, teachers can expand children's awareness of career opportunities by showing children people whose work does not fit gender-role stereotypes — female police officers and carpenters, male nurses and househusbands.

  • Provide a variety of resources that encourage children to discover things for themselves. Anatomically-correct dolls, a "birthing doll," a chart showing fetal development at different stages, and a variety of books may be gathered from a family life education center. The very presence of these resources shows that sexuality is a topic that can be discussed. After the first few days of giggles, children accept the naturalness of dolls that include genitals. Many teachers observe that the presence of boy dolls encourages nurturing and "parenting" behavior in boys.

  • Tell children clearly and directly what is and is not appropriate behavior, without making them feel guilty. Adults often give unclear messages to children about sex-related behaviors. They may prohibit ("Stop that!" "That's not nice!") rather than instruct. ("I know it feels good to touch your vulva/penis, but that is a private part of your body. People don't touch private parts of their bodies in a public place. They do it in a private place.")

  • Encourage children to tell each other how they feel and to speak up for themselves. Many children need assertiveness training that starts early and continues throughout their school years. The development of assertiveness skills is crucial to survival in relationships. These skills can be promoted throughout the day by using teachable moments: "Tell Joan how you feel when she does that to you." (For more information on teachable moments, see this edition's Educator Skill.)

  • Help children understand how their behavior affects others. Attentive educators can find endless opportunities to encourage expression of positive feelings and help others to feel good. ("It was thoughtful of you to share your book with Sean.") Adults can also help children understand the effects of behavior that makes others feel bad. ("How does Alicia feel when she's left out of the game?")

  • Teach children that their bodies belong to them and that each person has the right to decide who can touch her or his body. Here too, educators have many opportunities to give clear messages. Both the teacher and the children learn to respect each child's right to say no to unwanted touch. Help children distinguish between the many touches that they like (e.g., a congratulatory pat on the back) and those they don't (e.g., an unwanted kiss).

  • Teach children that the sexual parts of their bodies are private. "Private" means that these parts are usually covered with clothes and are not shown in public. It may feel good to touch the sexual parts of one's body, but people do this in "private places," not in "public places." Once children understand this basic concept, it is much easier to deal with issues such as masturbation.

  • Provide nurturing touch that supports children's positive feelings of self and others. From earliest infancy, touch soothes and stimulates. Touch is basic to a child's body awareness and sense of self and is a vital part of early childhood programs. Trust and attachment are some of the healthy outcomes of nurturing touch.

  • Be a positive role model. When adults demonstrate warmth, affection and support for children or for other adults, they show children how to behave in interpersonal relationships.

    (Adapted from The Sexuality Education Challenge, ETR Associates, 1994)


More Information/Resources

Organizations and Web Sites with Information on Working with Young Children:

  • 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

  • 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

  • Educational Equity Concepts
    114 East Thirty-Second Street, Suite 701
    New York, NY 10016

  • Teach-a-Bodies (for anatomically complete dolls, puppets, and play people)
    PO Box 416
    Grapevine, TX 76099-0416
    888/228-1314 or 817/416-9138


Suggested Books and Curricula:

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

  • The Subject is Sex
    By Pamela Wilson, Marcia Quackenbush, and William H. Kane
    ETR Associates
    Santa Cruz, CA, 1994

  • Right from the Start: Guidelines for Sexuality Issues, Birth to Five Years
    Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS)
    New York: SIECUS, 1995

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

  • Our Whole Lives…Sexuality Education for Grades K-1
    By Barbara Sprung
    Unitarian Universalist Association
    25 Beacon Street
    Boston, MA 02108-2800

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

  • Bodies, Birth & Babies. Sexuality Education in Early Childhood Programs
    By Peggy Brick, Nan Davis, Maxine Fischel, Trudie Lupo, Ann MacVicar, and Jean Marshall
    Hackensack, NJ: Planned Parenthood of Great Northern New Jersey, Center for Family Life Education, 1989

  • Becoming an Askable Parent: How to Talk with your Child About Sexuality
    American Social Health Association
    PO Box 13827
    Research Triangle Park, NC 27709

  • From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children
    By Debra Haffner
    New York: Newmarket Press, 1999

  • What's the Big Secret? Talking About Sex with Girls and Boys
    By Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc T. Brown
    Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1997

  • It's My Body: A Book to Teach Young Children How to Resist Uncomfortable Touch
    By Lory Freeman
    Seattle, WA: Parenting Press, 1982

  • Did the Sun Shine Before You Were Born? A Sexuality Primer
    By Sol Gordon and Judith Gordon
    Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992

  • Families: A Celebration of Diversity, Commitment and Love
    By Aylette Jenness
    Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993

  • Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and With Illustrations
    By Peter Mayle
    Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1977

  • 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

  • Come Sit By Me (about children and adults with HIV/AIDS)
    By Margaret Merrifield
    Toronto, Ontario: Women's Press, 1990


Suggested Videos:

  • Raising Healthy Kids: Families Talk About Sexual Health
    (30 minutes)
    Video One: For Parents of Young Children (Birth to Seven)
    Family Health Productions, Inc.
    PO Box 1799
    Gloucester, MA 01931-1799

  • Talking About Sex: A Guide for Families
    (30 minutes)
    Planned Parenthood Federation of America

  • What Kids Want to Know About Sex and Growing Up
    (60 minutes)
    ETR Associates

  • Girl Stuff (20 minutes) and Boy Stuff (16 minutes)
    ETR Associates

  • Then One Year
    (24 minutes)
    ETR Associates

  • Bodies in Progress for Boys and Girls
    (31 minutes)
    ETR Associates