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Sexuality in Fifth and Sixth Grades in U.S. Public Schools

Original article authored by David J. Landry, Susheela Singh, and Jacqueline E. Darroch

The original article presents findings about the prevalence and context of sexuality education and the nature of abstinence education from a national survey conducted in 1999 of 5th- and 6th-grade public school teachers. This summary includes the following sections:

Methods

The sample of educators was drawn from a national database of teachers, and the 5th- and 6th-grade survey was part of a larger survey of 5th- through 12th-grade teachers. General subject teachers, specialty teachers (such as health and physical education or science) and school nurses were included. Teachers were eligible for inclusion in the study if they were teaching one or both of these grades in a public school in Spring 1999.

Of the 3,600 eligible teachers, 1,785 responded to the survey. Because many of these teachers do not teach sexuality education, they did not fill out the section of the survey pertaining to those who do. As a result, much of the analysis here is based on the 617 5th- and 6th-grade teachers who reported teaching sexuality education during the 1997-98 or 1998-99 school years. All data are weighted to reflect the national distribution of teachers in these grades and specialties.

In this study, sexuality education is defined as "any instruction about human sexual development, the process of reproduction, or interpersonal relationships and sexual behavior."

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Results (from sampled 5th- and 6th-grade sexuality education teachers)

  • About three-quarters of sampled teachers say sexuality education is taught in grades five and six at their school, and 30% of teachers report actually teaching sexuality education in these grades.

  • Puberty is the most common topic taught, with 90% of sexuality education teachers saying they cover the topic in their curriculum. A large majority of these teachers say they present sexuality as a "natural and healthy part of life." Less than 15% discuss sexual orientation or homosexuality.

  • HIV transmission and AIDS is the second-most common topic, covered by 65% of 5th- and 80% of 6th-grade teachers. In addition, 66% of teachers (both grades combined) teach broadly about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) although specifics are not covered as widely.

  • Sexual abuse is taught by 53% and 63% of 5th- and 6th-grade teachers, respectively. Again, the topic is often addressed in broad terms, and the definition and importance of consensual sexual contact are not always discussed.

  • Topics related to decision-making, such as abstinence, resisting peer pressure, dating, and non-sexual forms of affection, are covered by 26-41% of 5th- and 54-68% of 6th-grade teachers.

  • Abstinence is presented as the best method for STI and pregnancy prevention by 36% of sexuality education teachers. Twenty-one percent present it as either one alternative or the only alternative. Abstinence is not discussed at all by 43% of teachers at both grades.

  • Birth control and abortion are taught by only 7-18% of all teachers. Over two-thirds of teachers do not discuss the effectiveness of birth control or condoms for the prevention of pregnancy and/or STIs and HIV.

  • When asked about their opinions on contraception and abstinence education, most teachers say they view both as effective messages. While 72% say that an education which stresses abstinence leads to decreased sexual activity, 86% say students who learn about contraception are more likely to use it when they do have sex.
When these data are adjusted to reflect the extent to which sexuality education is taught by all 5th- and 6th-grade public school teachers in the US, the estimated percent who teach each topic drops significantly. Only puberty and HIV/AIDS are taught by more than half of all teachers.

Teachers' Recommendations and Actual Timing of Sexuality Education

A large majority of sexuality education teachers at these grades think that most of the above topics (with the exception of birth control and abortion) should be covered by the end of 6th grade. Further, teachers at this level are more likely than those at the 7-12 grade levels to think these topics should be covered by grade five.

For many of the above topics, actual teaching falls short of teachers' recommendations for each topic. While the gap between recommendations and actual instruction is relatively small for topics such as puberty, it is much larger for sexual abuse, dating and nonsexual forms of affection.


School Setting and Teacher Specialty

The grades offered at a school and teacher specialty have a small impact on the sexuality topics covered at a school. While this impact is small for basic topics, more advanced topics are covered more often at schools including secondary grades than those that do not. Further, data indicate that specialty teachers are more likely to cover topics related to STIs and birth control than regular classroom teachers.


Personal Skills and Teaching Approaches

Personal skills are recognized by most educators as essential elements of sexuality education. Three-fourths of teachers cover the effects of substances on behavior and sticking to a decision under pressure. Just under half discuss how to resist peer pressure to have sex, one-third discuss how to recognize media pressures, and one-fourth cover the importance of consensual sex and ways to avoid sex. While many teachers use small-group discussion and role-plays to present class material, some do not use these effective approaches for topics relating to communication and decision-making.


Environmental Influences

Eighty-three percent of teachers work in a school district that has a sexual education policy. The remaining 17% say the policy is to leave the topic to the discretion of the school or individual teacher. Almost all of those in a district with a policy say that parents are included in the decisions regarding sexuality education. Over two-thirds of teachers work in schools that have a required curriculum.

About half of the sampled teachers report needing some type of assistance, the most common being a need for materials. Many teachers say their administration, students' parents, and the community support their efforts to teach sexuality education, but 31-41% report feeling pressure against teaching topics such as homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and condom use. This pressure and problems with students (apathy, misinformation, high sexual abuse and pregnancy rates) are the problems most often reported by teachers on a section of the survey allowing open-ended responses.

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Discussion

  • A recent public opinion poll indicates that while over three-fourths of adults support sexuality education for junior high and high school students, only half support it for children ages 9-11. This difference may in part explain why nearly 30% of 5th- and 6th-grade teachers still teach in schools where sexuality education is not a part of the curriculum.

  • Three out of four sexuality education teachers at these grade levels are non-specialist teachers, having had no specific training to teach the subject. This fact helps to explain why so many report needing some type of assistance.

  • Environmental factors and variations in children's physical and emotional maturity add to teachers' challenges and complicate efforts to standardize sexuality curricula.

  • More than half of surveyed teachers report that their school has an "opt-in" policy, requiring that parents return consent forms in order for their children to participate in sexuality education. When parents fail to do so, even if they consent, their children miss out on this information.

  • More research is needed to lend a comprehensive picture of sexuality education at these grade levels, for both public and private schools. Data from the School Health Policies and Programs 2000 survey by the Centers for Disease Control may provide information complementary to the data here.

  • Findings from the current study suggest that sexuality education for grades five and six is a complicated issue, and many teachers work under a great deal of pressure, yet most students at this age have not yet become sexually active and could greatly benefit from sexuality information and skills development.

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Implications for Educators (from ReCAPP staff)

  • Check out the findings from the School Health Policies and Programs study mentioned above for a more complete picture of sexuality education in schools.

Landry, D.J., Singh, S., and Darroch, J.E. (Sept/Oct 2000). Sexuality Education in Fifth and Sixth Grades in US Public Schools. Family Planning Perspectives. (32)5, 212-219.

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