Sex ed for youth in foster care

Sexuality educator Deborah Roffman was kind enough to share with me specific advice for working with youth in foster care. She noted that professionals who work with this population must meet the five core needs of children and adolescents, and do our best to see that foster parents and birth parents alike do the same. Here are the five needs:

  1. AFFIRMATION: Seeing and hearing children as they are. This means recognizing that our children have entered a stage of sexual development and are sexual beings. It also means being approachable, so they know that there are no “unaskable” questions.
  2. INFORMATION GIVING: Empowering children through knowledge. Young people need to know basic facts and concepts about sexual and reproductive health. Note that this should not take the form of a one-time information dump. This knowledge should be dispensed gradually and continuously as children develop, and we should take care that what we teach them is always age-appropriate. (I work with adolescents and young adults, but Roffman starts her conversations very early on with elementary schoolers.)
  3. VALUES CLARIFICATION: Highlighting “right” thinking. It is tough enough for young people in families to clarify their values in an environment where they are constantly bombarded with confusing and conflicting messages about sexuality. Young people in care are especially thirsty for values clarification. Adults should be careful not to slip into judgmental stances when filling this role.
  4. LIMIT SETTING: Keeping our children safe. If you know and love young people you will have heard the old chestnut that even teenagers in the throes of rebellion are looking to adults to set limits for them. Roffman argues that though the content of the limits will change as our children mature, the need for limits remains constant.
  5. ANTICIPATORY GUIDANCE: Making ourselves dispensable. Roffman observes that the ultimate goal of parenthood is to put yourself out of business, and this should extend to all youth workers as well. In the limited time we have to raise our children, we should be equipping them with “specific kinds of knowledge, self-awareness, attitudes, values, communication, decision making, and problem-solving skills” (Roffman 181).

On a more practical level, for those of us who cringe at the thought of holding frank discussions about sex and sexuality with young people, Roffman institutes an “I pass” option for educators and students alike. She also never asks students to share information she herself would not be comfortable sharing, and only offers her opinion on more controversial issues after a few of her students have already given their perspective.

I highly recommend her book Sex & Sensibilitybut she encourages readers to check out an updated version of the work titled Talk to Me First.


How to set ground rules in a classroom

The short answer: have your students set their own rules, codify and display them on a piece of poster board, and hold them to those rules.

No matter how rude and rowdy they seem, once they get to a certain age, students know how they should be behaving. If you have them come up with their own rules, they will feel more inclined (and obliged) to follow them.

“Listen to whoever is speaking” and “Only one person can speak at a time” are commonly suggested rules, but you may want to have a discussion about whether or not to institute a “Raise your hand before you speak” rule because it might disrupt the natural flow of conversations. Another gray area is the issue of criticism. Students may want to prohibit any form of criticism from being voiced if the topic at hand is particularly sensitive (i.e., in a sex ed classroom, students should be encouraged to be unconditionally supportive of everyone’s views and opinions). But students might also point out that disagreement is normal and an integral part of intellectual discussion, in which case they can come up with a rule about presenting criticism in constructive terms. Another rule you might want to have your students consider is confidentiality, if you plan on having them share personal stories in the classroom.

What are some of the rules you’ve had in your classrooms?

Teaching sex ed, pt. 2

I’m still tossing around some ideas on how to conduct a sex, dating, and relationship workshop. I found a “Sexual Pressures” curriculum aimed at middle schoolers that had a nice list of discussion questions to get students thinking deeply about sex and relationships:

What is the difference between love and sex?
What are some ways to express love without sex?
What are some things to think about before you decide to have sex?
What are some feelings someone might feel after having sex?
How do you deal with peer pressures?
What are some things that might tempt someone to consider having sex?
Does dancing promote sex? Does dress promote sex?
What do you think is sexual harassment?
What is date rape?

The curriculum also suggests role-playing conversations between a “parent” and child. I know that role playing is a common strategy to get young people to think about how they would conduct themselves in different scenarios, but looking back on my own teenage years, I don’t think I would have been too keen to participate in such an activity, nor would I have been able to do the role play in earnest (lots of nervous giggles).

Last night I it occurred to me that instead of role play it might be effective to have teens read through case studies in class and discuss what they would do in certain situations (e.g., how to talk about the terms of a relationship when one person wants to be exclusive while the other wants to date around; what to do when one person is ready to be physically intimate while the other doesn’t). Role playing could arise organically out of that situation if participants wanted to get up and demonstrate how they would have those conversations.

I was all set to buckle down and write some of these scenarios out, but then I found Scenarios USA, a non-profit organization that allows underserved youth to write about the pressures and challenges they face in topics such as teen pregnancy, peer pressure, body image, gender identity, and the like (basically everything to do with their changing bodies and their burgeoning sexuality). The authors of winning entries are given the opportunity to partner with a young writer and a Hollywood filmmaker and turn their pieces into short films that are intended to encourage discussions about communication, relationships, and good decision-making.

Ideally I’d like to have a nice balance between text-based and a/v-based work in my workshops, but the Scenarios are pricey, so I’m going to find time to watch the videos online before making my decision.

Teaching sex ed

In “Blame it on the brain” I touched on how emerging research on the “teen brain” should make us reevaluate how we address the problem of risky behavior among youth. One especially sensitive area is sex ed. My interest, however, lies not in discussing various forms of contraception or the responsibilities of teen parenthood, but in getting young people to think deeply about emotional intimacy and healthy relationships. This aspect of teen sexuality is often overlooked, and this oversight leaves young people without any guidance on how to develop meaningful, intimate bonds even beyond their teens and early twenties. Continue reading