School’s back! To celebrate, FiveThirtyEight’s science crew figured it was time to talk about sex. Sex ed, that is. Over the next few days, we’ll be discussing why sex education is such a flashpoint and what role science can play in figuring out what kind of sex ed kids should get.
Debates over sex ed often focus on whether to teach kids to practice abstinence before marriage or whether they should learn about birth control and safe sex. But this focus on the “sex” in sex ed leaves out a lot of what experts say kids should be learning in school, particularly at younger ages. Classrooms can also be a place where kids learn about their bodies, how they work, and how to form healthy relationships of all types.
With kids starting puberty at younger ages, experts say there’s a growing need for them to learn about their bodies sooner. A range of groups advocate for age-appropriate discussions of topics like puberty, bullying, safety and respect are recommended in elementary school. And yet, many children may not be hearing about puberty in schools until after a physical and emotional transformation is well under way.
The politics of sex ed are complicated, and the idea of children getting sex ed in elementary school makes some parents uncomfortable, said Leslie Kantor, chair of the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at the Rutgers School of Public Health. But children already start learning about sex and sexuality at very young ages, it’s just that most of what they learn isn’t being taught intentionally — they are learning, among other things, through highly sexualized media and porn. We usually evaluate whether sex ed “works” by measuring when kids start to have sex or by tracking rates of teenage pregnancy. But pediatricians and psychologists say learning about the body is a worthy goal in its own right.
What are elementary schoolers learning?
The short answer: not enough. “This is a topic that is taught by some really amazing professionals using really great best practices. And yet, nationwide in our schools, it is taught so haphazardly,” said Elizabeth Schroeder, an expert on how to teach sexuality education, which is the name some experts use to describe sex ed that covers not only the mechanics of sex and puberty but also issues like bodily autonomy and healthy relationships.
A survey conducted every few years by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asks schools about the health education they are providing. The survey varies from year to year, but in 2014, it included in-depth questions about whether human development — which covers topics like anatomy and puberty — was taught in a required class. Just under half of middle schools and 66 percent of high schools said it was. Only 21 percent of elementary schools said they were teaching about things like puberty in required courses.
It’s possible that more kids are learning about puberty than are reflected in the survey — the questions only asked schools about required courses, said Lisa Crockett, a professor of psychology at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska who has studied the results. Still, the survey suggests that a lot of kids in the U.S. are not learning about puberty in school until they’re already going through it. For kids, particularly girls, the early stages of puberty are starting at younger ages than ever before. The median age for visible breast development (breast buds) is 8.8 for African-American girls, 9.3 for Hispanic girls and 9.7 for Asian and non-Hispanic white girls. At ages 8 and 9, most girls are in the second, third or fourth grade.
Crockett’s own research suggests that many kids don’t start learning about puberty in class until middle school. “That’s too late,” she said.
Pediatricians and psychologists stress that going through puberty doesn’t mean kids are ready for sexual activity. “Since people mistakenly assume that if you’re pubertal you’re ready for sex, [puberty] gets people all alarmed,” said Dr. Richard Wasserman, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Vermont. But many kids will go through puberty well before they are emotionally ready for romantic or sexual relationships.
That’s all the more reason to start education on sexuality sooner, said Julianna Deardorff, a clinical psychologist, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of “The New Puberty,” a book about changes in girls’ development and what it means for kids and parents. A 10-year-old who looks 14 is likely to be treated like a 14-year-old, even if they aren’t as emotionally mature as their looks imply. Knowing what’s going on with their bodies can go a long way to making sure kids are safe and participating in age-appropriate activities, said Deardorff.
What should elementary schoolers be learning?
Anybody who studies puberty will tell you that kids should be learning about it early, said Crockett. “If you go to Europe, they integrate a lot of very basic concepts about people [having] bodies, your body is yours, and they start talking about this in first grade,” she said. That doesn’t appear to encourage kids to have sex, either. In the Netherlands, where sexual education begins with kids as young as 4, people don’t have sex any earlier than they do in the U.S., according to research.
While parents, not schools, should be in charge of teaching values, said Schroeder, kids should be learning the facts from content experts, just like they do in other subjects. “It’s gotta be a partnership. I don’t think it’s appropriate for teachers to be inculcating values, that’s the parents’ job. It’s like ‘Dragnet’: Just the facts, ma’am,” she said.
Advocacy groups like The Future of Sex Ed, which promotes comprehensive sexual education in schools, say that elementary-school-age kids should be learning about anatomy, kindness, the rights they have over their bodies, and the variation in human bodies. The goals are to prevent bullying, to help kids learn that it’s normal for them and their classmates to go through puberty at very different times, and to help them better understand their bodies.
In reality, however, there isn’t a lot of evidence-based information on what specifically should be taught at early ages, partly because it hasn’t been the focus of very much funding, said Karin Coyle, the chief science officer for ETR, a company that designs health and wellness programs for schools. There are, however, a lot of “evidence-informed” programs, she said, which draw from what research there is, even if it’s not the kind of large cohort studies or randomized control trials that would be the optimal way of evaluating how children react to various approaches. Increasingly, she is finding it important to teach kids about positive relationships. For younger kids, those are non-sexual relationships.
What parents think their kids should learn in elementary school sex ed is even less clear, mostly because they haven’t been asked very often, or very recently. But a Florida study from 2013 found that 89 percent of parents in the state supported teaching kids communication skills in elementary school, and 65 percent supported teaching about anatomy and reproduction.
Most federal funding for sex ed, however, targets teenagers, with the goal of preventing pregnancy. It’s also constantly being wrestled over by two sides of a deep political divide between people who want kids to primarily learn that abstinence is best and sex should be confined to marriage, and others who think kids should also learn about birth control and expressions of sexuality beyond those within a heterosexual, cisgender marriage.
That has led Deardorff to argue that it might be better to find a new name for these early stages of sex ed, the parts that aren’t directly about sex. “The number one thing that I would suggest is that we start pubertal education earlier. And that we don’t call it sex ed, because that raises all kinds of red flags,” said Deardorff.
Whatever it’s called, Wasserman said kids will benefit from more open, neutral spaces to talk about sexuality. Families, doctors and caregivers have a role to play too, but there’s no better place than the classroom to make sure kids have a chance to ask questions and get answers, and to make sure that all kids are getting this basic information.
Read more: What Does Science Tell Us About Sex Ed?