Teaching Human Development & Sexual Health with Confidence
Human Development & Sexual Health (HD&SH) is a key component of overall health and well-being that affects us all. Due to the diverse family structures, cultural and religious values, sexual orientations and gender identities of students, there’s no doubt it’s a topic that needs to be approached with sensitivity, but with adequate support and preparation, educators will find that teaching human development and sexual health can be incredibly rewarding.
“Some of my biggest teaching highlights have been those open conversations where students start out looking at you like deer in the headlights,” says Petja Taivassalo, a Health and Physical Education (H&PE) teacher at Langstaff Secondary School in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
What’s more, getting comfortable with the content doesn’t just make for more rewarding teaching moments, it’s also essential for delivering the curriculum effectively and preparing students for the choices that lie ahead. “The consequences are so real,” Taivassalo points out. “It’s not like students are just going to lose a mark if they don’t understand the material. They could lose a lot more.”
Why do we need to teach HD&SH effectively in schools?
Not only does the revised HD&SH component of the H&PE curriculum equip students with skills and information that can help them to avoid negative outcomes—like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancies—it also helps them to achieve positive outcomes, including experiencing fulfilling personal relationships and positive body image.
And the sooner students are given access to developmentally appropriate information about their bodies and sexual health, the better off they’re likely to be. Data from Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey indicates that 35% of Canadian youth reported their first sexual intercourse experience before age 17 and over two thirds (68%) reported having intercourse before age 20. For the sake of student health, it’s both necessary and appropriate to provide information on topics such as STI and pregnancy prevention before the majority of students become sexually active. [i]
With meaningful, ongoing contact with students, Ontario educators are in an excellent position to deliver accurate, balanced and unbiased information about healthy sexuality—and they have a responsibility to do so. “If [students] don’t learn about these things in school, they either don’t learn them or they learn it through their peers or the internet—which is not always accurate,” says Berkha Gupta, Coordinator of Communication & Education and the LGBTQ Youth Initiative for Planned Parenthood Toronto. “Google should not be the educator of youth.” Rather, facts should be presented objectively by skilled educators, and students should be given a range of accurate information to help them make informed decisions based on their personal values.
Start by getting familiar with the curriculum & support documents.
Educators should begin with the knowledge that there’s no need to start from scratch. There are comprehensive resources available to guide them.
“The first thing would be to familiarize themselves with the new curriculum,” suggests Gérald Pezet, an H&PE teacher with a French Catholic school board in Ontario. The HD&SH component of the H&PE curriculum covers a wide range of concepts; from sexual development, reproductive health, choice, sexual readiness, consent, abstinence and protection, to interpersonal relationships, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, gender roles and expectations, affection and pleasure and body image.[ii] “Of course, they could also go on the Ophea Teaching Tools website and access the lesson plans so they aren’t reinventing the wheel,” Pezet adds.
Ophea has developed HD&SH units as part of the H&PE Curriculum Support Resources: Grades 1-8. The units consist of approximately 40 lesson plans and additional support materials that cover all 26 specific HD&SH expectations of the healthy living strand. “The units strengthen the knowledge, understanding and confidence of educators as they look to teach content that requires sensitivity,” says Heather Gardner, Ophea’s Curriculum Consultant.
For an overview, sample lesson plans and grade-by-grade information on the content of the units, educators, school administrators and public health professionals can refer to the Implementation Support Guide.
For secondary educators, Ophea has created an online resource developed to support educators in teaching the Healthy Living strand of the H&PE curriculum. The Approaches to Teaching Healthy Living Guide includes insightful, research-based information that supports the implementation of best practices, practical instructional strategies, and sample unit overviews (grade specific, 9-12).
Create an emotionally safe environment.
“Any educator will know that creating an emotionally safe environment is the key to their teaching and their students’ learning,” says Taivassalo, “but it’s never more true than when discussing human development and sexual health.” To create a safe and respectful environment where open and honest discussions can take place, you must first develop a rapport with students. “I wouldn’t recommend starting the semester by diving right into HD&SH,” says Taivassalo.
It’s also important to recognize that the more comfortable you are with the material, the more comfortable students are likely to be. “I’ve had student teachers tell me that nothing gets worse than Grade 9 boys discussing sexual health,” says Taivassalo, “but I tell them to remember that, as hard as it is for you, it’s worse for the students. They have these questions they want to ask. They just don’t know if they can.” Educators can help to increase everyone’s comfort levels by setting ground rules for discussions that will respect, protect and promote the sharing of individual views.
It can also be helpful to recognize that, when it comes to certain subjects, you may not be a student’s preferred person to approach. “Give students options,” suggests Pezet. “It’s good to have a team of three to five staff members who are available to answer questions.” These team members should reflect different genders and backgrounds and should commit to being available to answer questions outside of class time, when a student might feel more comfortable approaching them.
Use a sex- and body-positive approach.
Gupta suggests creating an environment of body, sex and LGBTQ positivity. “This is not the same as promoting sex,” Gupta points out. “What we’re saying is, don’t talk about sex in a negative way.”
For example, “don’t make it sound like your life ends when you get an STI,” advises Gupta. “That only contributes to stigma. Rather, focus on prevention and testing.” Gupta also cautions educators against creating shame around sexual activity, pointing out that if students get the message that sex is something they shouldn’t be doing, they’re much less likely to come to an adult for help if they need to address an unwanted pregnancy or STI.
Reflect on your own biases.
Even the most open-minded individuals can have biases (prejudices in favour of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another) for what they know and are familiar with. As an educator, it’s important to take the time to reflect on these biases to ensure you’re delivering HD&SH information in a balanced, inclusive way.
“Think about what makes you uncomfortable when you think about sexual health and human development. Maybe do some work for yourself to unpack some of those things and feel more comfortable,” says Gupta. “If you don’t feel comfortable with the content you won’t necessarily be able to pass it on to youth in the same way.”
Create an inclusive learning environment.
All students should see themselves reflected in the curriculum so they can feel engaged in and empowered by their learning experiences. In an inclusive learning environment, educators are encouraged to use language that includes a variety of family structures and cultural differences and that is gender-neutral, focusing on addressing the anatomy specifically. “Using inclusive language such as ‘bodies with’ or ‘persons with’ allows for inclusion of those who are transgender or intersex and anyone whose bodies don’t have parts often associated with their perceived gender,” says Gardner. For example, instead of saying ‘women can get pregnant’ an educator can say, ‘people with ovaries can get pregnant.’
“These little shifts in language can create an inclusive environment for those who might be questioning their gender identity and will help other students to think about those things separately,” adds Gupta.
When it comes to content, until recently, sexual health education in schools was often presented predominantly or entirely within a heterosexual context and tended to neglect the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. Integrating content that relates to the needs of these populations within broadly-based sexual health education is vital. Having more than likely faced experiences of bullying, discrimination and stigmatization, LGBTQ youth often remain an invisible population in schools, but educators should never assume they aren’t present. Acknowledging and addressing the needs of students with diverse families and family structures, diverse genders and gender identities as well as different types of relationships and relationship structures is also important.
The learning environment needs to be a safe, equitable and respectful space for everyone, which includes considering the unique needs of students with physical and intellectual disabilities and adapting materials accordingly. If an educator is unfamiliar with how to make these adaptations, they can refer to resources for help. The Ophea HD&SH themed units are a good place to start. “They share specific questions you can use and strategies for creating an inclusive environment,” says Pezet.
View parents as partners in education.
Although the majority of parents support the teaching of sexual health education in schools[iii], the release of the revised HD&SH component hasn’t come without controversy. “There’s a lot of misinformation about the curriculum,” says Gupta. Concerned parents should be referred to the Government of Ontario’s website regarding sex education in Ontario for an accurate, grade-by-grade breakdown of the curriculum content.
Rebecca Richardson[iv], Instructional Program Leader, Secondary H&PE and Safety, for the Halton District School Board, suggests meeting with concerned parents in person. “Be willing to listen and understand that parents have the best interest of their child at heart,” she says.
Gupta also points out that it can be helpful to remind parents that, while the school system is tied to knowledge, the values piece (e.g., how students see themselves and relate to dating) comes from them. Furthermore, HD&SH instruction in school can provide a wonderful opportunity for parents to address the subject with their children to reinforce those values.
If a parent is still requesting an exemption from some or all components of HD&SH, refer to the board-specific guidelines on accommodations. “Continue to keep your school admin in the loop and seek support and advice as you progress,” says Richardson.
Reach out for support.
When it comes to HD&SH there’s a lot to know, and no educator should expect to have all the answers. “Don’t feel like you need to answer [student questions] on the spot,” advises Richardson. “Say ‘I’ll look into it,’ or ‘let’s look into it together,’” adds Taivassalo.
When it comes to finding answers, there are a range of online and print resources available. For example, educators can refer to Planned Parenthood Toronto (for a variety of printable fact sheets), Sexualityandu.ca, EduGAINS, and the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN) website. You may also wish to refer students directly to resources such as Teen Health Source or the LGBTQ youthline (a peer service where youth can chat, text, phone or email to ask questions). Gardner advises, “Be sure to keep the curriculum content appropriate for your students in mind when viewing and sharing information with students.”
Experts can also be consulted or brought into the classroom to support educators in teaching a lesson. Some of them may even be found within the school walls. “Look for opportunities to co-plan and co-teach with a mentor teacher/colleague within your building,” suggests Richardson.
“York Region Public Health has been huge in assisting us,” says Taivassalo, who suggests that educators contact the Public Health unit in their own area. “Sometimes it’s good to get a fresh face in and a more knowledgeable person on the subject.”
Ontario educators are encouraged to consult the Ophea resources mentioned earlier in this article and elementary educators can view the recorded webinars to support the implementation of the elementary HD&SH components of the curriculum and Ophea’s lesson plans. Secondary educators can look to the Approaches for Teaching Healthy Living guide, as part of the H&PE Secondary Resources for support in teaching the Healthy Living strand of the 2015 Health and Physical Education (H&PE) curriculum. Educators can also find videos from All About H&PE that feature students sharing the importance of experiencing quality instruction in a welcoming and inclusive learning environment. For further consultations contact Ophea staff by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Give students the tools they need to make healthy decisions.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (2008) Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education, sexual health education should be provided to all people and should be provided in an age-appropriate, culturally sensitive manner that is respectful of individuals’ rights to make informed choices about sexual and reproductive health. [v]
“[Teaching HD&SH] doesn’t mean that [students] will engage in sex,” Gupta points out, noting that, in fact, research shows that sexual health education programs reduce sexual activity among adolescents. “What it means is that they’ll feel prepared and will be able to make healthy decisions for themselves. That decision might be that they don’t want to have sex right now. Or it might mean that they can support a friend better. Or, if they’ve learned about consent, that they can better affirm their choices, whatever they are.”
As caring educators, it is our job to deliver the information in ways that present the facts in open, honest, inclusive and non-judgmental ways, and the more comfortable we are doing that, the more comfortable students will be—not just as they learn the material today, but as they use it to make healthy decisions over a lifetime.
[i] SIECCAN. (2015). Sexual health education in the Schools, Questions & Answers Updated 2015 Edition. http://sieccan.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/SIECCAN-QA-Sexual-healt...
[ii] Ontario Ministry of Education. (2015). Adapted from The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Health and Physical Education.
[iii] SIECCAN. (2015). Sexual health education in the Schools, Questions & Answers Updated 2015 Edition. http://sieccan.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/SIECCAN-QA-Sexual-healt...
[iv] Quotes and ideas from Rebecca Richardson were created in collaboration with Dave Inglis, TVDSB, and Nicki Keenliside, TDSB.
[v] SIECCAN. (2015). Sexual health education in the Schools, Questions & Answers Updated 2015 Edition. http://sieccan.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/SIECCAN-QA-Sexual-healt...