By Jen Slonaker, MSW | December 11, 2014
How should we be teaching teens about sex? Since I work in the health and sexuality field, this is a question I’ve considered often. Not surprisingly, so have many of my colleagues.
About 10 years ago, a group of people at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts (PPLM) decided to develop and test a new sex education curriculum for adolescents based on the best evidence available about what works.
What does it take to do this? Quite a lot.
It’s not just the hard work of reviewing what we know works and what doesn’t, conceptualizing a new approach and writing up a curriculum. This effort has also included the collaboration of many partners—consultants and reviewers, experts, evaluators, editors and designers.
Even more important to my mind has been the collaboration of communities—school administrators, teachers, program directors. And, most essential of all, students and their parents.
With the help of all of these players, we’ve been able to create a new program that’s making a genuine difference in young people’s lives. Please give a big welcome to Get Real: Comprehensive Sex Education That Works, an important new presence in the world of evidence-based programs.
Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts is the largest freestanding reproductive health care and education provider in Massachusetts. Every year, we deliver care to more than 30,000 patients in our health centers. We reach an additional 25,000 young people, parents and professionals with education and information about sexual health.
PPLM developed Get Real out of a passion for using evidence, facts and best practices in sexual health education. We united this with our belief that making a difference in young people’s lives is an important and achievable goal.
Get Real is a program for middle and high school students (grades 6–10) that delivers accurate, age-appropriate information and emphasizes healthy relationship skills and family involvement. It was evaluated in a randomized controlled trial—considered the gold standard for evaluation research.
Our study found that Get Real students were more likely to delay sex than students who received typical sex education in their schools. In fact, 16% fewer boys and 15% fewer girls had sex, making Get Real one of the few sex education programs showing reduced sexual behavior for both boys and girls.
When our group started developing Get Real, we had some distinct advantages over earlier developers of evidence-based programs. Most notably, we actually had a lot of evidence. Thirty-plus years of research have made a difference in what we know works in sexual health education.
Get Real emphasizes abstinence as the healthiest choice for teens. It encourages correct and consistent use of protection methods when teens become sexually active. It focuses on healthy relationship skills. It actively involves parents throughout the program.
It also aligns with national and many local standards for health and sexuality education. It integrates advice from experts in adolescent development, cultural competency, social and emotional learning, curriculum design and more.
While there are many features that I believe contribute to the program’s success, one of the strongest is the emphasis on parent engagement.
Our group knew from the outset that we wanted to make a clear and consistent distinction between information and facts on the one hand, and a family’s values about relationships, responsibility and sexual activity on the other. We recognize and support parents as the primary sexuality educators of their children. This is why we built a family activity into every classroom session.
Throughout the program, students are encouraged to participate in ongoing conversations with their parents, caregivers or other caring adults. We gained a number of benefits from this element of the program.
We found that boys who completed the family activities in 6th grade were more likely to delay sex in 8th grade than boys who did not do the activities. This was an interesting outcome. Research shows that parents tend to talk about sex and relationships with their daughters at earlier ages, and more frequently, than they do with their sons. It’s possible that the 6th grade family activities in our program encouraged parents to start discussing sexual issues with boys sooner than they otherwise would have done. This may have been key in these boys delaying sexual activity.
Most parents want to offer their children support and helpful information about sex, relationships and growing up. Family conversations help young people make healthier choices about sexuality. But research shows that many parents lack the knowledge, skills and confidence to talk with their teens on these issues.
The family resources and accompanying activities in Get Real serve a role in educating parents on effective ways to discuss relationships and sexuality with their teens. Parents build their knowledge and communication skills over the course of the program, just as their children are building these skills.
Some parents are apprehensive about sex education programs. Most often, we hear concerns about the possibility that a program will teach attitudes and behaviors that are not consistent with the family’s beliefs and values.
Like many sexuality education curricula, Get Real recommends that schools inform parents by letter or email that the program will be taking place, and then host a parent night to review the content and allow parents to ask questions.
These parent nights can be critical interactions in setting a foundation for success. It’s appropriate for parents to have concerns. Developmentally, it’s also a tough time for parents who are having to think about their children in new ways. Their little kids have now become middle school students about to face a wide and sometimes wild range of adult issues.
This is where Get Real’s emphasis on family activities really shines. We can explain and demonstrate to parents the distinctions in the program between the facts the program will be covering—for example, reproductive anatomy and physiology, puberty, communication skills and the meaning of consent—and the values they’ll be discussing with their children in the family activities.
We’ve had excellent success in these conversations with parents and have seen little parent resistance to the Get Real program.
The family activities in Get Real get kids and parents talking. At a time when popular and social media tend to de-emphasize parents’ importance, a program such as Get Real offers a much-needed counterpoint.
Parents are vitally important to their adolescent children. Youth look to parents for advice, guidance, information and approval. Studies show that parents have the most influence on the values teens adopt and the choices they make.
Get Real helps build skills in communication that can continue to reinforce the importance and power of parent involvement in children’s lives.
School administrators love the family activities element of Get Real. A communication goes home to the parents after every lesson. Parents discuss the lesson with their children. Everything being covered in the classroom is openly addressed and acknowledged.
This brings an admirable level of transparency to the program. Parents are not surprised by the content of the classroom activities. This means administrators are not blind-sided by distraught parents who have misunderstood or been misinformed about the program.
When we were testing Get Real, we had an educator go into a 6th grade classroom on Day One of the program. She was enthusiastic, well-prepared, a bit anxious, and ready to deliver the lesson.
As the educator started introducing the program to the students, one girl raised her hand, her expression troubled.
“Yes?” asked the educator.
“Miss, you do know that the boys are still here in the classroom, don’t you?” This 6th grader couldn’t quite believe they were going to continue on this course of learning in a co-educational environment.
The educator smiled. “Yes!” she answered. “I do know they’re here. I’m thrilled that all of you are here! Because sexual health is important for everyone and sexuality education is WAY more interesting when there are different voices and experiences represented.”
She went on to talk about the importance of communication, understanding and respect—skills and concepts that apply to everyone, everywhere. This was a wonderful affirmation of the principles embedded in Get Real.
Education is a major part of the work Planned Parenthood does across the nation. This is one of the reasons Get Real is also a powerful affirmation of Planned Parenthood’s mission.
Get Real is an evidence-based curriculum that helps teens delay sex. It helps parents and teens communicate. It gives parents support to describe and transmit their values to their children. It gives young people access to the information and tools they need to develop into sexually healthy adults.
This is prevention at its best, and we are proud to be playing our part in these efforts.
Jen Slonaker, MSW, is Vice President of Education & Training at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts (PPLM). You can contact her at email@example.com.
Check here for more information about the Get Realprogram.