Engaging and Partnering with Your Child’s School About Their Sexual Health Education

by | Apr 16, 2024

With spring here, most schools and school districts begin rolling out their sex education curricula for elementary, middle, and high school-aged students. Parents and caregivers may get notifications from the school about the upcoming lessons, some details about what will be taught and by whom, and whether or not they would like their child to participate. 

Regardless of how different parents and caregivers feel about age-appropriate sex education, research tells us that students who receive comprehensive sex education have a better understanding of their and others’ bodies/anatomy, healthy body boundaries, sex and reproduction, consent, healthy relationships, and responsible sexual decision-making when compared to students who don’t receive such education. Taken further, this better understanding from students translates to healthier, more responsible behaviors (e.g., waiting to become sexually active, having fewer sexual partners, increasing contraception use), which lead to positive outcomes like lower rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections or diseases.   

Understanding Your Role and Resources as a Parent

As a parent or caregiver, if your child’s or teen’s school provides any amount of sexual health education, it’s important to first engage with the school by seeing it as a partner and ally with good intentions. Schools want the best for their students in all areas of learning, including sexual health. In general, schools are not focused on “indoctrinating” their students but rather on educating them so they can stay safe and remain healthy in their actions and relationships. However, depending on where you live and whether your child attends a public or private school, it’s important for parents and caregivers to understand that there is a wide range of content their child or teen may learn, from nothing at all to an extensive, exhaustive list of topics. 

And so, the first task for parents is to understand what exactly is being taught. To do this, parents can more fully inform themselves by following the steps below:

First, go to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) website and click on the State Profiles to learn about each state’s laws, standards, and educational requirements related to sex education. Once you have a clear idea about what’s required in your state, you can then….

….go to the National Sex Education Standards and review what your child or teen is expected to be taught (don’t be overwhelmed….it’s a lot of good, thorough information). Again, some parents will be thrilled to see the vast amount of content in these standards, while others may have other thoughts and feelings. What’s important to remember is that these standards have been painstakingly developed over decades by experts from a variety of fields. Once you have a broad understanding about what content should be taught at what age, you can then reach out to your child’s school. 

Contacting Your Child’s School and Asking the Right Questions

Reaching out to your child’s school is best done by sending an email to the school principal/vice-principal, health teacher, or designated point-person. Setting up a time to chat on the phone would be ideal (but not always practical), but either way, once you’ve made contact, you can start asking relevant questions that will help you have a better understanding of what form your child’s sex education will take. Below is a list of common questions that parents and caregivers can ask: 

“What sex education curriculum is being used?” 

If there isn’t one, ask why. If there is one, ask specifically which one and how long the school has used it. Some schools won’t update their curriculum for years, so it’s a good idea to ask the school when the last time the curriculum was updated. 

“Who at the school writes, develops, and constructs the sex ed curriculum?”

The school may have a committee or team of educators (and involved parents) whose job is to select and plan how to implement the sex ed curriculum. If the curriculum is pulled from various resources, ask which ones and how the school decides how to combine the different parts into a cohesive whole.

“What are the topics within the school’s sex education curriculum and for what age/grade? Are there any topics that are not covered?” 

In general, it’s important for parents to understand what is age appropriate and if the school is actually providing sex education at an age-appropriate level. If you’ve reviewed the National Sex Education Standards, you’ll have a good idea about what’s age-appropriate for your child. It’s also important to know that different schools may exclude or include certain topics due to a variety of reasons (for example, parental pressures from both sides of an issue). Hopefully, the curriculum is as inclusive as possible, but it sometimes isn’t. 

“What is the format for the way in which the material is taught? Is the class/grade segregated by sex, or do the boys and girls learn together?” 

This will vary by school. Recent research shows that a hybrid approach may be the best way to teach the students. So, for some lessons, male and female student groups are mixed, which allows for more empathy and understanding of the experiences of the opposite sex. For other lessons, the students may be separated by sex, which allows for a more in-depth understanding of sex-specific topics. For example, more time can and should be devoted to managing periods and handling period accidents outside of the home (and having a “period plan” for biological female students). Likewise, biological males should learn in more detail about topics like wet dreams and dealing with spontaneous erections during puberty. 

There are arguments to be made for teaching in both ways, but many schools still fall back on the “older school” approach of separating the male and female students. Either way, parents should ask and be informed about what approach their child’s school is using. 

Important note: many schools report that another benefit of having mixed-sex lessons is to allow for any students who don’t identify with their sex assigned at birth to experience the curriculum without having the possible stress of having to make a choice as to which student group (male or female) they belong if the lessons were segregated. If you have a child who is transgender, and the school separates the students by biological sex, it is important to discuss with the school how it will sensitively handle where and how your child will be placed.    

“Who teaches the curriculum? Is it taught “in house” by a health/science teacher, or is an outside organization or educator brought in?” 

If an outside individual or organization delivers the sex education lessons, be sure to ask if the lessons are considered to be comprehensive sex education. This is important since some organizations refer to their type of sex education as “risk avoidance”, which is the newer term for “abstinence-only-until-marriage” education. While teaching about the benefits of abstinence and postponement (i.e., waiting) as part of a comprehensive sex education curriculum is important, it’s only a fraction of the information children and teens need to learn to help them make safe, responsible decisions about sex down the road. 

“How much time is devoted to the curriculum? Is it spread across days, weeks, months, and (most importantly) years?” 

Unfortunately, sexual health education rarely occurs every year (it should). Therefore, parents need to have clarity about the frequency with which the material is being presented. Then, they can supplement and expand their child’s knowledge with regular check-ins and by providing helpful resources like books and medical websites.

“How can the curriculum be reviewed?”

Most schools and districts either have the curriculum posted online or allow for parents to review it at the school or district office. This allows for parents and caregivers to make an informed decision about whether they wish to have their children or teens participate.

“Will there be homework assignments given to the students that engage parents and caregivers?”

Schools usually do not give sex ed-related homework, but they should. Such assignments can promote ongoing communication between students and parents, whereby parents are able to delve more deeply into the learned material with their child or teen and infuse their own values into the curriculum. Schools mostly do a good job of providing medically-accurate information to students. A parents’ job should be to continue to provide facts and instill personal values into those facts throughout their child’s youth and adolescence.  

“Is there a way to offer constructive feedback and ask questions about the curriculum?”

Schools may follow up with parents after the classes and ask for constructive feedback. Ahead of time, schools should allow parents to have easy enough access to the curriculum and a point-person to answer questions or concerns from parents. Find out who that point-person is.

“Are there additional resources (for example, books and websites) that the school has compiled for parents and caregivers to use with their child or teen as they support their knowledge and understanding of sex and related topics?”

Schools may have a list of compiled resources that includes a variety of books, websites, articles, podcasts, and social media feeds for parents to access, review, and use in their ongoing conversations with their children and teens. If the school doesn’t have a list, ask to team up with the school to start making one. 

“Is there a school or district committee to join to become more involved in the effort to provide the best sex ed curriculum possible for the students?” 

Oftentimes, schools or districts will have what is called a School Health Advisory Committee (SHAC) that parents can join so they can offer input into the curriculum development and selection. This is also a great way to assist the school in developing or updating a list of helpful resources for parents and their kids.

“Are there district school board meetings that parents can attend to voice support and/or concerns and to ask questions about updates to the curriculum?” 

It’s important to remember that becoming an involved parent who provides feedback about sex ed curriculum should be done so in a respectful manner. As mentioned before, districts’ and individual schools’ intentions are good, even if you have disagreements about what is being taught and how.    

Parental Engagement in Sex Education: Navigating Curriculum and Conversations

Another reason it’s important for parents to access and review sex ed content is strategic: knowing what your child and teen is learning allows for parents to follow up with them after the lessons so they can talk more about the learned information. The curriculum can serve as a built-in mechanism for parents to use as a springboard for further conversations. 

For example, if you know that the basics of reproduction is being taught to your 5th/6th grader, you can front load and prepare them beforehand and then follow up afterwards by asking questions like, “So, tell me what you remember about how babies are made,” or, “What do you think about what you learned about sex and reproduction?”. These open-ended questions or requests give the parent a sense of what their child understood from the class and what gaps in information (if any) need to be filled. If parents don’t know what’s in the sex ed curriculum and when it’s being taught, it’s hard to follow up with enough specificity or even at all.

A Final Word:

Remember that you can and should be your child’s and teen’s primary sounding board and educator when it comes to bodies, sex and reproduction, staying safe, making responsible decisions, and engaging in happy, healthy relationships. Yes, schools can be a huge source of support, information, and partnership. Approach the school with a sense of respect and gratitude for its efforts in providing this part of your kid’s education, even when you have the need to offer constructive feedback or a strong opinion.