When sexual health education conflicts with socially conservative faiths and worldviews, educators can find themselves caught in the middle. Is there a way for public schools to provide an inclusive, comprehensive, and consent-based sexuality and health curriculum while remaining sensitive to the diverse beliefs and values of families?
When I was a child, my knowledge of health and sex came from my peers, parents, school teachers and faith leaders. Perhaps, like me, you adopted health behaviours from multiple supports in your life. This article invites you to consider the role of sexuality and health education in your classroom and the lives of your students, with strategies to support families and students of faith along the way.
The sexuality and health education of Canadian youth is currently a flashpoint of controversy in public educational systems across Canada. In Ontario this past fall, Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford, citing Evangelical Christian leaders’ objections, withdrew the 2015 Health and Physical Education Curriculum for Grades 1-8 (HPE), vowing to prioritize the rights of Ontario parents first.1 Around the same time, nearly 200 pastors from Evangelical Christian communities in British Columbia signed a statement denouncing the province’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity curriculum, SOGI 123. On January 10th 2019, Montreal’s Catholic archdiocese faced resistance from Quebec’s Education Minister, after the religious authority endorsed a proposal that Catholic parents who oppose Quebec’s sexual health curriculum receive permission to teach the content at home. At a time of unprecedented visibility and human rights protections for gender and sexual minorities in all provinces and territories, it is clear that public education systems across Canada are encountering the same objection: that an inclusive, comprehensive, and consent-based sexuality and health curriculum may contradict socially conservative faiths and worldviews, and is therefore inappropriate for elementary-aged children being raised in observant families.
Consistent in media coverage on the trans-Canada curriculum controversy is the claim that comprehensive sexuality and health education in public schools usurps the rights of parents to educate their children about sexuality and health. Socially conservative parents and religious communities in Canada have expressed concerns about the age appropriateness of sex education, and the absence of any mentions of love and monogamy in public school curricula. Public school administrators and teachers are pulled in different directions by competing interests, begging the question: how should public schools provide equal access to information and education that is conscious of the needs of today’s youth, while remaining sensitive to the diverse beliefs and values of families, both within and outside of different faiths?
Conversations and strategies
Children and youth, regardless of age, ethnicity or religious background, enter the classroom with knowledge and skills learned from the world around them, and small “e” education about sexuality and health occurs daily in families. This education contributes to how students construct identity, create meaningful relationships, and engage in social interactions where gender identity, gender expression and sexuality are significant. The Public Health Agency of Canada2 maintains that public schools are uniquely positioned to provide children and youth with accessible knowledge they need to make positive health decisions for an improved quality of life. Educators must be prepared to participate in this work in a manner that anticipates the needs and pre-existing awareness of their audience.
Although Canada may be struggling to navigate the controversy within public educational systems, our priority must still be to support the personal health and well-being of all students. While public sexuality and health education has sparked division, a common denominator all can agree on is student health and wellness. Parents across religious and political lines acknowledge the importance of Canadian youth’s sense of health and personal well-being. However, opposition from parents arises from differences in beliefs about the applicability of sexual health education for their children. Effective sexual health education requires educators to understand these social and religious differences and possess the skills to provide inclusive and effective education in spite of them. In what follows, I talk about three strategies for maintaining a healthy and accessible school community that supports students from socially and religiously diverse backgrounds within a sexuality and health program.
1. KNOWLEDGE & UNDERSTANDING
At the heart of the sex-ed controversy are the 3 M’s: misinformation, misconception and myth. Teachers, parents and other stakeholders divided over the content of public sex-ed curricula must wade through claims made in the media and in everyday conversation about curriculum content, often without confirming their accuracy. As a teacher, counselor or school support worker, the first step is having accurate information on hand about what, exactly, is and is not contained in the curriculum document. Ask yourself, “Am I able to answer a question from a parent about lessons in the classroom?” For example, a potential question from a parent may be:
Is the content of the curriculum appropriate? I am worried that my child is too young to learn about gender differences.
Lessons about gender identity and gender expression need to be equitable and accessible to all students and mindful of teachings that may take place in the home. We all have our own beliefs and views— however, when appropriate, they should be presented as such. A potential response to the parent is:
Early discussions about gender identity and gender expression are about supporting your student’s self-identity. Conversations about gender identity and expression focus on a students’ feelings about themselves. Lessons are designed to support students’ personal well-being. The focus is to create an environment where all students are respected and to encourage further discussion within the home.
Note: It may be helpful to outline the specific content being addressed within the class, such as: self-identity, self-expression, how visible differences (clothing, ability, skin, hair and eye colour) and invisible differences (values and beliefs) make a student different.
By familiarizing yourself with the content of your particular curriculum, you can recognize your own comfort level with the subject matter, identify potential gaps in the resources for your students, and address parental concerns about the curriculum using factual information about the document.
As a board member or school administrator, consider what resources your educators may need to effectively deliver sexuality and health education. You may consider inviting school-approved community partners (such as public health professionals) to facilitate a sexuality and health workshop for teachers. Demographic knowledge about the population of your students and their families can help determine the resources educators may need in the classroom. Knowledge of religious and cultural differences in beliefs about sexuality and health in the specific populations served by your school can help you prepare your educators to deliver content that is inclusive and accessible. The development and implementation of a healthy school policy can help facilitate conversations in your school about positive health behaviours for students, staff and teachers.
Effective, comprehensive sexuality and health education should invite students to engage with their values, beliefs and attitudes toward their own sexual health. Understanding your own values as well as those of your students and their families is an important aspect of sexuality and health education. To this end, educators should be cognizant of their own beliefs and biases about sexuality and sexual behaviour – and prepared to answer questions from parents about subject matter that may conflict with family values. For example, a common concern is that the sexuality and health curriculum could “confuse children” or influence/encourage behaviours or attitudes.
What if the curriculum confuses my child? Do these lessons encourage same-sex attraction?
Often individuals do not consider all the ways in which their children learn and what sources of information have influence, such as media, peer groups, or the family’s church/community (youth group, Sunday school lessons and sermons). Children still have the teachings of the parent/guardian who models a certain worldview. A potential response to the parent is:
- Discussions about sexual orientation in class focus on attraction and not behaviours.
- Discussions about sexual orientation is an important part of supporting healthy development.
- How a child self-identifies is individual to their personal development. Lessons are a mirror for all students.
- Discussions about sexual orientation can reduce homophobia, harassment and bullying. Education about diverse identities builds respect for others while encouraging positive personal health.
Many factors (including education) may influence whether or not a student discloses their attraction – but these factors do not change a child’s sexual identity. Classroom lessons offer one teachable moment, but other moments throughout the day also contribute to their knowledge about this topic.
Note: Regardless of curricular content, students are familiar with differences before they enter the classroom. Having conversations with parents about curricular content starts with recognizing what their child may already know. As an educator, you are creating a healthy space for children to learn about their personal development. Discussing diverse depictions of relationships in other subjects outside of sex-ed leaves room for children to explore and express what they know and who they are.
Before your lesson, consider what knowledge your students have about sexuality and health. Do they obtain their knowledge through conversations in the school yard or through the media they consume? Or do they talk about healthy behaviours in their home or religious community? Educators should provide opportunities for students to self-reflect and engage with the subject matter in ways that are personal and attentive to who they are and what they bring with them. Allowing students to ask questions anonymously through journaling or using a question box creates an inclusive environment that encourages children and youth to share with you what they know (or think they know), don’t know, and want to know about sexuality. This practice recognizes that a student’s health needs are personal and a broad framework may not always be the most inclusive. The wide range of student questions can also be evidence that sexual and health education is needed, if you have to speak to the importance of the content you are engaging.
Effective sexuality and health education should invite students to engage with their values, beliefs and attitudes toward their own sexual health.
3. ENGAGING PARENTS
Consider how you can encourage open communication with your students and their families. Inviting parents to ask questions about the curriculum creates the opportunity for fruitful discussion about their (religious) values and beliefs. As an educator, this can help you understand the health goals that are important to the students’ families.
Sending a notification letter to parents prior to instruction provides them with an opportunity to ask questions and review the topics discussed, and can be an effective strategy in reducing parental concern. Further, it clarifies the 3 M’s (misinformation, misconception and myth) while encouraging parents to engage with the curriculum, identify potential cultural or religious sensitivities, and be a support in their child’s learning. A letter may include the following information:
Dear Parent or Guardian,
This year your student will receive sexuality and health education. The Ministry of Education’s curriculum guidelines is designed to support your student’s individual development. The grade [#] sexuality and health curriculum provides students with information on the following topics:
- Include a brief summary of topics and key concepts from the curriculum.
- Consider providing a calendar to outline specific dates topics will be addressed.
- You may also provide a list of resources for parents to access to prepare for the topics ahead.
School-based sexuality and health education is one form of positive health promotion. We encourage you to continue to support and teach your student in your home. Prior discussion with your student about the contents outlined in this letter offers the opportunity to discuss your values and beliefs related to sexuality and health development.
We acknowledge that parents/guardians are the primary sexuality and health educators for their student(s). Should you have any questions about the lesson or particular subject matter, or would like additional resources, I encourage you to contact me at ______________________________.
When we acknowledge that parents may be an important sexuality and health support for their child(ren), we are saying: together we can promote the development of sexuality and health for all children and youth.
Finally, anticipate the diversity of your students and the unique knowledge they bring into the classroom. When teaching children and youth from faith communities, be supportive of the knowledge they share about sexuality and health that may come from values and attitudes within their home and faith community. Consider the following ways you can support faith-diverse students and parents in your school community:
- Be encouraging, thank the parent for coming to you and sharing their values and beliefs.
- Share with the parent the specific learning goals for their child’s age/grade and ask how you can support their own values about sexuality and health as they continue the conversation in their home – with the proviso that lessons must be equitable and accessible to all students and you must be comfortable with the support you are offering.
- Consider ways parents or families can participate in the instructional design.
- Be open and willing to consider new suggestions and ideas.
- Remember there are multiple ways of knowing and learning for all families. When discussing curricular concerns with parents of faith, maintain an open discussion with the goal of understanding their perspective and how you can continue to be a positive support in their child’s life.
- Design instructional activities that complement the knowledge students bring from home, community, and church. Guide conversations to include students’ values and unique perspectives and help students connect and apply what they learn to their home/community.
- Collaborate with other teachers, administrators, and parents to establish faith-based resources that reflect the needs and expectations of the students and their families.
- The aim of a comprehensive sexuality and health program is to support students in their personal development. For some children and youth, their faith is a factor in their decision making.
These strategies outline a few important steps for teaching sexuality and health across religious and political lines. As educators, administrators and parents we must continue to strive toward a curriculum that leverages the needs and voices of today’s children and youth – regardless of difference.
First published in Education Canada, June 2019