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Middle school sex education is actually working

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

Planned Parenthood's sex-ed program aimed at tweens has surprising results

Sex education starting in middle school? For some parents, that's enough to keep their kids home. But Get Real, a program from Planned Parenthood, may have them rethinking that. A study out of Wellesley Centers for Women shows that students that were involved with Get Real were more likely to delay having sex than their peers who were not exposed to the curriculum.

The program, created for students in sixth through eighth grades, has had some truly successful results for both kids and parents. According to Jen Slonaker, Vice President of Education & Training for Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Get Real's comprehensive sex education is built on best practices and aligns with national standards. The curriculum centers around relationship skills, which is key for middle school. "If kids can negotiate relationships," Slonaker said in a press call earlier this week, "They can better figure out sexual relationships."

Get Real, while aimed at students, also relies on the whole family for its success. "Parents are the primary sexuality educators of their own children," Slonaker notes. She knew that in developing Get Real, parents needed to be involved, which is why there is a "homework" portion of the curriculum, bringing the conversation back into the home. By starting these important conversations early, those behind Get Real believe that kids and parents will talk about these topics through adolescence, benefiting everyone. And Slonaker says that the program is making a difference. "Get Real empowers parents," she says, "and makes sure they're part of the process. Parents are provided with ways to broach what could be tricky or potentially uncomfortable conversations, and research shows that their involvement is crucial."

The evidence backs it all up. Using a randomized control design, The Wellesley Centers for Women looked at 24 schools with over 2,000 students in the Boston, Massachusetts area to see if the Get Real curriculum was effective. Research scientist Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D. reported that after a three-year evaluation, boys who completed the Get Real curriculum in sixth grade were more likely to delay sex in eighth grade. The research also showed that when it comes to parents talking about sex, in general, families are more likely to talk about sex health with girls, but with Get Real, parents are talking with both girls and boys. According to Dr. Grossman, parental involvement is crucial, and she noted that talking with a parent — especially when using the supplemental materials from Get Real — can actually delay teen sex.

Planned Parenthood is very clear that the Get Real program does not espouse any values when it comes to sex, and instead is about providing medically accurate and age-appropriate information. This is one of the selling points for those who may be unsure about the program. I asked Slonaker if they've had any resistance to the program from either school staff or parents. She said that they've received some questions from both faculty and parents, but that what they've found is that when they welcome folks to sit down with the curriculum and look through the materials, everyone gets on board.

And in fact, the majority of parents in the country want their kids to know healthy and safe sex and relationship information. Leslie Kantor, Planned Parenthood's Vice President of Education, shared some powerful statistics from a recent national survey that polled teens and parents about sex education. "What we know, from poll after poll after poll, is that parents overwhelmingly support sex education," Kantor said on the same press call. "Whether you talk to parents or you talk to teens, sex education in high schools and middle schools is supported by more than 90 percent of the American public." The problem is that despite this support, there are large gaps when it comes to education. Kantor said that polls reveal that "more than one in five parents had never talked to their kids about strategies for saying no to sex, anything about birth control methods or where to get accurate sexual health information." Thankfully, Get Real is available to fill those gaps, and now has the studies to back up its potential for success.

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