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Teaching Comprehensive Sex Education, From Kindergarten Through High School

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By guest blogger Lisa Stark 

It may seem odd to talk about sex education and kindergarten in the same breath, but advocates of comprehensive sexuality education say that's when this instruction should start. At that age it's a discussion of empathy, personal space, and understanding emotions. As students get older, the curriculum grows more sophisticated, focusing on subjects such as anatomy, personal safety, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.

Groups that support comprehensive sexuality education have developed the National Sexuality Education Standards, which they say provide guidance for districts on essential content. But a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found most districts aren't offering all-inclusive sexuality education. The CDC found that just 38 percent of high school students and 14 percent of middle school students are getting sex education that covers 19 topics the CDC considers important. 

In some areas of the country, the focus is on abstinence-only education. And some parents feel sex education should be discussed at home, not in the classroom.

Shafia Zaloom is a health educator who has been teaching comprehensive sexuality education for 25 years. She says she "wholeheartedly believes parents should be the primary sexuality educator in a child's life," but that "they can't be the only one."

She says parents can communicate family values, while teachers can provide medically accurate information.

Zaloom, who is based in San Francisco, but teaches around the country, says schools are also a good place for teens to discuss social dynamics and healthy relationships.

"Students have an opportunity in a school setting to talk about these issues and learn about them with the very people who they may be exploring those things with," she says.

This subject has taken on added significance in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has some states and school districts rethinking their curriclum, debating whether to add instruction on sexual harassment, preventing violence and ensuring consent.

Zaloom welcomes the discussion, saying it reinforces the importance of comprehensive sexuality education.

"I think it really highlighted for people how important it is, and it's not just sex information," she says, "but how you apply that information to the complexities of human relationships." 

We caught up with Zaloom at Washington's Georgetown Day High School, where she outlined what this looks like—from the earliest years through high school. 

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