Schools bucking trend of teaching sex ed earlier

By Greg MacCormack

During her 15 years with Kids Help Phone, Shirley Levitz says she’s heard “everything.”

One phone call, however, stands out for the former clinical supervisor who now heads a volunteer program offering advice to troubled youngsters.

An eight year old called to ask what a condom was. She says children have often heard partial or incorrect information and are left with questions.

Levitz says the phone line tries to answer all questions by providing information at “an age appropriate level.”

Levitz says children often call because of the phone line’s reputation for maintaining the anonymity of the caller.

Levitz’s anecdote illustrates a growing issue of when and how to discuss sex with children. Some school boards across the country are now beginning sex education as early as Grade 6.

However, the Ontario Ministry of Education is not following the national trend.

Students learn about healthy living in Grades 1 to 6. In Grade 9 students begin learning about sex and the associated risks. Each year builds on the student’s knowledge from previous years.

The Ministry of Education updated its curriculum from 1997 to 1999, explains Tom Macarty, a curriculum specialist in physical education at the Ottawa Carleton School Board. Previously, “teachers were clamoring for answers on what to teach their students since the curriculum was from 1978.”

Macarty says this was the equivalent of “two generations” of students.

Karen Cairns teaches gym at Lisgar Collegiate Institute.

She says that in her 29 years of teaching, students have generally asked the same questions; however they are asking them two to three years earlier.

She says the questions she is asked depend on the students’ comfort level, which can vary by class and year. Cairns says her students often ask questions based on what they have seen in the media. She predicts her students will ask about same-sex marriage.

Cairns says in some classes she answers questions while in others she leads a discussion.

Cairns says the sex-ed curriculum is “constantly evolving” with teachers updating their knowledge on professional development days.

“Full information is better than partial information,” Levitz says.

Pascale Hough, the community education co-ordinator of Ottawa’s Planned Parenthood, says her organization speaks to students in Grade 5 and up about puberty. She says Planned Parenthood is often asked to help teachers “break the ice” and “normalize” discussion about sexuality.

Hough says younger students often need to take “giggle breaks” when discussing the subject.

Trudy Brand-Jacobsen, principal of Fisher Park Public School, says sexuality should be discussed from an early age as a normal part of growing up.

Hough says that the organization follows the Ministry of Education guidelines when talking to students.

She adds Planned Parenthood will also hold talks for parents about how to address these issues with their children.