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Social emotional learning and sex education: working to achieve health equity for all young people

In recent years social-emotional learning (SEL) has taken center stage, prompting a shift in the way school districts teach students about emotion regulation, relationships, and conflict resolution, alongside traditional subjects like language arts and science. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a pioneer in the field of social-emotional learning instruction, SEL has the potential to increase “students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges." Teachers have long known that building SEL skills is integral for students’ learning outcomes, but today, how exactly are districts working to ensure all students gain these “soft” skills? Many are looking, in part, to comprehensive sexual health education (CSE) programs, like Health Connected’s.

Yep, you heard that right! Comprehensive sexual health education, when implemented in alignment with National Sexuality Education Standards, promotes SEL in youth and encompasses a range of topics that extends far beyond the 60-minute black and white film reel about menstruation you may remember from 5th grade.

In fact, CSE, like that required under the California Healthy Youth Act (CA Education Code sections 51930-51939), helps adolescents build capacity around communication skills (including condom negotiation skills), healthy relationships, and identifying and reporting harassment and assault. Moreover, studies show that when youth have guidance from trusted adults about relationships and sexuality, rates of misogyny are reduced, and harmful norms around gender and power are subverted.

However, nationwide, many young people say they’re lacking support in developing valuable social-emotional skills. The Talk, a report from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, found that teens want guidance from trusted adults in their lives about sexuality and relationships but aren’t getting the in-depth information or modeling they need at home or in school.

“Almost all teens know they’re supposed to be self-respecting and respectful in their romantic and sexual lives; what many don’t know is what these kinds of respect actually mean in different romantic and sexual situations.”

The 2017 report goes on to say that when adults have meaningful discussions around relationships and sexuality, it ultimately strengthens youths’ “ability to develop caring, responsible relationships at every stage of their lives and grow into ethical adults, community members, and citizens.”

In the field of public health, health educators and others are constantly working to address incredibly complex issues—from reducing the rate of STI transmission to lowering unplanned pregnancy rates to helping to break cycles of poverty, violence, and marginalization. These issues cut across all demographics—whether acknowledged or not—regardless of race, gender, orientation or socioeconomics. But too often—because of lack of funds, preparedness, or personnel capacity—our local, state and national governments take reactive approaches to tackling these challenges. The truth is, these are not root problems, only symptoms of larger unresolved systemic issues like lack of education, resources, familial stability, job security, food security, and mental health care services. The good news is preventive approaches like SEL practices, of which CSE is an integral part, offer an opportunity to mitigate these public health outcomes that have the potential to derail a young person’s ability to thrive.

When we provide an opportunity for learning that comprehensively addresses sex, sexuality, and relationships, youth can practice important skills, hear new perspectives from their peers, and evaluate their culture and own beliefs in ways they often aren’t given space to do otherwise. Through this, young people grow emotionally and socially, and have the skills to develop interpersonal relationships founded on empathy, respect, and care—something we all want for our kids.

And, while every family has their own values around what type of information they’d like to see taught in classrooms and how it should be delivered, young people need to have these conversations whether at home or at school. Parents and trusted adults play a vital role in helping youth understand the world around them—they are eager for guidance.

Learn more about the link between SEL, comprehensive sex education and the role you play in setting youth up for success today and as they mature! Check out the resources below!

  • Learn more about CASEL, a leader in the SEL field, and the positive impact SEL can have on youth and their development.

  • Harvard's Graduate School of Education explores adults' impact on the relationships of emerging adults in The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment.

  • Find out what the Future of Sex Education, a partnership of leading national adolescent health organizations, is saying about the importance of comprehensive sex ed and its amazing SEL outcomes!

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