Teaching Health & Sex Education
This article provides an overview of the objectives and central issues involved in teaching health and sex education. The article explains the main considerations in formulating health education programs, including the importance of health education, methods of teaching health education and the components that should be included in any health education curriculum. This article also describes some of the important issues that teachers and administrators face in developing sex education programs. These issues include determining the ideal approach to sex education, developing appropriate curriculum materials and lesson plans and establishing the goals of any sex education program. In addition, the overview provides a discussion of some of the most important factors that arise in the implementation of a health or sex education program, such as creating a positive learning environment, developing appropriate measurement and evaluation techniques and using instructional media. Finally, a brief examination of some of the issues that health and sex education teachers are facing today is provided. These issues include teaching children with special education needs and learning difficulties, those grappling with sexual orientation and sexual identity questions and young people who are learning to properly manage stress and emotional difficulties. The following sections explain these concepts in more detail.
Keywords Abstinence; Family History; Nutrition; Physical Fitness; Puberty; Self-Esteem; Stress Management; Substance Abuse
Health education is the communication of practices and principles that promote health and well-being through a process of planned learning experiences that supply information, change attitudes and influence behaviors of children so that they are equipped to take responsibility for their own health. This process is accomplished as teachers create and facilitate learning experiences that assist students in developing the necessary decision-making abilities to seek out habits that promote their well-being and to incorporate healthy practices into their own lives. Although health education is a lifelong process, children can begin to develop strong health habits during their years in school that they can continue to practice as they move into adulthood. Teaching health education is critically important as young people are increasingly facing situations that affect their physical, mental or emotional well-being during their school years. The following sections explain the objectives, methods and components of teaching health education in greater detail.
Teaching Health Education
Health education means teaching children to develop an awareness of the many practices of healthy habits and to incorporate them into their lives. These practices include gradually assuming responsibility for their own health and health care, being actively involved with medical professionals in any decision-making process regarding their health care, incorporating new healthy habits and attempting to change unhealthy ones, avoiding unhealthy fads or diet trends and thinking about their health and well-being as an asset to be nurtured through conscious attention. Ultimately, the goal of health education is for children to learn to strive for self-reliance in personal health matters and to voluntarily adopt practices that are consistent with a healthy lifestyle.
As the school days become increasingly hectic and more schools stress a curriculum that is designed to prepare students for standardized tests, health education programs are at risk of being trimmed or eliminated altogether. However, health education is important because it helps each generation of students learn to become physically, psychologically and socially fit in order to be prepared to assume the tasks of adulthood. While health education programs are most effective when they are incorporated into a standard educational curriculum, the concepts of health and a healthy lifestyle can be taught in lessons on mainstream subject areas, such as reading, mathematics, science, art, social studies and physical education. However, although students may choose many different career paths after the completion of their formal education, they will all have to make critical decisions about their own health, and thus health education is an important addition to a well-rounded curriculum.
Importance of Health Education
Perhaps the best argument for teaching health education is that health behaviors are the most important determinant of health status and well-being. Since health-related behaviors are learned behaviors, a formal health education ideally should be implemented during the elementary school years, before children have health habits that may be difficult to change or replace with healthier choices. In addition, elementary school children are less likely to have begun experimenting with abusive or destructive lifestyles, and thus the dangers of these practices can be stressed and children can be armed with the information that will help them to avoid unhealthy choices. Finally, many health problems have been associated with the effects of unhealthy habits such as smoking, poor nutrition, being overweight, stress, abuse of drugs and alcohol and unsafe personal or sexual practices. Thus, health education can help children to not only make better health-related choices, but can also help them to avoid behaviors that lead to disease or health problems later in life.
Although children are often eager to learn about good health habits and caring for their bodies, even by the time children enter elementary school, they have already learned and developed significant attitudes and preferences regarding their health. For instance, they have learned food likes and dislikes and they have developed certain hygiene practices and personal patterns of interacting with family and friends. They also have developed well-established attitudes and value systems, based on their health-related experiences at home and in their neighborhood and community. These preferences and practices generally become more deeply engrained as children mature into teenagers and young adults. The aim of health education is to help children learn how to develop positive practices for caring for all aspects of their personal health that are constructive and responsible.
Methods of Health Education
Health education cannot be accomplished through rote memorization or the examination of descriptions of muscle groups, body functions or anatomy. Instead, health education is accomplished by teaching children the importance of good health and the wide-reaching implications of their health choices so that they learn to value health and healthy habits. In addition, health education methods provide a means of conveying the techniques and information necessary to make decisions that will promote wellness and a healthy lifestyle. Health educators are often challenged when children learn from and observe the poor health habits of their parents, friends or members of the community. For many children, these observations are their primary source of information regarding health care, dietary and lifestyle choices and exercise habits. Other sources of health information for children are television programs and the Internet. However, these forms of media may often provide access to information that is unhealthy or not appropriate for children and so some children received mixed messages about health, even while they lack the cognitive and reasoning abilities to sort out constructive information from inappropriate information.
To accomplish its objectives, the methods of a successful health education program must be sequential, planned, comprehensive and informative.
• Health education is sequential when it is provided throughout the educational experience, generally from kindergarten through high school. The curriculum at each educational level should be based on what has been learned in previous years while providing a foundation for information that will be taught in future years.
• Planned instruction should be based on goals, educational benchmarks, outcome-related objectives and clear evaluation techniques. It should be taught within the total curriculum framework and not substituted by physical education classes that lack instruction on health education and lifestyle choices.
• Health education should be comprehensive in that it should include instruction on the range of health content areas, such as health behavior and promotion, disease prevention, lifestyle, risk factors and self-care.
• Finally, health education should be taught by qualified health teachers so that the information presented is informative. Ideally, health teachers should possess a concern for the total wellness of their students and have been trained in both the content and the strategies of health education. Effective health teaching involves providing students with opportunities to personalize positive health habits by implementing the information learned in health education programs into their daily lives as well as creating an atmosphere that encourages and promotes this process.
Components of Health Education
The need for health education programs is becoming ever more vital. In the twenty-first century the choices that children and teenagers must make have become increasingly complex, and young people are facing these choices at a younger age. For instance, children may be exposed during their educational experience to issues such as drug abuse, adolescent suicide, stress management, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), child abuse and prescription medications used for behavior management. Thus, to be truly effective, health education programs must contain a number of components that address sensitive issues. The following components are important parts of a successful health education curriculum.
Health behavior involves the sum of the choices, actions and decisions that each individual makes and that affect his or her health. Health behavior includes such lifestyle practices as eating habits, exercise patterns and stress management techniques. Health behavior also includes personal attributes such as beliefs, expectations, motives and values as well as other cognitive elements that relate to health maintenance and wellness. Health promotion includes the development of choices and lifestyles that maintain or enhance health. Thus, health promotion is the sum of the educational and environmental factors that effect positive actions, and lifestyle patterns that are conducive to health maintenance, restoration and improvement.
Disease prevention consists of the proactive behaviors or choices that individuals assume to avoid poor health or to treat the onset of illness. Disease prevention measures are generally based on the current knowledge of sound health practices as well as disease causation and progression. Disease prevention may occur before, during or after the detection of illness or disease, but its primary motivation is to maintain or restore optimal health. For instance, primary prevention is practiced before a disease occurs by taking measures to maintain health and protect against disease, such as routine physical examinations, sound nutrition and immunizations. If disease is diagnosed, secondary prevention includes prompt attention to treatment of the disease and monitoring warning symptoms of disease advancement. Disease prevention can also include rehabilitation from illness or injury, such as learning motor skills after a handicap or working to resume normal life activities after an accident, disease or other significant health problem.
The concept of lifestyle covers the decisions made and actions taken by individuals that affect their health and over which they more or less have control. Lifestyle is an important part of a health education program because unhealthy personal decisions and habits create self-imposed risks that heighten an individual's susceptibility for illness, injury or disease. Among such self-imposed risks are drug use, smoking, alcohol abuse, poor dietary choices, reckless or impulsive behaviors, and unsafe sexual behavior. These practices and behavior patterns, together with physical activity and safety practices, constitute the set of personal actions that lead to an individual's lifestyle. All of these practices are can be altered and even avoided. Thus, teaching students to take responsibility for developing a healthy lifestyle is an important component of a comprehensive health education program. Particularly, because these patterns become more difficult to change as children grow and mature, a strong health education curriculum that stresses the effects of lifestyle choices is a vitally important element of an elementary and middle school education.
Risk factors are the characteristics or behavioral patterns that increase a person's risk of disease or disorder. Risk factors include characteristics that cannot be modified-such as age, sex, family history and personality type-and those that are amenable, such as blood serum cholesterol levels, blood pressure and obesity from chronic overeating. Health education can teach children to differentiate between the risk factors that they cannot change and those that they can, and to learn to monitor risk factors over which they have no control while adapting their behavior and health habits to improve those risk factors that can be altered.
Self-care includes the active involvement of each individual in his or her own health in health promotion and disease detection, prevention and treatment. Self-care is not a substitute for professional care, but a partnership with it. Even small children can participate effectively in self-care activities. For instance, children can learn to practice good hygiene and make healthy dietary choices and they can learn to identify and communicate the warning signs of an illness.
Teaching Sex Education
Teaching sex education can be a difficult task since these areas often generate controversy. These controversies may stem from differences in religious beliefs, public versus private morality or control of the school curriculum. Moreover, students bring deeply rooted personal values and attitudes to any discussion of these topics. Teachers can avoid many problems by carefully planning their approach to any discussions relating to sex education. Before any sex education program is initiated, teachers and school administrators should seek active communication between parents, parent-teacher organizations, health practitioners and even community leaders. The greater the level of input in any sex education program from a diverse group of community members, the greater the sense of cooperation with the goals and objectives of such a program. In addition, teachers should prepare themselves for the process of teaching sex education. This means they must consider how to communicate sensitive materials, respond to inappropriate questions or comments and interact with parents and community members about their curriculum or teaching methods. While teaching sex education is challenging, with careful thought and consideration, it can be an important component of a meaningful educational experience for students and their families.
Approaches to Sex Education
Many school systems have grappled with questions surrounding what information to include in their sex education programs. Some of this difficulty has stemmed from two divergent schools of thought regarding the proper approach to sex education. One view is that any sex education program should emphasize abstinence from sexual activity as the most appropriate option for adolescents. Accordingly,...
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