Human development professor Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo is researching how to effectively teach normal sexual development to sixth-graders.
Sex education has long been thought the realm of uncomfortable health teachers, reluctant parents, awkward giggling and movies that raised more questions than answers.
A human development and family studies professor and her graduate student at Texas Tech University created a curriculum to change that.
Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo is in her fourth year of working with students in the Lubbock-Cooper Independent School (LCISD). She and doctoral student Nancy Trevino-Schafer created the Normalizing Sexual Development (NSD) curriculum after doing a thorough research review on existing puberty curricula and talking with educators about the gap between what students were ready to hear and what they were being taught. Too often, they found sixth-graders, who are 11 and 12 years old, were learning about sex and contraceptives without any substantive understanding of why and how their bodies were changing.
Essentially, she said too many youth walked away with the idea that puberty meant it was time to have sex.
“Going through puberty doesn't mean you have to get intimate with somebody,” Trejos-Castillo said. “Talking with teens, we found out how they personally feel the pressure other people put on them just because they are going through puberty and the confusion about having to have somebody and doing something with them.
“One of the sixth-graders said, ‘Oh, that means I don't have to kiss anybody?' There's this idea that because I'm going through sexual changes I've got to have sex.”
NSD is considered abstinence-plus education and includes two curricula, one for sixth-graders and one for high school students. The curriculum for the older teenagers covers sex, abstinence, birth control, sexually transmitted infections and what to consider before having sex. The groundbreaking work is in the sixth-grade curriculum. It presents human development as multi-faceted, teaching children about the cognitive, emotional and social changes they'll experience and how to cope with them along with how their bodies are changing.
“This is about you changing as a person completely, at all different levels instead of just you sexually changing,” Trejos-Castillo tells the students. “When people think about sexual development they immediately talk about having sex, and one thing is not the other.”
Talking about normal development like it's normal
In her work as an adolescent and human development researcher, Trejos-Castillo has studied the importance of having these conversations. In her role as a mother, she witnessed it firsthand. Children came home from school after watching a video on puberty all grossed out and confused.
“It's awkward because when they watch those videos it's dark, they're watching these images and they don't know what to do with themselves after,” she said. “There's no elaboration about it.”
She initially partnered with the Lubbock Independent School District (LISD) to create the NSD curriculum, doing research on available curricula to see what was being taught and what was most effective for students. What she found was a lot of information was being shared, but it wasn't landing the way it should have been. Her goal was to create something that made sexual development sound normal.
“The idea of normalized sexual development is exactly that – this is normal, this has to happen,” she said. “We can't stop it, so we better empower the teenagers to know what's going on with their bodies.”
After creating the curriculum, she and LISD parted ways, and she and Trevino-Schafer went to LCISD, where the curriculum has been fully adopted and made mandatory for all sixth-graders. It's been a positive partnership both for the school district and for Trejos-Castillo, who is conducting her own research on how well the curriculum works and how to train teachers to educate their students.
“Sex is still a taboo topic,” Trevino-Schafer said. “One of our goals with the curriculum was to discuss adolescent development with teens in a way that would help them understand their current stage of development and help them make healthy decisions for their body and future. We also help them understand that sexual development and puberty are normal, and it is OK to feel awkward about the changes happening, but that they can talk to caring adults in their lives.”
The lessons are broken down into six categories of development: cognitive, emotional, physical, relational, social and holistic. In the first week, for cognitive development, the students play games and try to get each other laughing and talking. They do exercises in setting boundaries, delayed gratification and self-control.
Much of that is to get students comfortable with learning about themselves and talking about difficult subjects. Students feel pressure from parents, teachers, media and peers, they're not always comfortable in their bodies and they don't always feel they fit into their social group.
For week two they discuss emotional development. Trejos-Castillo asks the students to figure out who they are and what's unique about them. They play bingo that has blanks on it for favorite color, shoe size, height, number of siblings and so on. Then she breaks the students into smaller groups, and they talk about their unique qualities. She and her graduate student facilitate the groups, reminding students not to compare themselves to others and to make decisions based on their wants and needs, not others.
The third week they talk about physical changes. By now the students trust Trejos-Castillo and they're used to sharing with each other. The presentation about puberty is basic; it looks at how the body functions, how organs function and what they can expect to experience. Trejos-Castillo uses the right terminology as she discusses genitals, and while she does divide the students into two groups, it's not male and female.
“We want boys and girls to get this information together so we can see the reactions and so they learn about healthy boundaries,” she said. “Sometimes when you separate them you create more taboos about what males go through and what females go through.”
They're a little anxious at the beginning, and she allows for that, telling the students they can all wiggle and giggle together as they get started. They use models purchased from the United Kingdom that are transparent, allowing children to focus on internal organs. She also encourages questions – helpful, since the sixth-graders are full of them.
“Their questions are more related to biology – how and why is my body changing? Is this gross? Is this normal? They don't ask anything about being intimate with anybody or having these sexual relationships with anybody,” she said. “They're more curious about babies, which is interesting.
“We have served more than 1,000 children so far, and we haven't had any questions about sexual behaviors.”
The second half of the curriculum focuses on external development – building relationships, interacting with peers, “fitting in,” setting goals and being part of a community. In one activity the students form teams and plan a trip to Mars, for which they make decisions about what supplies to bring, what the ideal team member looks like and what they have to offer the team as a whole.
For four years Trejos-Castillo and Trevino-Schafer have conducted research on the effectiveness of the NSD curriculum as she teaches it. All the children take a test before the curriculum begins to gauge their knowledge and understanding of puberty and human development. This questionnaire also asks about self-esteem, self-restraint and experiences they've had with bullying and asks questions about what sexual activities they feel might be appropriate at certain ages.
The students take the same questionnaire after the course to see how much they learned and whether their ideas shifted.
They're also gathering softer data – how do students react to the information, are they comfortable talking to her about these subjects, how much giggling does she hear when they're in mixed-sex groups and learning about the human body. She also allows for writing time in each session and gives the students a word or some guidelines and has them write their thoughts. It gives her a sense of how the lessons are landing.
“I've seen them write, ‘I learned today that I'm unique. I learned today that it's OK to be me. It's OK to be awkward sometimes,'” she said.
Trejos-Castillo hasn't changed the curriculum since they started it, needing it to remain the same course so she could effectively gather information on it. For the first few years she relied solely on anecdotal data to ensure the curriculum was working.
“Now we have enough data to say it's working, and it's working just fine,” she said. “From what we gather from the staff, it's the best curriculum they've ever had.”
They also get feedback from the parents, who are invited to a meeting before the course begins to allay any concerns they may have and contact her throughout or after the curriculum with questions. Most come to the first meeting anxious, but by the time their children are done, they have plenty of good things to say.
The NSD curriculum is not yet available for others to replicate; Trejos-Castillo wants to make sure it works properly before trademarking it. When that happens, she will focus some of her efforts on teaching the teachers instead of students. She wants to make sure untrained teachers don't share the curriculum improperly, thus reducing its effectiveness.
“Information is power, and I wish more teenagers would be empowered by getting the right information on time,” she said. “I've been working with teenagers more than 20 years. You realize you have to develop something that's just appropriate for them.”