B-HEALTHY: 8 Ways to Be a Better Sex Ed Instructor

Date: April 13th, 2016

Valerie Sedivy

It’s no secret that some people find it difficult and/or uncomfortable to teach sex ed. And professionals who support sexual health educators often ask us for tips to make it easier. Through our work with CDC-DASH (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Adolescent and School Health), we compiled eight key strategies you can share with educators, organized in an acronym to help them remember:



You probably already have ground rules for behavior, but it helps to develop group agreements specifically for sex ed because this subject is sensitive and often brings up emotions. With sex ed, there’s also extra potential for violating anti-bullying/harassment policies. You can refer back to these policies when someone makes an inappropriate comment.


Give examples of hurtful comments to help youth avoid offending others unintentionally. One example is saying “that’s so gay” to refer to something that is dumb or bad. Sometimes youth don’t realize that these kinds of comments are hurtful. Some instructors ask youth to think about whether they would be comfortable making the statement if it applied to a particular racial group. If you need additional examples, ask your youth privately for suggestions.


Use an anonymous question box, and ask everyone to put something in the box even if they don’t write a question. This way, no one is stigmatized for using the box. By making the effort to give good responses to questions, you’ll encourage more questions. Sometimes you may get so many questions that you run out of time to complete the lesson. When you get a question on a topic that will be covered later, it’s OK to say so and make a note of the question, so you can address it when you cover the topic. It’s also OK to give a short answer and invite the person asking the question to talk with you later if they want to know more.


The bottom line is that you are not going to know everything, and that’s OK. It helps youth feel comfortable when you admit you don’t know something. And it’s also OK to be uncomfortable talking about a topic and admitting that. If you do acknowledge that you’re uncomfortable and tell youth you are going to talk anyway because this information is so important, you will be setting a great example for communication.


While you probably know a lot about your youth, you cannot assume to know about the experiences, values, and sense of identity they bring to the classroom when it comes to sexuality. Make sure the language you use when you teach takes into account this diversity. Assume every group includes people with diverse sexual orientations, and gender identities that don’t fit into the standard male/female binary. Also assume that at least one person has had a traumatic sexual experience. And assume that at least one person has an SIT or partner with one, and knows someone who is HIV positive. Also, check your assumptions about who might be exerting sexual pressure. Boys can be pressured just as girls can.


Take charge, stay calm, and set a serious tone when you respond to hurtful comments. Think about how you will respond even if you’re not sure what to say or don’t have much time. If you don’t know what to say, talk to your colleagues. Know the curriculum, so you can point out opportunities to reinforce respect. This helps you avoid a prolonged discussion when a comment is made. In some cases, you might need to remove a youth who keeps making hurtful comments. Be aware of your school policies if this situation arises. Also, you may want to offer support to this person privately in case there are underlying issues prompting the behavior.


If it works with your style, don’t be afraid to laugh. But make sure you only laugh at yourself, not others! And tell youth that it’s OK if they laugh sometimes too, as long as they are not making fun of someone else. But don’t make crude jokes, as it can make youth uncomfortable. And be careful with sarcasm—it can lead to misunderstandings.


Deciding what to share about yourself or not can be challenging.
Some instructors decide to share to engage youth, build rapport, increase credibility, or illustrate a point. But disclosing information about yourself can be risky when it comes to sexuality, and it can also interfere with your efforts to get youth to think about what is right for them. Share only information that you would be comfortable sharing with parents and administrators or seeing online.

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About the Author

Valerie Sedivy, Ph.D., Healthy Teen Network Senior Program Manager, has over 25 years of experience in the sexual health field and currently supports professionals to provide programs and services that empower youth to thrive. Her experience in multiple roles including program provider, researcher, evaluator, capacity-building assistance provider, resource developer and project manager has instilled a passion for translating research into practical messages and tools for field staff.

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