Opportunity Knocks: Teachable Moments

Date: July 20th, 2012
By:

Gina Desiderio

This blog post is the first in a of three-part series (see also: Part 2, Part 3) highlighting Healthy Teen Network’s resources on using teachable moments to reach youth, through our Opportunity Knocks resources, including a fact sheet and pre-packaged, fully designed presentation, ready for you to use.  The Opportunity Knocks series is based on Healthy Teen Network’s belief that with accurate information and adequate support, young people can make healthy and responsible decisions about having sex and using contraception. Adults can be most effective by providing the information and support needed to promote responsible decision-making in youth and help ensure transition to adulthood is safe and healthy.

A “teachable moment” is a general term, but one that I’m sure you’ve come across or used in your experiences working with youth. A teachable moment is a situation where opportunity knocks—a time at which a person, especially a child, is likely to be particularly disposed to learn something or to be particularly responsive to being taught or made aware of something.[1]

Teachable moments offer some advantages when trying to reach youth:

  1. Youth can make healthy and responsible decisions: With accurate information and adequate support, young people can make healthy and responsible decisions about having sex and using contraception.
  2. Adults can promote responsible decision-making: Adults can be most effective by providing the information and support needed to promote responsible decision-making in youth and help ensure transition to adulthood is safe and healthy.
  3. Creating a positive interaction opens the door for future opportunities: A key component for adults is taking advantage of teachable moments to discuss sex and the use of contraception with young people.  Youth are often hesitant to talk with adults about sex.  When young people are willing to discuss this topic, adults must be prepared to help by providing information and resources.  When the interaction is positive, it is more likely that the youth will return to the adult again.

Sometimes, adults are afraid that talking about sex leads to sex, but this is simply not true.  Talking about sex does not lead to sex.  Also, risk-taking can be part of normal adolescent development; adults can be most effective by promoting healthy decision-making during this stage. Talking about sex does not mean an adult is advocating sexual activity. Making the best use of teachable moments can help youth make better choices if and when they do make the decision to become sexually active.  Furthermore, sexual feelings are a part of normal adolescent development.[2]

Teachable moments can make initiating conversation about sex and contraception easier and more comfortable for everyone involved.   There are two kinds of teachable moments—those that spontaneously occur, and those that can be prompted based on a situation.  With spontaneous teachable moments, youth initiate the conversation.  With prompted teachable moments, the adult initiates the conversation, using the current situation or topic as a jumping off point.

Media often provide the opportunity for a prompted or a spontaneous teachable moment.  A television show, movie, or song, for example, may present a storyline or subject that contains an important lesson or example. Youth may bring these topics up, or you may be able to take advantage of this example and use it as a “jumping off point” in your discussion about safer sex and contraception. This type of teachable moment may seem contrived, but it is a great way to begin a conversation that may otherwise be difficult to initiate.

What are some ways you have used media examples or current events to prompt a teachable moment?

A helpful hint is not to limit your teachable moments to media that interests you; take some time to understand what interests the youth you work with. Read their magazines and be aware of popular television shows, movies, and music. These images, storylines, songs, and ads are what they are absorbing all of the time.

Teachable moments may also occur if a young person discloses something to, or confides in, you. As an educator, nurse, social worker, clinician, or other direct service provider, it is important to feel confident in your response if a young person discloses a personal situation or asks for advice. This type of teachable moment may catch you off guard, so it is important that you have the training, resources, and preparation to respond accordingly.

For example, I used to be a high school English teacher, and in my first year of teaching, I did not have any training or preparation in dealing with disclosure.  A student confided in me that she sometimes cut herself.  I was caught off guard; I didn’t know how to respond to her, in the moment, and I didn’t know what I was required to report, legally, or to keep confidential.

Whether the disclosure is spontaneous or prompted, it’s important to know the policy relevant to the situation.  While we aren’t able to review your specific organization’s or agency’s confidentiality and referral policy in just a single blog post, there are some important key points to be aware, in the event of a disclosure.  You should know:

  1.  What must be kept confidential (e.g., HIV status, sexual orientation)?
  2. What must be reported (e.g., abuse, intent to harm self or others)?
  3. What is your professional role expected to be (e.g., referral to counseling/crisis intervention or counseling/crisis intervention)?
  4. What are your professional boundaries?
  5. What  resources and referrals are available locally?

See your supervisor, credentialing organization, state law, etc., to find out more about your relevant confidentiality and reporting policies and laws.

It’s important to let youth know what’s confidential, as well.  This will help create a safe space, building trust, and encourage future opportunities for providing information, resources, and referrals.


[1] Teachable Moments. (2009).  Encarta Dictionary. Retrieved online.

[2] Haffner, D. (Ed.). (1995). Facing facts: Sexual health for America’s adolescents. NY, NY: Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

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About the Author

Gina Desiderio, Healthy Teen Network Director of Communications, has over 10 years of capacity-building and project management experience, supporting professionals to provide programs and services to empower youth to thrive.

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