Building an Effective Program

What types of sexual health education are the most effective at helping adolescents protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy and STI?

The primary goals of sexual health education are to avoid negative sexual health outcomes and to enhance sexual health. A considerable body of scientific research has been devoted to identifying the key ingredients of effective sexual health education. With respect to pregnancy and STI/HIV prevention, a clear picture has emerged as to what is the most effective approach:

  1. Effective prevention programs clearly focus on giving relevant information, reducing specific sexual risk-taking behaviours, giving students the opportunity to develop the motivation and personal insight to use the information, and helping students to develop the behavioural skills needed to carry out health promoting behaviours (Fisher & Fisher, 1998; Health Canada, 1994; Kirby et al., 1994; Kirby, 2000). 
  2. Effective prevention programs provide relevant information, address motivational factors that influence sexual health behavior, and teach specific behavioural skills necessary to protect and enhance sexual health (Albarracin, Gillette, Earl, et al., 2005; Fisher & Fisher, 1998).  There is a large body of evidence that suggests such programs can help delay first intercourse and increase the use of condoms. 
  3. Key ingredients of effective sexual health promotion programming include:
  • Sufficient classroom time
  • Necessary training for teachers/educators
  • Sound teaching methods
  • Tailored instruction for optimal learning
  • Focus on the behaviours that lead to negative sexual health outcomes
  • Delivery and reinforcement of prevention messages, consistent condom use, and forms of contraception
  • Acknowledgement of environmental and social contexts
  • Incorporation of information, motivation, and behavioural skills
  • Active participants, rather than passive recipients
  • Appropriate and effective evaluation tools

Frequently Asked Questions about Sexual Health Education

Q: Why do we need sexual health education in the schools?

A: Sexual health is a key component of overall health and well-being. As such, education and information should be available to everyone as an important factor of health promotion and services (Health Canada, 2003). All Canadians - including youth - have the right to information necessary to prevent negative sexual health outcomes, such as STIs and unplanned pregnancies, and enhance sexual health. School based sexual health education programs are effective in reducing STI/HIV infection and unplanned pregnancy.

Q: Does teaching adolescents about contraception/condoms lead to earlier or more frequent sexual activity?

A: The answer to this question is a definitive “No”. A meta-analysis of the impact of different sexual health promotion interventions found that educational programs do not increase the frequency of sexual behavior or the number of sexual partners (Smoak, Scott-Sheldon, Johnson & Carey, 2006). Instead, there is a large body of evidence that suggests that such programs can have a very positive impact on sexual health behaviors. Some studies have concluded that “programs do not hasten or increase sexual behavior but, instead, some programs delay or decrease sexual behaviors or increase condom or contraceptive use” (Kirby, Laris & Rolleri, 2007, p. 206).

Q: What is the impact of making condoms easily available to teenagers?

A: Research has clearly and consistently shown that the promotion and distribution of condoms to adolescents does not result in earlier or more frequent sexual activity. Instead, research indicates that condom distribution programs can significantly increase condom use among those teens who are sexually active (see Blake et al., 2003; Guttmacher et al., 1997; Schuster, Bell, Berry & Kanouse, 1998). Further, many condom distribution programs that increase condom use among those at high risk for STIs have been shown to result in savings related to medical costs associated with STI infections (Bedimo et al., 2002).

Source: SIECCAN Sexual health education in the schools: Questions & Answers 2010