Monday, February 23, 2015

Ontario's New Health and Physical Education Curriculum - One Mom's Take - Grades 1-6

children and teacher in classroom
image from
Parents across Ontario are getting their first look today at the province's new Health and Physical Education curriculum. Not everyone is on board with all of the changes, particularly with the updated Human Development and Sexual Health components (i.e., sex ed). Sex education in the schools has always been a touchy subject. There are many personal, cultural and religious factors in play concerning what and when is appropriate or necessary for children to learn. Some parents believe this should be kept in the home. Some parents simply find it difficult to process that their children are growing up as fast as they are (that would be me).  But if you think it was easy to learn from Jenny's older brother in the school yard when we were kids, just think how easy it is now with the availability of the Internet.

Personally, I hope we are getting the correct information to our kids, along with the skills to deal with that information, at a young enough age to make it useful and keep them safe. They should have the information and be comfortable with it a little before they need it, in my opinion. And I think both parents and the schools have a role to play. So I spent the afternoon today reading through this curriculum document.

First off, according to the Hospital for Sick Children, the physical changes of puberty begin for girls (on average) around the age of 10, but can start as early as 8. For boys, puberty begins somewhere between age 9 and 14. So by grade 4 chances are good that your child or someone in their class will be exhibiting signs of puberty. (I know! But then I remembered that I was already wearing a bra in fourth grade myself.) That can be scary for the child, and just plain weird for their classmates. Being the first girl to wear a bra can be mortifying. (Ask me!) It's one thing for that girl's mom to sit her down and talk about the changes happening to her body, but are the other kids getting the same information? If the curriculum supports this natural developmental stage and normalises it, that can make the changes easier for everyone. (Less making fun of, less bullying, more understanding.)

With that in mind, here is my quick synopsis of the specifically sex ed components of this new curriculum, up to grade 6.

In Grade 1, the children are to be taught the proper, medical, terms for their body parts. Penis, testicles, vulva, etc. That's really it - terminology. They are also to be taught proper hygiene - washing hands, sneezing into sleeve, etc., as part of the health component.

In Grade 2, they will be taught the stages of human development - infant, child, adolescent, adult, older adult - and related bodily changes, like growing taller, building muscles, getting wrinkles. The examples given sound very general. There is also a component of personal safety that could be a place to set some groundwork for understanding consent, but again it's more general.  Here's an example prompt and response from the document:

Teacher: “If someone does something that you do not like, touches you in an inappropriate way, or asks to touch you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable or confused, how can you stand up for yourself?” 
Student: “I can say no and move away. My body is mine. I can tell someone – like a parent, a teacher, an elder, a doctor – that I need help. I can keep telling until I get help.”

This isn't about sexual activity between kids, but reads to me like recognising abuse. Also, just in general keeping your hands to yourself, not hitting others, etc.

In Grade 3, healthy relationships, identifying factors that affect physical and emotional development (heredity, sleep, nutrition, etc.), and understanding differences (visible and invisible) are addressed. There's nothing overtly sexual in written curriculum expectations. Bullying, healthy friendships, accepting differences of race, colour, sexual orientation, family make-up, etc., are all mentioned. This, however, is where the topic of same sex marriage would come in - some kids have two moms or two dads. From my perspective, this is reality, is just fine, and the kids have already figured this out. But I understand that some parents will see this as a conflict with their own beliefs.

In Grade 4, what I would call actual sex ed begins, and as I mentioned above, this is precisely the time when the kids will be beginning to enter puberty. (Again - difficult to type those words since Boo is 9 years old now!) Learning about the external physical changes that happen to our bodies in puberty, and the emotional and social changes that come with them, will now be taught in grade four, one year earlier than in the past. Body hair, breasts, dating, confusion, embarrassment, etc., will be covered. Personal hygiene is a focus. The fourth grade curriculum will also have a focus on bullying, cyber bullying and online safety. The curriculum requirements do not mention sexting, although I've heard this in news reports. A teacher prompt example does ask what would you do if a stranger online asked you for sexual pictures.

In Grade 5, human reproduction is taught in more detail.  Eggs and sperm and menstruation, along with all the medical and biological details. Emotional and interpersonal stresses surrounding puberty and building strategies and resilience to help deal with them are also included. Dating, crushes, conflicts with traditional values and more are all mentioned.

Grade 6 has a strong focus on healthy self-concept and healthy relationships. Also acceptance of differences and fighting stereotypes. Part of this is encouraging a deeper understanding of the changes puberty is bringing, to be more comfortable in their bodies and know that what they are experiencing is normal. Sample teacher prompts do mention such topics as wet dreams and masturbation, and it is reasonable to expect these topics could come up. But the sample prompts aren't mandatory. Healthy relationship discussions could include the issue of consent, and I would argue they probably should at this age. Respect for yourself and the other person is a key value in the curriculum.

Throughout the document there is emphasis on flexibility and being cognizant of local needs and values. Also, of being respectful of cultural and religious diversity. And flexibility in program delivery is encouraged, particularly as it may be more comfortable to teach sex ed components in same-sex settings.
Depending on the particular needs of the students in the class or school, it may be helpful to plan for instruction in groupings and/or settings that are most conducive to this learning – including small groups, groups separated by sex, and co-educational groupings.
The document also acknowledges the importance of being sensitive to students who do not identify as either male or female or are transgender (page 54).

Overall, the primary and junior curriculum doesn't look as scary or as radical to me as it sounded from the news reports. To me it looks measured and age-appropriate, with enough flexibility built in that it can be applied in a variety of school settings.

If you are the parent of a school-aged child in Ontario, I encourage you to review the new curriculum yourself, so you can come to your own informed decisions. The government has made available a Parents' Guide to the Human Development and Sexual Health components of the grades 1-6 curriculum, as well as a guide for grades 7-12. These guides are overviews and don't provide a lot of detail, but do give a good idea of the basic curriculum goals and approaches. The full curriculum document is also available, but at 244 pages be prepared to settle in for a long read. A chart on pages 224-225 provides the key topics covered, by grade.

And remember - the Education Act gives parents the right to withdraw their child from any lesson if they feel strongly that it is in conflict with their beliefs or values. If you have concerns about specific areas of this curriculum, you should talk to your child's teacher and work out a plan to ensure your child has alternate arrangements for the days or periods in question.

This new curriculum is set to start in September 2015. Professional development for teachers to support them in delivering the new curriculum will begin this spring.

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