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NSW Department of Education and Communities

Curriculum support for NSW Public Schools

Sexual health education for special needs students

There are a small percentage of students with special education needs that may best fulfil the mandatory curriculum requirements for PDHPE by undertaking the Life Skills outcomes and content. One of the Life Skills outcomes focuses on students developing an understanding of issues associated with sexuality. The information in this article offers some ideas for resources and activities that may assist in teaching about this topic to young people with special needs, particularly students with an intellectual disability.

How do I teach sex education to special needs students?

The principles of teaching about sex education to special needs students is the same for all students. Any sex education program for students with a disability should:

  • promote values that reflect social justice principles  
  • deliver positive messages about sexual activity as well as messages about safety
  • respect that students with special needs are not a homogenous group and come from a range of social, economic and cultural backgrounds
  • acknowledge that many people with intellectual disabilities have experienced, or continue to experience, sexual abuse
  • include content that goes beyond providing only information but also covers skill development in effective communication, relationships and positive interactions, making informed decisions and problem solving
  • meet individual learning and communication needs.

A whole of school approach

The Health Promoting Schools framework states that strategies designed to improve the health of young people are more successful if they are delivered in the context of a whole school approach. This applies just as much to students with special needs as it does to other students.

Some strategies to consider in engaging the school community may include:

  • encouraging other teachers to reinforce the students’ education. For example, the Circles program, designed by James Stanfield, teaches social rules about personal space. If other teachers are made familiar with this program they can apply the rules in settings such as the playground. This program is available through Family Planning NSW.
  • placing PDHPE and the needs of students with a disability on the agenda of the school’s development days and inviting inspiring guest speakers.
  • engaging families to reinforce skills and knowledge in the home. For example, by conducting parent forums where key messages and teaching activities are discussed.
  • encouraging other students to participate in (or even lead) some of the learning activities. For example, Circles can be made into a fun physical activity that can be developed into a game from which everyone can learn something.

The place of community agencies

Involving community agencies in supporting sex education programs within the school can add value to a school’s PDHPE Life Skills program. Schools need to ensure that the use of outside agencies is strategic and builds upon existing programs and activities rather than taking the place of the teacher in the delivery of the content. Introducing guest speakers into the school program can help young people become aware of local services and can provide an experienced approach to some of the issues covered in the sex education content. In some areas, sexual health clinic staff, women’s health services, youth health services and sexual assault services are able to offer education and consultation to special needs students. They can also support the professional development of teaching staff.

Community agencies can provide teaching resources that have been developed specifically for people with intellectual disabilities. These are available from the FPNSW website or bookshop or a local disability service provider.

Teaching resources and activities

When teaching about issues related to sex education, the best approach is to cover a few key areas that can be progressively built on over time rather than trying to cover a lot of new information in a few sessions. Learning is effective when it is interactive, group-based, visual, concrete, repetitive and draws on current experiences and interests.

Resources developed specifically for use with students with special learning needs are available from the FPNSW website or FPNSW Healthrites bookshop

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