Creating Sexual Health Classrooms Inclusive of Teen Parents
Jeni Brazeal still remembers the day her professor made a negative comment about teen parents, causing her to disconnect for the rest of the lesson. Now a sexual health trainer in Austin, Texas, she regularly channels that experience—and the emotions she felt as the daughter of two teen parents—when urging educators to consider the power of their words.
Brazeal’s experience is not unusual. Negative statements about teen parenthood can isolate young people with personal connections to young moms and dads. And youth who face other sources of stigma—such as being low-income or identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning—may feel even more hurt by judgmental comments and non-inclusive curricula, says Cardea Services Training Manager Lisa Schergen.
Here are three tips for creating a sexual health program that fosters an inclusive environment for teen parents and those who care about them.
1. Raise the voice of teen parents. Sharing stories from teen parents is a simple way to include their viewpoint and highlight their successes. Gather personal experiences from young parents in small focus groups, Brazeal suggests, then share anonymous snippets from those conversations with your students. You can also share information from organizations that support teen parents, Schergen says, including campaigns led by young people.
2. Watch your words. Presenting information that appears to judge teen parents can lead some students to shut down immediately, says Dan Rice, director of training at Answer, a sexuality education resource connected to Rutgers University. Present information in a way that respects the diversity of your classroom, including students who may have personal experiences with teen parenting.
Brazeal also recommends changing the wording of your curriculum to avoid presenting teen pregnancy as something negative or embarrassing. A question like, "What can you do to make sure you don't get pregnant or get someone pregnant?” for example, may work better as, “How can you make sure that a pregnancy is planned?"
“You're asking the same question essentially, but you're not adding a layer of judgment,” she says.
3. Stop student bullying in its tracks. Young mothers are often viewed as promiscuous, Brazeal says, exposing them to criticism from their classmates. Get involved when you notice a student being mean or offensive to teen parents, she says. Rice, for example, encourages facilitators to use a "stop it, name it, claim it" approach to minimize bullying. Using this method, you would identify the bullying behavior as it occurs (e.g., a student criticizing a young woman for getting pregnant), explain how the action made you feel (e.g., upset or offended), and let the student know future offenses will not be tolerated.