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Teachers, Trust, And AIDS Information

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Educators take note: Teenagers trust their teachers more as a source of AIDS information than they do their family, friends, sexual partners, television, and even trained outreach workers.

Teachers rank in the top half of a list of 10 most trusted sources of information, according to the results of a recently conducted nationwide research project involving a survey of homeless and runaway teens, sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Network of Runaway and Youth Services.

Health clinics were the most favored source of information, followed by a person with HIV, educational videos, and then schoolteachers.

But what concerns some of the researchers is just what kind of AIDS information the teens are receiving at school.

For instance, 91 percent of the teens interviewed indicated they had learned about AIDS in school. Yet nearly one-third of the homeless and runaway teens reported receiving no more than a 9th-grade education and about 16 percent never made it beyond middle school, a statistic prompting researchers to wonder just how comprehensive an AIDS education teens are getting.

For example, AIDS education is not uniformly presented in schools. Some teachers are reluctant to talk about sexual issues at all. While public schools are more apt to have AIDS education incorporated into the curriculum, it may not be the case in private schools, especially in some religious schools. And even among those educators who do teach about AIDS, they themselves may not be fully educated about HIV, the virus that causes it.

Based on the findings and discussions in focus groups with staff members of shelters for runaway and homeless teens, there are several identifiable measures teachers and schools can take in addressing AIDS education:

  • Beware of presenting mixed messages on an equal footing, like "practice abstinence" (don't have sex) and "use condoms" (it's OK to have sex). Clearly, other methods of transmission notwithstanding, abstinence is the only sure-fire way to avoid the sexual transmission of HIV. But don't be an ostrich about teens and sex: Of those interviewed for the survey, 84 percent are sexually active and most are unwilling to maintain abstinence.

    Another note on teaching about abstinence: Many kids may not be sure what abstinence means. Some teens may think it's OK to engage in oral sex vs. penis penetration into the vagina. Other teens think abstinence means not having a sexual partner for a couple months or so. Make very clear the meaning of abstinence. And, if you're going to teach about condoms, be explicit in your instruction.

  • Incorporate teaching about drugs and alcohol into the AIDS curriculum. Drugs and alcohol impair judgment, leaving teens open to doing things they may regret the next morning. Also talk about blood-to-blood transmission via shared drug syringes and unsterilized tattoo needles.
  • Be sensitive to the fact that a minority of teens identify themselves as homosexual and bisexual and that some of the discussion should address their concerns.
  • Self-esteem discussions also should be incorporated into AIDS lessons, and refusal skills should be taught. Children with a higher sense of self-esteem and the skills to back off of risky behavior, such as unprotected sex and alcohol and drug use, are less likely to engage in those activities that will lead to contracting the virus. Many of the teens interviewed for the survey began looking for "love" at an early age: Some 36 percent of them began having willing sexual intercourse at the ages of 12 and 13.

    Here's another reason for teaching self-esteem and refusal skills: The researchers found that the respondents had a high level of knowledge about AIDS (with the exception of some who still believe in mosquito transmission and transmissions from blood transfusions) but still continued to engage in behaviors that betray their knowledge. That comes as no surprise to those who work with teens, who generally have a sense of immortality.

  • Teach children early. The project researchers believe AIDS education can even begin in the early elementary grades. While sexual transmission may not be a concern at this age, blood-to-blood transmission may be: Children can be taught that if they see a syringe, they should point it out to an adult, and if someone is bleeding, to also bring that to the attention of an adult. Teens recommend using cartoons to convey information.
  • The local health department is a good source of information about AIDS for teachers' in-service days and also can provide many materials to assist in teaching children about AIDS. There are a lot of creative ways to present AIDS information. Videos rank high with teens, but don't rely on them solely as a method of teaching about HIV and AIDS. Schools would do well by presenting AIDS-education workshops for parents, too, so that what is taught at school is reinforced at home.

Researchers also conducted focus groups based on their findings with teens, asking them for their input on what they wanted out of AIDS education. Here's what they said:

  • It may be a good idea to divide the class by gender and have a same-sex teacher address each half of the class when presenting AIDS education--the teens concede that the discussion would be more "honest."
  • Youths say AIDS educators need to increase their emphasis on substance abuse and its relationship to HIV transmission, with educators pointing out what happens to the brain during drug and alcohol use and how it affects judgment. They suggest a greater use of peer counseling in this area.
  • AIDS educators need to talk more frankly about sex, and show more videos with "graphic" pictures of people dying of AIDS-related diseases. Teens say the "scare tactics" have the greatest impact on them.
  • The youths say they would like condoms to be more easily available in schools.
  • Regarding abstinence, youths say that AIDS educators will never be able to have an impact in terms of convincing youths to try abstinence. Commented one: "It's natural and can't be helped. Masturbation does not substitute for the real thing."

    Ironically, however, the youths acknowledge that there are some teens among their peer groups who practice abstinence, and they say there is a need for support of that choice.

  • Teens concede that they know what they should and should not do to avoid transmission of HIV, but that their physical urges are stronger than their common sense. This speaks of a need for advice on how to handle sexual feelings and how to evaluate relationships.
  • The youths say parents need to be educated and take an active role in teaching their own children about HIV and AIDS at a young age so that myths can be dispelled.
  • The teens have a dual view of teachers. On one hand, they say that they don't count them among their "personal heroes." Yet, on the other hand, they place a great deal of trust in their teachers, because they view them as "people who care." They believe all teachers need to be educated in AIDS knowledge so that any teen can turn to any teacher for help.

    Meanwhile, in a focus group with teenage homeless- and runaway-shelter staff, staff members said that while teachers are highly trusted sources of information, AIDS instruction in school remains "very general" and does not deal with behavioral or attitudinal changes.

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