The more time I spend with early adolescents, the more evidence I see of the pseudosophistication of young people. They have a range of knowledge that may include AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, incest, and anorexia. They know more about titillating sex and unwanted pregnancy (just from watching TV’s Melrose Place) than any previous generation. Yet none of this exposure--whether through factual information in health classes or the sexy media blitz of billboards, magazine covers, movies, and commercials--gives them the depth and understanding of themselves that they need to make their way through adolescence.
When I look at a scope-and-sequence plan for health education, I see a list of topics that includes human body systems, nutrition, sexuality, violence prevention, alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, peer pressure, fitness, puberty, AIDS and other STDs, dating violence, assertiveness, communication skills, anger management, sexual orientation, conflict resolution, peer mediation, depression, suicide, and eating disorders. Often, teachers have so much material to “cover’’ they cannot spend more than one class period on any one topic. Sometimes, to be efficient, they show a 20-minute video that provides all the right facts. Then they have the students fill out a work sheet and hope for the best.
Such a system isn’t good for the students or the teachers. It’s not fair, and it’s certainly not efficient.
I wish more teachers would see who they have sitting in their classes when they give a “just the facts’’ lecture on, say, eating disorders. I know a lot of teachers. From what they tell me, their hope is that they will get to kids before the trouble starts, that their information will be what kids need to make the right decision. That may be expecting too much from 12- and 13-year-olds, responsibility that their developing cognitive abilities just aren’t up to quite yet. What we have are young teenagers who know all the facts, get A’s on health tests, but don’t have the skills when it counts--on the weekend when they’re with their friends. They need bridges from the facts to the choices, and that takes time.
I wish teachers would see, for example, that Sally’s mother keeps telling her she should diet (Sally still has a prepubescent’s thick waist) and that Sally is too scared to take in the facts about anorexia. And Ben’s Aunt Julie has just lost 30 pounds and is going through a messy divorce, and he’s really worried about her, even though his father thinks Julie “looks great’’ because she looks like his skinny little sister again. Students like these two would benefit from small-group work, where they would be asked to give advice, perhaps, to someone worried about a friend whose eating is erratic or who doesn’t know what “normal’’ is in terms of weight and body image. They could read more about the problem and then apply what they had learned to a case study, discuss the range of options, and report back to the larger group.
This, of course, can’t be done in one lesson. So in most schools, it just won’t be done at all.
When teachers talk about AIDS and abstinence, I wish they’d really see how nervous Jonetta is in the back row. She knows she probably shouldn’t be having sex with her 20-year-old boyfriend. But she can’t talk about birth control with him because she fears he might get mad and stop liking her. And he’s the only protection and affection she’s got in her neighborhood right now, family members included. A student like Jonetta needs information about the continuum of protected sex from a non-shaming teacher, someone she trusts will give her the facts, someone who will answer her questions simply and directly. An abstinence-only curriculum excludes students like Jonetta, but not one that stresses abstinence while also examining the connection between alcohol use and unprotected sex, the correct use of condoms, and the continuum of safer sexual behaviors.
A healthy, frank discussion about not only the consequences of unprotected sexual behavior but also the reasoning that goes into a choice not to protect oneself would be valuable for all students in the class, even for those who are not sexually active. Someday, these students may have sexual relations, and, at that point, they can think about what they learned in their health class. Until then, there is no better strategy for postponing sexual activity among young people than helping them see just what “taking care of themselves’’ means today. If we really want to do the job well, it will take time.
I wish teachers would not make alcoholics and drug addicts seem like aliens from another planet and would instead tell their students how common it is in the ‘90s for people to be addicted to a substance, how much support is now available to them to get sober, and how many people turn their lives around when they get the help they need. That way a student living with an alcoholic parent or guardian wouldn’t have to be ashamed to ask questions about it. Building trust that allows a student to share on this level doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen by glossing over the effects of alcohol on the body: Feeling safe takes time.
I wish more teachers would give students a chance to express their feelings after seeing a video about violence or some other heavy health topic. They could do this by writing in a journal, sharing with a classmate, or drawing a poster for younger children that helps explain the topic to them. Young people are creative and have lots of energy, passion, and good ideas. They want to help; they want to make a difference. We ought to challenge that impulse more often.
If there are too many health topics to cover, I wish teachers would ask students what they most want to learn more about. Then the class could spend more time on a few skills that might actually sink in. I wish they’d design classes that give students time to think, reflect, and sort through some of the complexity they face in their lives. And that kind of learning takes time.
Life in the ‘90s is difficult. Kids are being bombarded right and left by forces they cannot easily understand. They need us, parents and teachers, to slow things down for them. They need help in learning how to access their feelings and think things through. Early adolescents are at all different stages developmentally, some able to think abstractly, others just beginning to flex that muscle. They should not be punished for not yet being there developmentally.
Learning takes time; growing up takes time. Just because we can fax things to another continent in seconds flat, converse with strangers thousands of miles away on the Internet, and compress an encyclopedia onto a CD-ROM disk doesn’t change the way human beings grow and make sense of the world. We evolve slowly, over the course of years and decades, into the people we are.
Children deserve the dignity of not being force-fed and rushed through their developmental stages. We can help them if we listen to them, really listen, and take the time to be there with them while they grow.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as What’s The Hurry?