Abstinence based program effective

By LOU MARANO  |  Oct. 2, 2002 at 6:31 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 2 (UPI) -- A non-directive abstinence based sex education program developed at the University of Arkansas has been shown to work with high school students, a new study shows.

It's developers attribute its success to the respect it shows to adolescents' natural drive toward autonomy. It does not include lessons on contraceptives. Rather, it stresses what they call a "deep root" approach that does not attempt "to put Band-Aids (condoms or simple directives) on the symptoms."

The "Sex Can Wait" curriculum series has components for upper elementary classes (grades 5 and 6), middle school (grades 7 and 8), and high school (grades 9-12).

According to a study published in the September/October issue of American Journal of Health Behavior, students participating in the high school component were more likely to remain virgins, less likely to report participation in sexual intercourse in the past month, and more likely to indicate their intention to remain abstinent than a control group of students who did not participate in the program.

"These findings are encouraging and a bit surprising," said George Denny, the research team leader. "Because of the relatively short time span between the pre-test and the post-test (two months or less), we did not expect to see behavioral changes." Denny, an associate professor in the university's College of Education and Health Professions, said previous research had shown that it might be necessary to wait as much as 18 months to see the effectiveness of such a program.

"This may have been a case of students receiving the right message, abstinence, at the right time -- when they were actually faced with decisions about sex," he said.

Michael Young, a professor of health science, is both a developer of the curricula and a co-author of the evaluative study. "We didn't really expect to see changes in behavior," he told United Press International. "We hoped that we would see changes in attitudes, knowledge and intent."

No significant behavioral changes were noted among students who participated in the upper elementary and middle school components of "Sex Can Wait." The researchers suggested that if these components are effective, the results should become apparent in a long-term follow-up. Earlier studies, however, did show the effectiveness of the middle school component.

UPI asked the developers of "Sex Can Wait" why they think the program has been effective, while other approaches have been ineffective.

"We're providing accurate information and encouraging students to think about their future," Young said. "Teachers don't just tell them what to do but involve them in role plays and discussion."

Parents are involved through homework assignments that have to do with values, goals and even a review of reproductive anatomy. Teachers report that these assignments provide the structure for parents to discuss sensitive issues with their children that otherwise might have been avoided, Young said, and often result in discussions that go far beyond the assigned activity. Sometimes students ask: "What was life like for you as a kid? How do you think things have changed? What did you want? What were you thinking about? What do you want from me? What do I want from me?"

Young related the story of a student, found crying at her desk, who told her teacher that she was crying from happiness. She said the homework lesson resulted in more conversation than she had ever had with her parents. "She had thought that her parents really didn't care, that they were too busy for her, but she found out that wasn't the case," Young said.

Mothers and fathers are given the opportunity to ask questions at parent preview nights. "Usually they are there because they really have some concerns," he said, but come to realize that the goals of the curriculum are the same as what they want for their children.

"People only support what they help to create, which includes their own lives," said Susan J. Hart. "Sex Can Wait" puts young people "back in choice," she told UPI. It does not compartmentalize their sexuality. Rather, she said, it puts their sexuality in the context of their hopes and dreams and all of their relationships and crafts it as an integral part of who they are.

Tamera Young, Michael Young's wife, also helped to develop the "Sex Can Wait" curricula. "You need to teach children skills," she said. "We have lots of role plays where they can practice refusal skills and assertive communications. ... If you really want to reach children, you have to involve all aspects of the child's life. And parents are actually the sex educators of their children. Schools just help that along."

The parent-child homework assignments that involve role playing provide "a strong communication component" that goes beyond sex, Tamera Young said.

She said "Sex Can Wait" builds children's self-efficacy and self-esteem, and it gives them the opportunity to examine what they really want in life.

"Sometimes children have children as a way to relieve the bleakness," she said. It's important to let them know that regardless of their family background, they can make a future for themselves. "If you teach students to believe in themselves and give them some strategies for reaching their goals, they will see early childbearing as a barrier," she said.

"Adolescents are at the stage of development where they're trying to show their autonomy. They're trying to come up with their own identity," Tamera Young said. "A lot of the programs out there are really fear-based and directive. Our approach is to have the children think of the reasons themselves. We encourage teachers to stimulate conversations that will allow children to arrive at the conclusions we would like, but to take ownership of those conclusions."

Children are more likely to accept counterarguments from peers, which emerge in the conversations, than from adults pushing standards of right and wrong. "If it's something they came up with, they are more likely to do it," she said.

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