Written by RSEI Educator | Published April 30th, 2020

As youth-serving adults, our youth come to us with many different experiences, feelings, thoughts, and values when it comes to sex education. Comprehensive sex education has long been considered a critical piece in sexual violence prevention, but what about youth that already have sexual trauma when they enter the classroom? How can we make sure that we’re doing everything we can to prevent re-traumatization while still covering everything we need to, especially since we often have no idea who has this kind of trauma background and what could queue a trauma response?

As Sexual Assualt Awareness Month draws to a close, many of you may have already asked yourself or others these questions, or maybe you’ve never considered trauma-informed sex education before and don’t know where to start. Thinking about this all at once can feel overwhelming, so it can be helpful to split things into what needs to be considered before, during, and after a sex education lesson.

  • Before a lesson:
    • Know how common sexual trauma is
    • Have a basic understanding of trauma
      • What is trauma?
        • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as: “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Trauma is also subjective, which means that what feels traumatic to one person may not feel harmful/traumatic to someone else.
      • How does trauma affect the brain and behavior?
        • Trauma has a major impact on the brain. While you’re not expected to become an expert in trauma, understand that trauma makes it difficult (and sometimes even impossible) for someone to access the logical part of their brain, their prefrontal cortex, which is also the last part of the brain to change in late adolescence/early adulthood. When someone has been through trauma, their brain isn’t connected and communicating, and they mostly think with the emotional part of their brain. This can manifest in the classroom as behavioral problems like: 
          • Not being able to focus or engage in a lesson
          • Irritability
          • Excessive anger
          • Extreme fatigue
          • Scattered thoughts/speech
          • Anxiety/panic attacks
          • Unusual startle responses
          • Attention-seeking disruptions
          • Poor self-regulation
          • Alienation from peers
          • People-pleasing and clinginess
          • Shyness
          • Dissociation, or seeming “spaced out”
          • Aggression
          • Acting or looking hypersexual
          • and more
    • Prepare an outline of content for teachers/parents/counselors
      • Even just a bulleted list helps! Remember, these people often know the youth we work with better than we do, so it can be helpful for them to know what content will be covered ahead of time.
    • Have a thorough understanding of the lesson, including what visuals pop up when
      • Consider what pieces may be alienating to people who have been through sexual trauma. Remember that sometimes even just viewing a drawing of sexual anatomy can cause a trauma response. Think about how you will be sensitive to people who have been through sexual trauma when you’re teaching the lesson, including thinking more about how to weave in inclusive statements that recognize that not everyone has a choice over when or how they start being sexual.
    • Have resources ready and make sure youth and teachers/parents/counselors will have access to them.
  • During a lesson:
    • Have an agenda
      • Many facilitators already give a verbal agenda, but keep in mind that trauma can make it much more difficult to hear verbal directions. Make sure to have a visual agenda/outline of the lesson for youth that have a more difficult time listening and processing information.
    • Create group agreements to help establish the classroom as a safer space
      • Make sure to include confidentiality (and outline the limits, like how if someone says they’re being hurt, hurting themselves, or someone they know is being hurt you’ll have to report it), respect for one another, and something to normalize different reactions to sex education content and to emphasize self-care, like how students can always ask to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom if they need a break.
    • Make sure there’s another person in the room like a teacher/counselor/etc.
      • Point them out during introductions and mention that if a youth feels distressed at any time during the lesson and needs to step out, they can also ask that person to step out with them if they would like the support. Let them know that the support person won’t follow them or leave with them unless the students specifically asks. This aims to assure youth that they have agency over when and how they take a break.
    • Let students know what’s going to happen before it does
      • Are you going to show anatomy pictures? Are you going to use a condom demonstration tool? Let students know before you pull any tools or images out! Mindful transitions can help decrease anxiety.
    • Be mindful of your language
      • Language can be stigmatizing, so make sure it’s careful and purposeful. If you’d like more guidance around language, be sure to check out our past blog on the subject!
    • Bring up resources that fit with different pieces of the lesson
      • You don’t have to wait until the end of the lesson to mention resources. If it feels natural to include a resource during a certain part of the lesson or after a student question/comment, do so and do so often!
    • Address victim-blaming comments or questions as they come up
      • Group agreements help set the groundwork for disrupting these comments, but they may need to be enforced during the lesson.
    • Reaffirm bodily autonomy throughout lesson
      • Remind students that, even if they didn’t have a choice over what has happened to their body in the past, they still have many choices over what happens to their body and when.
    • Prepare for disclosures
      • Abuse disclosures may not happen, but if you’ve worked to create a safe and inclusive space youth may feel more comfortable making comments relating to their trauma. For extra information on how to handle abuse disclosures, view our blog on the subject.
  • After a lesson:
    • Connect youth to resources
      • Make sure to have a variety, such as resources youth can put in their phones (like a text line or hotline), take a picture of (like a PowerPoint slide or something written and posted in the classroom), and physically carry (like cards and pamphlets). Also, have a combination of national, statewide, local, and immediate (like teachers/counselors/advocates in the building) resources for increased accessibility.
    • If anything that could cause a trauma response came up during the lesson, have a quick debrief at the end
      • This could look like a quick check-in to make sure everyone is okay, a grounding exercise, or a breathing exercise.
    • Deal with any disclosures and check in with students that seemed uncomfortable or made ambiguous statements to make sure they’re okay
      • Sometimes students ask “what if” questions that feel a little too detailed. It’s important to privately check in with these youth because we can’t know if it came from viewing/listening to media or if it’s something that happened to them or a friend. Any time a facilitator needs to check in with youth, make sure it’s done in private.

Sometimes navigating trauma can feel uncomfortable, difficult, or beyond our scope, but there are things that facilitators can do before, during, and after a sex education lesson to be trauma-informed. No matter what, remember that it’s not a student’s responsibility to communicate with an educator what traumatic experiences they may carry into a classroom, and it’s not the educator’s job to assign specific experiences to a certain kind of behavior. Even if no one in the room has sexual trauma, extra care and compassion is always beneficial.

If you want more support around trauma-informed sex ed, you can always email us at Professional.Development@pprm.org. We also have a past webinar for RSEI members on trauma-informed sex education as well as our Sexual Health Educator Program for continued learning!