WASHINGTON – Young elementary school pupils should use the proper names for body parts and know by the end of fifth grade that sexual orientation is "the romantic attraction of an individual to someone of the same gender or a different gender," according to sexual education guidelines released Monday by health and education groups.
The nonbinding recommendations to states and school districts seek to encourage age-appropriate discussions about sex, bullying and healthy relationships, starting with a foundation even before second grade.
Most U.S. children enter first grade at age 6.
By presenting minimum standards that schools can use to formulate school curriculums for each age level, the groups hope that schools can build a sequential foundation that in the long term will give teens more help as they grow into adults.
Experts say schools across America are inconsistent in how they address such sensitive topics.
Despite awareness of bullying, for example, Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, a group involved with creating the standards, said some schools do not deal with it, or at least not in relation to sexual orientation or gender identity, which is what she said is the cause of a lot of bullying.
"They should tackle it head-on," Hauser said.
Other organizations involved with the release include the American Association of Health Education, the American School Health Association, the National Education Association - Health Information Network, the Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education, and the Future of Sex Education Initiative. The latest suggestions were drawing less enthusiastic reactions from some.
By the end of second grade, the guidelines say students should use the correct body part names for the male and female anatomy and understand that all living things reproduce and that all people have the right not to be touched if they do not want to be. They also say young elementary school children should be able to identity different kinds of family structures and explain why bullying and teasing are wrong.
Beyond lessons about puberty by the end of fifth grade, the guidelines say students should be able to define sexual harassment and abuse.
When they leave middle school, generally as a young teenager, they should be able to differentiate between gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, according to the guidelines.
They also say they should be able to explain why a rape victim is not at fault, know about bullying and dating violence and describe the signs and impacts of sexually transmitted diseases.
It calls for those leaving eighth grade also to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of abstinence, condoms and other "safer sex methods" and know how emergency contraception works. Many of these issues the groups encouraged to be further addressed in high school as well.
It was unclear how much influence the recommendations will have among educators.
Cora Collette Breuner, a pediatrics professor at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on adolescence who was not involved in the creation of the standards, praised the approach of encouraging discussions at an early age.
"The data points that trying to cover this stuff when kids have already formulated their own opinions and biases by the time they're in middle and high school, it's too late," Breuner said.
Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Education Abstinence Association, said she does not agree with the topics and goals of the standards. Like the anti-smoking campaign of the last few decades that has had success, abstinence should be the focus of such programs, she said.
"This should be a program about health, rather than agendas that have nothing to do with optimal sexual health decision-making," Huber said. "Controversial topics are best reserved for conversations between parent and child, not in the classroom."