Young elementary school students should use the proper names for body parts and, by the end of fifth grade, know that sexual orientation is "the romantic attraction of an individual to someone of the same gender or a different gender," according to new sexual education guidelines released Monday by a coalition of health and education groups.
The non-binding 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.
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 better help teens as they grow into adults.
Experts say schools across the nation are inconsistent in how they address such sensitive topics.
Despite awareness of bullying, for example, Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, one of the groups involved with creating the standards, said some schools don't address it — or at least not in relation to sexual orientation or gender identity, which is where she said a lot of the bullying occurs.
"They should tackle it head on," Ms. 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 already 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 also understand that all living things reproduce and that all people have the right to not be touched if they don't want to be. They also say young elementary school kids 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, they should be able to differentiate between gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, according to the guidelines. 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 to also 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's 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," Ms. 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," Ms. Huber said. "Controversial topics are best reserved for conversations between parent and child, not in the classroom."