A Glance at Working with Foster Youth in the Sexuality Education Learning Environment

Author: Kayla DanielsSex Ed with Gavel

Something exciting happened in California this year! There was a new law established that now requires certain sex education topics to be discussed with foster youth. This past June, the California Department of Social Services sent out an all county letter outlining the law change that describes new health rights of foster children and non-minor dependents, as well as social worker and probation officers’ responsibilities to ensure those rights (Rose, 2014). To my delight as a former foster youth, sexuality educator and social worker in training, this letter included sexuality education around three topics. Article 26 in the letter states:

“(26) To have access to age-appropriate, medically accurate information about reproductive health care, the prevention of unplanned pregnancy, and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections at 12 years of age or older (p. 4).”

This may not be completely comprehensive sexuality education, but to have it included in a state law is a fabulous start! But what special issues does this population deal with that would affect their learning in a sexuality education classroom? Of course that is a topic much larger than this post, but I would like to look at a few considerations that sexuality educators should take into account when working with foster youth.

Support and education around sexuality for this population is critical. Foster youth face the same challenges as other youths, but due to their life circumstances these difficulties are intensified. An abundance of foster youth lack stability in most areas of their lives and often do not have reliable adults who they can talk to about sexuality. Studies have shown that foster youth are more likely to have unplanned pregnancies under the age of 20, engage in risky sexual behaviors (AASECT, 2013), and contract STIs (Robertson, 2013). In some cases, LGBTQ foster youth have even been found to be treated more poorly in the system and rejected by foster parents because of their sexuality. It is fundamental that sexuality educators bear in mind what challenges these youths are up against, and make changes in the learning environment as necessary.

Inclusive Language
As educators, it is important for us to create a learning environment where all students feel welcomed and included. Language can easily exclude individuals or groups if not thoughtfully used. For instance, instead of only referring to “parents” during lessons, add “guardians” or “caretakers” for those who may not be in contact or in the care of their parents. Additionally, be aware that social workers, probation officers, CASA workers, or other particular individuals may play a huge role in foster youth’s lives in contrast to other students. Use language to validate the experience of being a part of an institutional system. If the educator is using teaching materials that have prompts, case studies, role plays, or stories, they can even include examples that include foster youth, foster parents, or social workers.

Being Aware of High Rates of Physical and Sexual Abuse
Many foster youth have experienced various forms of physical and sexual abuse in their lives. I recently interviewed a social worker from California who has been working in the field for over 40 years, and she stressed her views of how important it is to give foster youth a sense of control over their bodies and sexuality due to their diverse experiences. High rates of adolescents in foster care have been or currently are sexually active, whether it be consensual or nonconsensual. Again, language plays a role in this, so being aware of language and how you’re framing situations is vital. Although, we as educators should also be aware of any assumptions we may bring into the classroom while working with foster youth. It is valuable to be aware of issues that affect them, but not to expect that these issues affect all foster youth.

Lacking a Voice
Foster Children Being in the foster care system often limits youths’ voices and involvement in decisions that directly affect their lives. It is always crucial to listen to the population you work with and to encourage their participation, but needless to say I find this particularly important while working with foster youth. Encourage the youths to participate and to even take leadership roles if possible. Also, now that reproductive health care, prevention of unplanned pregnancy, and prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections are required in California (which could possibly take effect in other states in the future!) it is also important to be aware if the youths are mandated to be in learning environment involuntarily. Since foster youth are often required to attend numerous interactions such as court, meetings with social workers, counseling, church, etc., it is useful to acknowledge the circumstances of their attendance and the effect it may have on their learning.

Our Role as a Sex Educator
Just like working with any other population, working with foster youth can be challenging as well as extremely rewarding. However, while working with these youths it is also important to realize “where the sexuality educator’s role ends and the sexual counselor’s role begins is often a grey area” (Bruess & Schroeder, 2014, p. 219). It is imperative to know your role in the learning environment, recognize your limits and intervene appropriately. If additional assistance is needed by youths that is out of the realm of work you are there to do, offer proper resources and referrals.

This is just a glance at a few things to consider while teaching sexuality education to foster youth. These factors can easily be overlooked, becoming detrimental to the learning experience for the foster youth. If other sexuality educators have any additional tips for working with this population, or even if you have a positive experience working with a foster youth that stands out, please share!



American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). (2013). Sexual health and foster youth. Contemporary Sexuality, 47(5).

Bruess, C.E., & Schroeder, E. (2014). Sexuality Education: Theory and Practice (6th Ed.). Sudury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

Robertson, R. D. (2013). The invisibility of adolescent sexual development in foster care: Seriously addressing sexually transmitted infections and access to services. Children and Youth Services Review, 35(3), 493-504. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2012.12.009

Rose, G. E. (2014, June 16). All county letter no. 14-38 to State of California Department of Social Services.

9 responses to “A Glance at Working with Foster Youth in the Sexuality Education Learning Environment

  1. Kayla what a population to acknowledge thank you! I Have had a number of experiences with foster youth. Sometimes I feel that these young people would fare better being homeless on the streets based on some of their experiences. They are certainly an invisible population. I have had several educational moments with adolescent foster youth. The biggest struggle I have had as an educator is the attachment that often occurs with those you are educating. Not often enough do they find a safe space to share, speak, and feel safe. The youth can become easily attached and when you break away and move-on to other educational journeys they are left feeling let down. I would advise that the discussion of the time you share together be discussed toward the beginning of your sessions so you can discuss other valuable outlets and resources for them to use in your absence. Not preparing them in advance can be traumatizing to many of them.

  2. This is incredible new! And a really great start. I know you said that it’s “social worker and probation officers’ responsibilities to ensure those rights” are met, but who is actually supposed to be teaching the foster youth age-appropriate, medically accurate information about reproductive health care, the prevention of unplanned pregnancy, and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections?

    Will these people be trained in how to talk about this? Will the youth be talked to at 12, and then it’s checked off, and never again? Or is this an ongoing conversation?

    I know you mentioned LGBTQ youth in the foster care system and their additional marginalization. I hope that LGBTQ safer sex is discussed in these mandated conversations, as it’s critical to teach them how to prevent STIs and engage in healthy relationships (not that healthy relationships is a currently mandated conversation, but I think it should be!).

    Thanks so much for writing about this.

    • Justyn, I have exactly the same questions! There is a disconnect of where, when, and by whom this education will be provided. For my methods course I have teamed up with a Independent Living Program serving foster youth in Santa Barbara County, but I don’t know if what I develop will actually be used. I am going to stay in contact with the social worker and provide any assistance I can even after the assignment is finished.

      • Hi Kayla,
        That’s so great that you’re working with that group! That sounds like an exciting opportunity for you to have an effect on this movement. How did you team up with them?

  3. This was an amazing post. From my own experience working with foster children and personal limited sexual knowledge is not the issue rather correct information is. As you stated too many of the children in this population have been sexually or physically abused informing them of sexuality in a cruel manner but reality for them. Giving them control and power over their body as the social worker you interviewed is so important because so much of their life is not in their control. I believe not only should the foster children receive this education but many of the foster parents who do not know much of this information either. Thank you for the information on the new law.

  4. Kayla, this is such a great piece about a population I know basically nothing about! It really called my attention to my own blind spots around the lived experiences of so many, and I’m definitely going to remember that this is an invisible population that could easily be in my classroom. Your post has created a touchpoint for me to remember to be inclusive of foster youth experiences with my language and activities, when doing sexuality education, but also just in general. Thank you!

  5. I’m going to echo a lot of the comments but great post! It’s so important to look at populations that are often overlooked. While it’s great there is now legal requirements for sex education for foster youths, it is a little disappointing that it’s all preventative based. There are so many LGBT homeless/foster youth that a fully comprehensive sexuality education program would be so beneficial. Also, I’m skeptical about who would be responsible for the education. Will the sex educator for these youths have to undergo a sexuality-educator-specific training? I always imagine the gym teacher from “Mean Girls” and wonder how many people experience that kind of sex education. If the teacher is biased or discriminatory, would it be better to have none at all?
    I know you probably don’t have all the answers (none of us do!) but I think it’s so great that you started the conversation!

  6. I thoroughly appreciate the recognition of teaching and interacting with “balance” that you seemed to bring to light. For example, you stated that, “it is valuable to be aware of issues that affect them, but not to expect that these issues affect all foster youth.” Of course this is true for all clients, but it is helpful to have it tied to a specific population, and then be provided with tangible changes that we as educators can make during lesson plan construction. I worked with many foster youth, who -as someone previously stated- felt safer and more in control of their lives when they were homeless and on the street. Many of the young women I worked with played the “game of the streets” trading sexual favors for food, showers, and a bed to sleep in. When working with these women, it was important not to disregard their choices to “play the game” as simply “bad decision making” AND to encourage them to attempt to keep themselves safe. Tricky waters to navigate for youth who have difficulty building trust and rapport with authority figures.

  7. When reading, I became really intrigued about the number of youth in foster care. On the United States governmental Child Welfare website, I found that as of “September 30, 2012, there were an estimated 399,546
    children in foster care” -https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/foster.cfm. Wow, that’s a lot of kids, even if you compare it to the 2011 statistic of 73.9 million youth below the age of 18 in the US. This is important and it’s not something I really thought about previously, but you are so right, the stressors that kids in stable homes go through are magnified for foster youth because of the instability. Just look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, foster kids tend to not have their physiological and/or safety needs met. This would suggest that these kids would not learn as effectively; therefore, we as sexuality educators need to be very aware of this issue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.