What Works In Schools: Sexual Health Education

CDC’s What Works In Schools Program improves the health and well-being of middle and high school students by:

  • Improving health education,
  • Connecting young people to the health services they need, and
  • Making school environments safer and more supportive.

What is sexual health education?

Quality provides students with the knowledge and skills to help them be healthy and avoid human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), sexually transmitted infections (STI) and unintended pregnancy.

A quality sexual health education curriculum includes medically accurate, developmentally appropriate, and culturally relevant content and skills that target key behavioral outcomes and promote healthy sexual development.1

The curriculum is age-appropriate and planned across grade levels to provide information about health risk behaviors and experiences.

Beautiful African American female teenage college student in classroom

Sexual health education should be consistent with scientific research and best practices; reflect the diversity of student experiences and identities; and align with school, family, and community priorities.

Quality sexual health education programs share many characteristics.2-4 These programs:

  • Are taught by well-qualified and highly-trained teachers and school staff
  • Use strategies that are relevant and engaging for all students
  • Address the health needs of all students, including the students identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ)
  • Connect students to sexual health and other health services at school or in the community
  • Engage parents, families, and community partners in school programs
  • Foster positive relationships between adolescents and important adults.

How can schools deliver sexual health education?

A school health education program that includes a quality sexual health education curriculum targets the development of functional knowledge and skills needed to promote healthy behaviors and avoid risks. It is important that sexual health education explicitly incorporate and reinforce skill development.

Giving students time to practice, assess, and reflect on skills taught in the curriculum helps move them toward independence, critical thinking, and problem solving to avoid STIs, HIV, and unintended pregnancy.5

Quality sexual health education programs teach students how to:1

  • Analyze family, peer, and media influences that impact health
  • Access valid and reliable health information, products, and services (e.g., STI/HIV testing)
  • Communicate with family, peers, and teachers about issues that affect health
  • Make informed and thoughtful decisions about their health
  • Take responsibility for themselves and others to improve their health.

What are the benefits of delivering sexual health education to students?

Promoting and implementing well-designed sexual health education positively impacts student health in a variety of ways. Students who participate in these programs are more likely to:6-11

  • Delay initiation of sexual intercourse
  • Have fewer sex partners
  • Have fewer experiences of unprotected sex
  • Increase their use of protection, specifically condoms
  • Improve their academic performance.

In addition to providing knowledge and skills to address sexual behavior, quality sexual health education can be tailored to include information on high-risk substance use*, suicide prevention, and how to keep students from committing or being victims of violence—behaviors and experiences that place youth at risk for poor physical and mental health and poor academic outcomes.

*High-risk substance use is any use by adolescents of substances with a high risk of adverse outcomes (i.e., injury, criminal justice involvement, school dropout, loss of life). This includes misuse of prescription drugs, use of illicit drugs (i.e., cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, inhalants, hallucinogens, or ecstasy), and use of injection drugs (i.e., drugs that have a high risk of infection of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis).

What does delivering sexual health education look like in action?

To successfully put quality sexual health education into practice, schools need supportive policies, appropriate content, trained staff, and engaged parents and communities.

Schools can put these four elements in place to support sex ed.

  • Implement policies that foster supportive environments for sexual health education.
  • Use health content that is medically accurate, developmentally appropriate, culturally inclusive, and grounded in science.
  • Equip staff with the knowledge and skills needed to deliver sexual health education.
  • Engage parents and community partners.
Key to Success

Include enough time during professional development and training for teachers to practice and reflect on what they learned (essential knowledge and skills) to support their sexual health education instruction.

Key to Success

By law, if your school district or school is receiving federal HIV prevention funding, you will need an HIV Materials Review Panel (HIV MRP) to review all HIV-related educational and informational materials.

This review panel can include members from your School Health Advisory Councils, as shared expertise can strengthen material review and decision making.

For More Information

Learn more about delivering quality sexual health education in the Program Guidance.

Check out CDC’s tools and resources below to develop, select, or revise SHE curricula.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool, 2021, Atlanta: CDC; 2021.
  2. Goldfarb, E. S., & Lieberman, L. D. (2021). Three decades of research: The case for comprehensive sex education. Journal of Adolescent Health, 68(1), 13-27.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016). Characteristics of an Effective Health Education Curriculum.
  4. Pampati, S., Johns, M. M., Szucs, L. E., Bishop, M. D., Mallory, A. B., Barrios, L. C., & Russell, S. T. (2021). Sexual and gender minority youth and sexual health education: A systematic mapping review of the literature. Journal of Adolescent Health68(6), 1040-1052.
  5. Szucs, L. E., Demissie, Z., Steiner, R. J., Brener, N. D., Lindberg, L., Young, E., & Rasberry, C. N. (2023). Trends in the teaching of sexual and reproductive health topics and skills in required courses in secondary schools, in 38 US states between 2008 and 2018. Health Education Research38(1), 84-94.
  6. Coyle, K., Anderson, P., Laris, B. A., Barrett, M., Unti, T., & Baumler, E. (2021). A group randomized trial evaluating high school FLASH, a comprehensive sexual health curriculum. Journal of Adolescent Health68(4), 686-695.
  7. Goldfarb, E. S., & Lieberman, L. D. (2021). Three decades of research: The case for comprehensive sex education. Journal of Adolescent Health, 68(1), 13-27.
  8. Marseille, E., Mirzazadeh, A., Biggs, M. A., Miller, A. P., Horvath, H., Lightfoot, M.,& Kahn, J. G. (2018). Effectiveness of school-based teen pregnancy prevention programs in the USA: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Prevention Science, 19(4), 468-489.
  9. Denford, S., Abraham, C., Campbell, R., & Busse, H. (2017). A comprehensive review of reviews of school-based interventions to improve sexual-health. Health psychology review, 11(1), 33-52.
  10. Chin HB, Sipe TA, Elder R. The effectiveness of group-based comprehensive risk-reduction and abstinence education interventions to prevent or reduce the risk of adolescent pregnancy, human immunodeficiency virus, and sexually transmitted infections: Two systematic reviews for the guide to community preventive services. Am J Prev Med 2012;42(3):272–94.
  11. Mavedzenge SN, Luecke E, Ross DA. Effective approaches for programming to reduce adolescent vulnerability to HIV infection, HIV risk, and HIV-related morbidity and mortality: A systematic review of systematic reviews. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 2014;66:S154–69.