Relationships and sex education: engaging parents


Kate Reynolds explains why parents of children with SEN are not teaching proper RSE – and why they should.

Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) is one of the most important aspects of learning for pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN), with potential to increase their community participation, reduce vulnerability to sexual abuse and enhance many aspects of their lives. From September, new legislation covering England makes relationships education in primary schools and relationships and sex education in secondary schools mandatory. Schools must develop and publish RSE policies and deliver a broad and inclusive curriculum. Key to implementation of policies is the active involvement of parents.

Issues for parents
Many parents of SEN pupils delay broaching the subject of RSE until their children behave sexually. This reactive approach has multiple causes:

  • Parents may struggle to acknowledge their children are maturing sexually, based on the concept of ‘mental age’ (being well below their chronological age) or delayed milestones.
  • The level of RSE delivered at home correlates with perceptions of individuals’ level of intellect; the lower the level, the greater the assumption of sexual naïvety and inability to absorb RSE messages. Even when autistic children are considered ‘high functioning’, parents teach more comprehensive RSE to neurotypical siblings.
  • Children with SEN are viewed as ‘vulnerable’ by parents, who prioritise protection above risks of friendships/ relationships or independent activities in the community. Lack of RSE contributes to sexual vulnerability due to lack of learned assertion and knowledge about what constitutes sexual activity. Mainstream SEN pupils’ desperation for friendships leaves them open to manipulation.
  • A common misconception is that introducing RSE will create sexual desire where it would not otherwise develop. With rare exceptions, evidence demonstrates that SEN pupils develop sexually in a similar way to neurotypical children.
  • Even if parents tackle some areas of RSE, those with strongly held faith or cultural beliefs, may deny the possibility that their child is homosexual and refuse to answer questions on homosexuality.
  • Parents of those with greater additional needs may consider RSE unfairly raises their children’s expectations when they cannot foresee their children having a partner or becoming parents.
  • Many parents feel incompetent and unsupported in teaching RSE. They describe having to fight for resources and information, particularly if their children have moderate to severe learning disabilities.
  • Some parents want to retain control over what are ‘acceptable’ sexual behaviours, especially for those with greater additional needs. E.g. they may accept hand- holding but actively discourage masturbation even in private bedrooms (McClelland et al 2012).

Potential consequences
Waiting for children with SEN to become sexually active before teaching RSE can result in unwanted sexual behaviours being established (McConkey & Ryan 2001). Although RSE can be introduced after such incidents, the individual risks having their access to the community restricted. Friendships give pupils opportunities to practise social skills for future intimate relationships, such as joint decision-making, resolving arguments and experiencing power issues. These insights are a crucial aspect of RSE which many children with SEN do not experience.

Parents can confuse children by giving inconsistent messages due to embarrassment or lack of engagement in RSE (Evans et al 2009; McConkey & Ryan 2001). In addition, parents’ strongly held beliefs can cause them to give misinformation or prejudiced information, which can limit or distort their children’s understanding, notably around LGBT issues and pregnancy.

Strategies to engage parents in RSE

  • Parents should receive RSE policies and there should be open dialogue with schools. Although there is no parental veto, parents should have opportunities to give feedback on policies. Record discussions of concerns raised by parents, in case the process is challenged in future. Evaluation is a crucial part of the implementation of RSE policies, built on initial assessment of parental concerns or needs.
  • Present RSE in a holistic way, from friendships to sociosexual needs and behaviours. Emphasise the positives in learning about RSE and try to avoid a focus on purely sexual behaviour. Teach RSE proactively, don’t wait for sexualised behaviours and ensure parents understand the possible consequences of reactive RSE.
  • Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) should focus on RSE issues from friendships, other emotional and social needs and what has been covered in RSE lessons. Additionally, transition planning should include relationships, and sexuality, monitored as measurable outcomes.
  • Parents should receive feedback on what has been taught about RSE so that messages can be consistent between home and school. Schools should reflect the principles of RSE which parents can emulate at home, such as privacy in toilets, not permitting use of homophobic language, supporting personal space and appropriate touch. There should be an available staff member whom parents can approach for advice or to signpost them to another agency.
  • Engage parents at school events to provide feedback or give information e.g. parents’ evening by having presentations, stands with information or individual surgeries or drop-in sessions with key members of staff. Offer information evenings for new parents, with key staff and resources to be used in lessons.
  • Use existing parents’ groups or forums to disperse information and get feedback on RSE policy, but also develop new channels of communication, such as governor or PSHE co-ordinator surgeries.
  • Schools can create regular sessions linked to RSE policy, for example, workshops for parents giving them the opportunity to explore what will be taught and to handle RSE resources. At the beginning of the school year, parents can be invited to meet their child’s teacher, whether new or existing teacher, as an opportunity to discuss RSE.
  • In arranging training about RSE, ensure parents explore their feelings and attitudes surrounding RSE, which research shows is instrumental in gaining parental engagement. LGBT issues should be included. Have RSE resources available for loan to parents.
  • Schools can support friendships via selection of tutor group composition, giving pupils an opportunity to select one/two pupils to continue with in class post-16 and identifying developing friendships for parents of those with greater additional needs.
  • Meet with parents if a sexuality issue arises in school and supply visuals to support the child at home
    e.g. social narratives or scripts relating directly to inappropriate touch in the classroom.
  • Keep RSE and surrounding issues as low key as possible. Sexuality is one of the most sensitive subjects to discuss with parents, so keep the approach positive and suggest practical steps to tackle issues.

RSE is particularly important for pupils with SEN. Delivered in an accessible format and supported by parents, RSE will create pathways for greater community involvement and more fulfilling lives for people with SEN. Used properly, RSE can be instrumental in limiting sexual abuse.

About the author
Kate Reynolds is an author, public speaker and consultant working in relationships and sexuality education for young people with special educational needs. Kate also has two children on the autism spectrum.


ƒEvans, D.S. McGuire, B.E. Healy, E. & Carley, S.N. (2009) ‘Sexuality and personal relationships for people with an intellectual disability. Part II staff and family carer perspectives’ Journal of Intellectual Disability Research Vol 53 Part II p913-921

ƒMcClelland, A. Flicker, S. Nepveux, D. Nixon, S. Vo, T. Wilson, C. & Marshall, Z. (2012) ‘Seeking safer sexual spaces: queer and trans young people labelled with intellectual disabilities and the paradoxical risks of restriction’ Journal of Homosexuality 59 p808-819

ƒMcConkey, R. & Ryan, D. (2001) ‘Experiences of staff in dealing with client sexuality in services for teenagers and adults with intellectual disability’ Journal of Intellectual Disability Research Vol 45 (1) p83-87

Kate Reynolds
Author: Kate Reynolds


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