Wedge Issue: Sex Education and Social-Emotional Learning Practices

Abigail Karlin-Resnick, MS, MBA, Executive Director, Health Connected

We have a problem with sex. Not in the way some might think. “Teens today are having too much sex!” “Kids are all about hook-up culture!” These are the typical narratives when it comes to adolescent sexual health.

In fact, by many metrics, adolescents are having less sex than ever before. The birth rate for adolescents hit its lowest rate in thirty years in 2019 and the percentage of adolescents who have ever had sex has decreased by 27% for some groups since 1988 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021; Abma & Martinez, 2017). There is minimal evidence that adolescents today approach “hook-ups” any differently than previous generations of adolescents. If anything, they may be more wary of sexual engagement than their predecessors, thanks, in part, to the #MeToo movement. And, yes, there is considerable access to explicit media, but there is also a pervasive silence about sex.

Okay, you’re saying to yourself, but what does teen sex have to do with social emotional learning? Exactly. As a society, we don’t think of sexual development as an age-appropriate component of child social development. We have put sexuality in its own tiny shoebox to be stashed away in the corner of the closet unless we are forced to address it by legal requirements or perceived problematic behavior when, in fact, it rightfully belongs in the much larger container of social-emotional learning.

Is the SEL container really big enough for sex education? I’m so glad you asked. Thanks to the hard work of many researchers, practitioners, and advocates over the last two plus decades, social-emotional learning has become accepted as an essential toolbox to build student resilience, teach social skills, and cultivate a school climate conducive for all students to learn. Sexual health education is a tool that belongs in that toolbox but has been sitting forlornly in the dusty corner of the garage. Everything that is taught in sex-positive sexual health education – that is, sex education predicated on the idea that sexual development is normative, not pathological – can be directly linked to core concepts in any social-emotional learning framework. Inclusive sexual health education creates robust opportunities for empathy-building, self-awareness, emotional regulation, seeking supportive resources, accountability for harm in relationships, and advocating for others, to name a few. As such, SEL represents an ideal framework to incorporate sex education.

And yet, SEL research and practice ignores, or actively excludes, this major component of adolescent social development. Many of you will be familiar with one of the seminal studies on social emotional learning outcomes, Durlak et al.’s (2011) meta-analysis of 213 studies of SEL interventions. This study has been essential in demonstrating the outcomes of SEL programs, but it specifically excluded studies that evaluated “interventions that focused solely on outcomes related to students’ physical health and development (e.g., programs to prevent AIDS/HIV, pregnancy [emphasis added], drug use, or those seeking to develop healthy nutrition and exercise patterns)” (Durlak et al., 2011, p. 3). Pregnancy and HIV, of course, are two outcomes of social interactions so excluding such studies seems problematic in a meta-analysis designed to understand social emotional outcomes. Even more, though, Durlak et al. (2011) note that one of the limitations of their meta-analysis is the paucity of SEL interventions targeted to secondary/high school students – just 13% of the interventions were targeted to students in grades nine through twelve. Huh. Why might that be?

Perhaps it’s time to expose this blind spot in the SEL canon. Bringing sexual health education into the SEL fold is mutually beneficial. Sex education would surely benefit from greater acceptance as a tool in the SEL toolbox, not to obfuscate sex or to euphemize sex education into something more palatable, but to re-frame how we collectively understand sexual development in the context of human social development. Furthermore, doing so would bolster the SEL research base and create opportunities for cross-pollination in practice across both fields.

But this is not just about research or frameworks or curriculum. This is about seeing our young people as whole people, who are learning what it means to be in lots of different kinds of relationships – with their friends, with adults, with themselves, and, yes, with intimate partners. When we ignore sexuality as a part of adolescent social development, we – as a society, as an education system, as adults who care about young people – are not delivering our commitment to help all young people experience safe, fulfilling relationships of ALL kinds.

Abigail Karlin-Resnick is the Executive Director of Health Connected, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting schools and communities to implement sexual health education. Ms. Karlin-Resnick holds a BA in psychology with a minor in education from UCLA, an MBA with a concentration in Public and Nonprofit Management from Boston University, and an MS in Education Improvement and Transformation from Drexel University. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership and management from Drexel University. Her academic research has focused on sexual health education, social emotional learning, program evaluation, and U.S. competitiveness in education.

Abma, J.C., Martinez, G.M. (2017). Sexual activity and contraceptive use among teenagers in the United States, 2011–2015. National Health Statistics Reports; no 104. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, August 5). About teen pregnancy. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from

Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405 – 432.