Answering questions:

When it comes to SRE answering young people’s questions is the one area that everyone worries about… how do you deal with inappropriate questions?.. what if they ask you things to try and embarrass you?.. how much should you tell them?  how do you know if they ‘re ready?… what if a parent complains…?!?

The view we alway advocate is if someone asks a question – they deserve an honest and open answer. Not something sugar coated or cloaked in metaphors… and the reply “I don’t think you’re old enough to know about that…” is not acceptable.

Think about it, young people have preciously few opportunities to discuss SRE openly and honestly… yes teenagers may laugh and joke about sex all the time, but it isn’t often that they are able to have real conversations about sex and relationships. Therefore, it is essential that they are encouraged to make the most of every opportunity and there is no better way than getting involved and asking questions… the problem is though it is you that has to deal with it.

In most lessons you are encouraged to have a lesson plan and follow it rigidly, however, if you are encouraging young people to get involved and ask questions – that means you may have to go off-piste and your timings will go to shot. So what…. change the way you write lesson plans – make them open ended – include in your leaning outcomes the fact that the session will be young person led, and that you will be encouraging them to take control of the session.

I once observed a teacher delivering an STI workshop and a young person put their hand up and asked a question about condoms and contraception (which makes perfect sense), and this poor harassed teacher replied “sorry, we not talking about condoms today – ask again when we cover contraception…” 

Do you really think that young person will bother putting their hand up and asking again?

What is so wrong with saying “fantastic questions… and answering it! – you can even do it briefly and then saying but don’t worry we are going to talk about this more next week…”

But answer the question. Remember, teenagers are supposed to already know everything there is about sex – it’s the rules! So, if someone is brave enough to stick their hand up in front of their peers and ask – they deserve an answer. Even if it is only a brief one… but think what is the real aim of your session… to tell the group the things you think they need to know or to tell them the things they want to know…?

My view is that if I haven’t been side tracked by answering lots of questions then it hasn’t been a very good session. My job is to fire the groups interest and encourage them to take over and ask the real things that are on their mind – to unpick their attitudes and their questions…

One good way to make the sessions young person led is all to do with how you plan your sessions… to find out more click here…  but in the meantime we are discussing answering questions…. see its easy to get sidetracked!

Some pointers for answering questions:

  • If a young person asks a question – thank them. Appreciate the fact that they have bothered to get involved and speak up… even if they are trying to be funny – often the inappropriate comment is the fuel you need to drive the sessions – spend time unpicking the attitudes behind the comment… often daft questions are the thing that most important lessons come from. Plus, that young person who shouted out the silly comment, is usually the gobby one who is often the trouble maker, who misbehaves to hind their insecurities about their own abilities. Suddenly, instead of sending them out and telling them off – you are thanking them for their comment and going to town on what they just said!

  • If someone asks a question – they deserve an answer. Whether you think they are ready or not – or how inappropriate it may be – the topic is already on their radar – it got in their head somehow – it is much better that they get an honest answer from you – that a hashed answer from their mate.. or potentially worse type it into google… and there is no telling what kind of sites the question may bring up…

It is much better they get an honest answer from you than a second hand answer from their mates big brother or end up on a dodgy site on the internet. At least you have the opportunity to unpick any issues and explore why it may be inappropriate or whatever…

  • Always be honest. If you don’t know the answer say you don’t know. There is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I think it is good as many young people believe that they should have all the answers – if they don’t they are obviously naive, and the only one who doesn’t get it… It’s good to show that you as the adult in the room don’t have all the answers either.

  • But if you don’t know go away and find out… then tell them later…

Indeed, there is nothing wrong with stalling for time… this is something I tell many of the primary school teachers I deliver training to…  there is nothing wrong with saying “wow, that is a great question… but I want to give you a great answer… so leave it with me and let me think about the best way to explain it to you… I will tell you after lunch”

Then you have time to go away and speak to a colleague, or senior management to have a cry or a giggle in the staff room, research the answer on respect yourself, or in the case of primary school, catch their parent at the school gate and say “your child asked me this… if it ok if I tell them …” and nine time out of ten they will say “ thank god, your answering it and not me!”

But you do still need to answer it.

  • Sometimes, an answer is only appropriate to a particular student and not to the whole class – especially with younger pupils. We differentiate in math and english, why not in SRE? There is nothing wrong with setting the work and then going and answering the question the the specific students involved if it is not appropriate for the whole class to hear.

  • It is aways worth checking what the young person means before answering their question – especially if they are using slang terms… I once had a colleague who’s little lad asked her how do you become a mummy… she had been waiting for this day to arrive and went to town… she brought out the flip chart and pens and started drawing diagrams and everything – it was brilliant… it was perhaps 15minutes later that her son then asked… “so where do the bandages come in…” he had been thinking about Egyptian Mummies… rather than the birds and the bees… so it’s always worth checking… just in case!
  • If a young person asks an overly personal question, especially one designed to embarrass you – keep calm and simply remind them of the ground rules… that is what they are there for…. and their importance – I would usually include no personal questions… and being respectful. click here for more…

On this point, some people make a very strong rule of not answering any personal questions or telling young people any personal stories –  however, when done properly – there is nothing wrong with telling a few anecdotes to help explain something or to give an example, but equally, there is a difference between telling a story to make a point – and trying to be cool and show off.

There needs to be a reason why you are telling the story, young people don’t want to know about your sex life – and equally you shouldn’t want to know the details of theirs – but occasionally telling the odd story to give an example can be helpful. You know where the professional boundaries are – and should be able to know where to draw the line.

  • But remember a classroom is not the place for you to make a disclosure or to unpick your own relationship issues…! (I have seen both done!) Indeed, when it comes to personal experience – or your own personal beliefs, these should not be used as tools to convince young people about what choices they should make.

It doesn’t matter if you are pro-life or pro-choice – but when it comes to discussing abortion and pregnancy choices you need to be able to answer objectively and be able to put your own personal beliefs firmly in a box and close it. If you can’t be objective – you shouldn’t be having those discussions with vulnerable young people.

  • What are they really asking…? Sometimes when we ask a particular question, we are actually asking something very different… One of my roles is that I am an agony aunt on a website. We quite often get questions, that are not always what they seem… if you read between the lines, there may be more to the simple question that has been posed…

When answering questions I always try and think about not only what the issue they’ve raised but also:

– specifically the language they have used… are there bias or attitudes that can be unpicked there?

– Is there anything behind the question – are they actually trying to ask something else?

– Where can they go for help…? where can you sign post them to…?

  • This is one final important point; follow this link: and put in the postcode of your school. Spend half an hour finding out where your nearest services for young people are… where could they go for emergency contraception? For condoms? For an STI check up… what if they have been sexually assaulted…? Where could they go?

Spending a little bit of time finding out will make things much easier for when a young person comes to you asking for help… If you have time, phone or pop in your local pharmacy and find out what days the pharmacist is actually there… what time do they go for lunch? It sounds daft, but the fact is if the pharmacist isn’t there – they can’t give out emergency contraception. What is the point of sending a young person to a service where they will be turned away…?

Indeed, if you do ever send a young person to a service, try and catch up with them afterwards and ask how they got on. Not only is this good practice for your pastoral care, but it will help future young people too… if they had a good experience you know you are sending them to the right place – if they have a bad experience you will know to send them elsewhere… incidentally the respect yourself website has a facility for young people (or you can do it for them) to eave a review – this is especially helpful and can help to improve good service.

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