Strategies for Overcoming Obstacles in AIDS Education for Preteens

Article excerpt

"I'm sitting in the back row."

"Well, I'm just going to be absent that day."

These were typical student responses upon learning that their school would be visited by a guest speaker who had tested positive for HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). Respecting their feelings, their teacher was accepting and non-judgmental: "It's OK to sit at the back of the room, but it's also OK to change your mind and sit up front." When developing the school's AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) prevention program, planners took care to encourage trust and empower the 11- and 12-year-olds.

As the AIDS epidemic escalates, its impact permeates every segment of the population (Elders, 1994). More than 985,119 new cases have been reported worldwide between 1993 and 1994, which represents an annual increase of 37 percent (Pan American Health Organization, AIDS hotline). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 80,691 AIDS cases during 1994 in the United States (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and CDC, 1995). In recent years, those affected by AIDS are no longer almost exclusively homosexuals and intravenous drug users (Greenspan & Castro, 1990; Kolata, 1989; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and CDC, 1994). The number of AIDS cases reported each year among U.S. teens has increased from one case in 1981 to 588 cases in 1993. A total of 1,768 cases of AIDS among teens has been reported through June 1994 (CDC, 1994). Every four months the number of reported AIDS cases among adolescents doubles (Bechtel & Sutter, 1990).

Teens are especially vulnerable to this fatal virus, given their likelihood to experiment with sexual activity and drug use and their widespread attitudes that inhibit proper AIDS prevention behavior. With no cure or vaccine to prevent the spread of AIDS coupled with high-risk behaviors among adolescents (Elders, 1994; Flax, 1989), timely and effective AIDS education is the only defense (Alteneder, Price, Telljohann, Didion & Locher, 1992; Hales & McGrew-Zoubi, 1993; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and CDC, 1994). If AIDS education is to be effective as a preventive measure it must be made available to preteens and it must accomplish more than only imparting facts about AIDS/HIV (Fetter, 1989). Educators must help young people overcome fear and misunderstanding in order to effect responsible and preventive behaviors (Popham, 1993).

The authors describe and evaluate a comprehensive AIDS education program for preteens and identify adolescent attitudes that act as barriers to effective AIDS education (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and CDC, 1994; Weinstein, 1989). They then present strategies for breaking down these barriers and promoting the acceptance of AIDS education, emphasizing community resources that can help combat this problem.

Problem: Adolescents' Attitudes

Many adolescents are unreceptive to AIDS education because they are: 1) immature and unable to see the consequences of their actions, 2) feel embarrassed and fear peer rejection, 3) deny and dismiss risky behaviors and 4) generally mistrust and disregard adults' advice.

1. Young teens often are unable to assume the responsibilities of being sexually active and lack the experience, foresight and maturity to realize the consequences of risky behaviors (Fisher, 1990). Therefore, they cannot readily conceptualize their vulnerability to AIDS (Basch, 1989; Patierno, 1990).

2. Teens perceive contracting AIDS as a remote risk compared to the more immediate and far greater risk of embarrassment while talking to a peer of the opposite sex about preventive measures such as abstinence or condom use (Hochhauser, 1988). Early in our AIDS prevention program, several male students characterized condoms as being "not cool," despite their knowing that they are effective in preventing venereal disease. Other males verbally supported them, while female students sat quietly. …