Teaching about HIV – AIDS at School

Basic AIDS education remains fundamental to the global effort to prevent HIV transmission. AIDS education can – and does – target all ages, and sexually active adults are one principal target. AIDS education is also vitally important for young people and the school offers a crucial point-of-contact for their receiving this education. Providing AIDS education in schools, however, is sometimes a contentious issue. This page will explain why AIDS education in school is so vital, why it is so controversial, and offer some suggestions as to how an effective program can be sensibly and efficiently achieved.

Why do we need AIDS education in schools?

Many young people lack basic information about HIV and AIDS, and are unaware of the ways in which HIV infection can occur, and of the ways in which HIV infection can be prevented. Schools are an excellent point of contact for young people – almost all young people attend school for some part of their childhood, and while they are there, they expect to learn new information, and are more receptive to it than they might be in another environment.


Most young people become sexually active in their teens, and by the time this occurs they need to know how to prevent themselves becoming infected with HIV.

Other ways in which young people might access AIDS education may not be universal – not all young people will access the same media, for example, or access the same medical services. However, the school is a place where almost all young people can receive the same message. Other media by which young people are presumed to learn about sexual health may not exist in all cases or may be misleading.

Traditionally, the responsibility of teaching a young person about ‘the birds and the bees’ has been seen as being a parental one. In these days of HIV, however, this type of basic information about reproduction is insufficient and will not give young people the information they need to be able to protect themselves. Parents may not provide even this limited information because they are too embarrassed, or because their beliefs oppose it. Young people, too, may be embarrassed discussing sexual matters in a situation where their parents are present. At school they are in a situation where they are independent, and not subject to parental disapproval.

“If I wouldn’t of learned about all the STD’s that I could get from being sexually active I might not be a virgin right now.” Erika

In some countries, young people may not be able to access family planning or sexual health clinics because of their age – or they may be able to access such services but think that their age precludes them from access. Young people often know that they require information, especially if they are becoming sexually active, but may feel too embarrassed to actively seek out sexual health information, or may fear that their parents may find out. In many parts of the world, the fear of ‘what if they tell my parents’ still prevents young people from approaching medical staff, especially family doctors who may know their parents.

The principal reason that AIDS education in schools is so important is that all over the world, a huge amount of young people still become infected with HIV. Most young people become sexually active in their teens, and by the time this occurs they need to know how to prevent themselves becoming infected with HIV. If they are to be enabled to protect themselves, they must be given the information that empowers them to do so.

Attitudes to AIDS education in schools

The main obstacle to effective AIDS education for young people in schools is the adults who determine the curriculum. These adults – parents, curriculum planners, teachers or legislators – often consider the subject to be too ‘adult’ for young people – they have an idea of ‘protecting the innocence’ of young people. This often occurs for moral or religious reasons, and can cause very heated debate.

There is also obstruction to adequate AIDS education from adults who are concerned that teaching young people about sex, about sexually transmitted infections, HIV and pregnancy – that providing them with this information will somehow encourage young people to begin having sex when they otherwise might not have done.

“I come from a family who believes that having sex out of marriage is not the moral thing to do. I also don’t think sex ed. is something that young kids should be learning. Learning sex at a young age is like provoking more young people to have sex just for the fact they want to experience it for themselves instead of just getting information about it.” Monica

This attitude still prevents adequate HIV and sex education from being taught in schools, in spite of the fact that it is a view that the majority do not share. A study in America, for example, shows that the majority of Americans (55%) believes that giving teens information about how to obtain and use condoms will not encourage them to have sexual intercourse earlier than they would have otherwise (39% say it would encourage them)1 .

The same study tells us that only 7% of Americans believe that young people should not receive sex education in schools. Many adults recognise that informing young people about the dangers of HIV is the best way to prevent them from becoming infected in later life. Many schools in many countries do provide adequate AIDS education – but many, sill, do not. Young people are rarely asked for their opinions by those adults who decide what they will study – but when they are asked, they almost always demand more comprehensive sex and HIV education.

“I am a student, living in Johannesburg, South Africa. I believe that sex ed that is handled appropriately, and that is age-appropriate, will really empower kids to make healthier, informed and positive choices.” Maire

In some places, legislation may dictate the type and quality of AIDS education that schools are allowed to offer – some countries have no policies on AIDS education, allowing schools to include it or not, as they decide. Other countries may have policies that specifically preclude AIDS education, or certain types of AIDS education. Legislation allowing or inhibiting certain types of AIDS education often comes from the moral views of the voting majority – or reflects the religious attitudes of the government in power. The most commonly used types of AIDS education are discussed in our page on AIDS education and young people.

It is within the context of these attitudes and beliefs that teachers and educators must work to provide the most effective information and education they are able to.

When should young people start to be taught about AIDS?

There is no set age at which AIDS education should start, and different countries have different regulations and recommendations. In some areas this is a very sensitive subject, and some groups regard teaching young people how to protect themselves as a form of abuse. It seems obvious, however, that people should know how to protect themselves before they begin having sex, rather than after.

“At school, my sex ed was pretty poor. It started in year 8 when we are about 12-13, which is kind of 2 late really. Quite a few of my friends had already had heterosexual sex and had not protected themselves at all.” Laura

Especially when educating young people, AIDS education often shares territory with sex education. Education which teaches about sex and sexuality can also teach about preventing pregnancy and STI infection.

“I know by the time I was taught about sex
it was too late, I had already made my mistake.” Safiyyah

AIDS education should start at about seven or eight years of age. When working with very young people, this type of education does not necessarily need to involve learning about sexual activities or drugs, but should at least teach children that ‘AIDS’ is not a pejorative term of abuse. Playground name-calling, to some extent, reflects attitudes in general society, but it can also grow up to become discrimination.

Planning a good curriculum

In an academic situation, especially with younger learners, some subjects fail to impart information to the students simply because the students are not interested, and do not pay attention. This is unlikely to be the case with AIDS education; the simple fact that AIDS education involves the discussion of sex – a topic of fascination for young people who are discovering their own sexualities – is likely to ensure at least initial attention. This attention will wane, however, if the information is not imparted in a lesson interesting enough to maintain students’ concentration. It is not only important to have AIDS education, but to provide AIDS education in the right way.

In addition to providing information, a good, class-based lesson where a pupil is amongst his/her peers can help to shape attitudes, reduce prejudice, and alter behaviour.

The following are a few of the important points to consider when planning an AIDS education lesson or curriculum.

Age of students

Is the material that you intend to cover appropriate to the age of the young people in the class? Education about HIV needs to commence early in childhood and develop through adolescence and into adulthood – starting before students are of an age at which they might encounter high-risk situations, but at an early age young people do not require detailed information. This information should be delivered gradually, as they grow older.

Classroom Prejudices

School playgrounds often contain many prejudices, and you will probably have to deal with more than one in an AIDS-awareness lesson. HIV+ people, especially, face prejudice around the world that can lead to the continued spread of the virus. In some schools, the words ‘gay or ‘AIDS’ may be used as a term of abuse – this must be addressed, too. Certainly, the material covered in class must reflect the diversity of the community. Prejudices often result from ignorance. ‘Can I get it from toilet-seats?’ is a common question illustrating just such ignorance. This type of misunderstanding not only engenders prejudice, it also causes unnecessary anxiety.

Current Knowledge

AIDS education can be targeted towards areas of informational need if you are aware of what young people already know about AIDS. The best way to find out this information is by asking them.

Active Learning

It is not enough to simply give students information about HIV and AIDS for them to learn. The learning-by-rote approach common in traditional academic settings provides students with information but does not allow them to absorb the social and practical aspects of how this information might be put to use. AIDS education should never involve pupils sitting silently, writing and memorising facts.


Active learning offers an opportunity to make AIDS education lessons fun

‘Active learning’ approaches are now seen as the most effective way that young people can learn health-related and social-skills. Group-work and role-play are particularly important methods in which students might discover the practical aspects of the information they are given. These methods also allow pupils an opportunity to practise and build skills –saying “No” to sex, for example – and pupils retain information better if they are offered an opportunity to apply it.

Active learning, furthermore, offers an opportunity to make AIDS education lessons fun. AIDS education classes can be constructed to involve quizzes, games, or drama, for example – and can still be very effective learning sessions.

Involving Parents and Guardians

Many schools already have a good deal of input from parents and families of their pupils, and this input may go as far as being allowed to determine the content of the curriculum. If possible, it is usually advantageous to involve the parents and guardians in the planning process, before an AIDS education curriculum is decided – parents who have already agreed the content that their children will study are unlikely to complain about it being unsuitable. Furthermore, parents who are involved in the education of their children will be able to give additional support, if it is needed, outside the classroom.

Other Sources

Outside agencies or organisations may also be able to make a positive contribution to an AIDS education curriculum in a way that the school’s internal resources will not. Some local health agencies will offer talks within a school, as will some local HIV organisations. Check out what is available. This has the additional advantage of building a bridge between the pupils and an external source of help or advice.


Some areas and countries will have legislation covering what sex or AIDS education can or should be given. If this is the case, you will have to make sure that your curriculum conforms to local guidelines. Other legislative areas in which AIDS may effect your school are :


– does your school’s anti-bullying policy adequately protect HIV+ and gay pupils?


– does your school’s admissions policy contain measures to prevent discrimination against HIV+ pupils?

Health and Safety

– does your school’s health & safety policy include universal precautions policy?

Considering Cultures

Planning an AIDS education syllabus should involve some consideration of the culture in which the learners live. Many cultures have a specific and well-defined set of views on human sexuality, and even at an early age, young learners will have been influenced by them.

The primary factor in determining what information is given to the class should be their age (see above), and cultural attitudes cannot be allowed to censor the information given. Most cultures frown, for example, on talking openly about HIV transmission routes, but this is a necessary part of the education process. AIDS education should provide this information and still remain sensitive, wherever possible, to cultural and religious sensibilities.

The culture of the learners is an ever-present factor in the classroom, and this culture provides the context in which AIDS education must take place.

What materials are already available?

In the years since the AIDS epidemic began, there have been many disparate efforts to prevent or reduce HIV infection by educating people about the dangers of AIDS, and enabling them to protect themselves from infection. A good deal of classroom material has been created, focusing on young people from cultures around the world. Too often, when an AIDS education curriculum is to be planned, the planners spend considerable time constructing a resource that is ultimately unnecessary as there are already materials available that would suffice. If necessary, spend time adapting existing resources for your class, but it should now never be necessary to produce completely new material.

Making it Cross – Curricular

HIV and AIDS education is often provided that deals only with medical and biological facts, and not with the real-life situations that young people find themselves in AIDS should also not be looked at from an entirely social perspective, either – effective AIDS education needs to take into account the fact that both scientific and social knowledge
are vital to providing a pupil with adequate AIDS awareness. There is much more to HIV prevention than simply imparting the basic facts. Knowing how the virus reproduces, for example, won’t help someone to negotiate condom use. AIDS education must be a balance of scientific knowledge and social skills. Only if life skills are taught, and matters such as relationships, sexuality and the risks of drug use discussed, will young people be able to handle situations where they might be at risk of HIV infection. Furthermore, questions or comments about HIV may arise at unexpected moments, and teachers from a wide range of disciplines need to know how to answer them.

Are any students HIV+?

When dealing with any class of young people, you can’t make assumptions about their HIV status. In high-prevalence areas it is especially likely that one or some class-members will be HIV+, but this could be the case anywhere. Universal precautions should be taught as part of a HIV awareness lesson. AIDS education specifically tailored for HIV+ people is an important aspect of HIV prevention, but applies only in a class where every student is HIV+.

Sexuality of Students

On average, at least one student in every class will be gay. You can’t make assumptions about the sexuality of the students in your class, or about the sexualities in the families that they come from – and for this reason, your HIV lessons need to include information about and for people of all sexualities.

Making it work in the classroom

The process of educating young people about AIDS can be a challenging one. Even if all the factors mentioned above are considered, a lesson can be unsuccessful if the teacher is inadequately prepared, uncomfortable or uncommitted. Anyone who has experienced the education system is aware that the atmosphere within a lesson is key to students retention of the course information.

Teaching the teachers


Teachers need to be clear on their own feelings and beliefs.

AIDS education necessarily involves some detailed discussion of sexual matters. If teachers are uncomfortable with this, they will convey this discomfort to the class – and the message that ‘sex is not nice to talk about ’ is the precise opposite of what AIDS education aims to convey. Before taking an AIDS education class, teachers need to be clear on their own feelings and beliefs as they relate to sex, death, illness and drug use.

Teachers also need to feel that they are entirely clear on the information that they will be passing on – they need to feel confident that they are able to answer any questions that might be asked. This necessitates an adequate level of teacher-training – something that is sadly lacking in many parts of the world. In India, for example, where estimates suggest that more than 2 million people are living with HIV, 70% of teachers have been given no training or information at all 2.

Listening to the learners

Young people who have an input into their AIDS education have said that they want their AIDS education to take place in all academic years of their school, to use active learning methods, to include a balance of facts and social awareness, to be built on what pupils already know – and, crucially, to be a separate topic. Whilst Biology, Geography and English can – and should – mention AIDS in the context of their subject matter, young people specifically ask for syllabus time devoted to providing them with good, well-planned and balanced AIDS education.

It is also important to recognise that the young people who make up the class may be uncomfortable with the subject – for cultural or personal reasons. Learners cannot be compelled to feel comfortable, but can be induced. Some basic tips that can help to decrease discomfort are :

    • Don’t expect a learner to speak in front of their classmates – unless they have volunteered to do so.


    • Allow learners to consult and plan in groups before presenting any information to the class.


    • Remember that some learners may have relevant personal issues that they will be reluctant to share – they may be gay, for example, of HIV+.


  • Listen to the learners – allow the class to ask questions and to express what they want from an AIDS syllabus.

Last Word

In spite of all the efforts that the past two decades have seen in AIDS prevention, the epidemic still presents a serious challenge to societies around the world. Every year, increasing numbers of people globally are infected with HIV, and people continue to die. AIDS education for young people is a crucial weapon in the HIV-prevention arsenal, young people are one of the main groups who must be targeted, and the school is the most important means of reaching them.

Still, however, schools in many countries around the world do not have adequate AIDS education curriculum. Although it is not a legislative requirement in all countries that AIDS education is provided, it remains a requirement of the global effort against AIDS. Every young person who passes through the school system anywhere in the world should come out knowing how to protect themselves from AIDS. This is not only the responsibility of every adult who is involved – it is the right of young people everywhere.