Promoting healthy relationships

Last updated: 21 Apr 2022
Introduction

Why is it important to teach children and young people about healthy relationships?

Relationships play a key part in every child or young person’s wellbeing.

Healthy relationships can help a child feel secure and supported, but unhealthy relationships can have a long-lasting negative impact.

> Find out more about healthy and unhealthy relationships

Healthy relationships education

In every nation of the UK, schools are required to teach children and young people about healthy relationships. But we know it can be challenging to find age-appropriate ways to address the subject and embed learning in a wider context.

Using insight from our practitioners, we’ve put together some information to help you promote healthy relationships to children of different ages.

> Learn more about the important role of relationships and sex education (RSE) in informing and empowering young people in our How safe? 2020 report

Early years

Early years

Early years settings provide valuable opportunities for younger children to develop their social skills and form healthy bonds with peers and adults.

How to promote healthy relationships in the early years

  • Provide opportunities for children to play in different sized groups. Plan activities that promote turn-taking.
  • Encourage boys and girls to play alongside one another and avoid gender stereotyping.
  • Ask children what they like or dislike about an activity. Help them express their thoughts and feelings in different ways and listen to the views of others.
  • Where possible, allow children to decide whether or not they want to join in with an activity. Help them to say “no” if they don’t want to do something.
  • Talk about the ways that people are different and similar. For example we may have different hair, eye or skin colour but we all eat, breathe and have feelings.
  • Talk about personal space and explain that some people might like more or less than others. Teach children that it’s OK to say “no” if they don’t want someone to touch them.

Useful resources

Talk PANTS

Our free PANTS lesson plans help you teach young children about the Underwear Rule and encourage them to speak out in situations that make them feel uncomfortable.

Books to read

We’ve put together a list of books which you can read and share with younger children to help start discussions about healthy relationships.

5- to 11-year-olds

5- to 11-year-olds

As children get older they begin to develop stronger and more independent relationships. They may start to realise that some relationships and situations can have an impact on the way they feel.

Keep parents informed about the work you’re doing to promote healthy relationships. This means they can reinforce positive messages at home.

Make sure children and young people know how to contact Childline for support if they need it. Show them the Childline website for under 12s.

Tips for promoting healthy relationships to 5- to 11-year-olds

  • Empower children to have individuality and help them understand that everyone is unique.
  • Praise children for demonstrating honesty, kindness, and respect for others.
  • Give children opportunities to voice their opinions and encourage them to listen to other people’s views.
  • Help children understand that “no” means “no” and make sure they know who to talk to if they are ever uncomfortable with something they have been asked them to do.
  • Work with children to resolve conflicts and help them understand how others might be affected.
  • Talk to children about bullying in all its forms and make sure they know how to get help if they need it.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between what is healthy or concerning sexualised behaviour. Increase your understanding of how to provide an effective response to harmful sexual behaviour for primary schools.

Find out more


Useful resources

AGENDA

AGENDA is a free online toolkit that’s available in English and Welsh. It provides creative ways to help children to speak up about the issues they care about and challenge gender inequalities and gender norms.

Share Aware

Our videos and lesson plans will help you teach children about staying safe online. Topics include the risks of chatting to strangers and sharing pictures online.

Books to read

We’ve also put together a list of books about healthy relationships which you can use to help start conversations.

12- to 18-year-olds

12- to 18-year-olds

In the teenage years children and young people may begin to experience more intense and intimate relationships.

You can help them navigate these new experiences. Make sure they know what to do if a relationship or situation makes them feel uncomfortable, or if they’re worried about someone else.

Let parents know about the topics you’re discussing and make time to answer their questions. Make sure children and young people know how to contact Childline for support.

Tips for promoting healthy relationships to 12- to 18 year-olds

  • Encourage young people to be proud of what makes them an individual.
  • Introduce activities like peer mentoring to help young people support each other.
  • Talk about relationships that are presented in films, books or the media. Ask young people which aspects they think are healthy or unhealthy, for example independence or control. Talk about the way relationships happen online as well as offline.
  • As young people get older, discuss issues around sex and consent.

Do you need to increase your understanding of what healthy and unhealthy sexual behaviour looks like? Take our interactive online course to learn how to manage harmful sexual behaviour.

Find out more


Useful resources

AGENDA

AGENDA is a free online toolkit that helps children and young people explore issues that matter to them. Available in English and Welsh, it provides creative ways to help young people engage as active citizens and safely challenge oppressive gender norms.

It’s not OK

These lesson plans, films and activities help children and young people understand the characteristics of healthy relationships. Topics covered include sexual exploitation, grooming and harmful sexual behaviour.

Share Aware

Share Aware is a selection of videos and lesson plans that help teach children about staying safe online. Topics include the risks of chatting to strangers and sharing pictures online.

Stop Speak Support

This resource helps teach 11- to 16-year-olds how to stay safe online. Topics covered include teaching young people to be good digital citizens and how to respond if they encounter online bullying.

Books to read

We’ve also created a reading list which you can use to start conversations with older children about healthy relationships.

Children and young people with SEND

Children and young people with SEND

If you’re working with children and young people who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), it’s important to take their individual needs into consideration when it comes to healthy relationships education.

You may need to have regular and ongoing conversations about healthy relationships. This helps children and young people with SEND to understand and remember what you’ve talked about.

Show them the Childline website and talk to them about the support available for them, for example the resources about disability and Deaf Zone.

You should also make sure that any resources you’re using to teach about sex and relationships are accessible to all children, including those who have SEND.

Tips for promoting healthy relationships to children and young people with SEND

  • Follow children and young people’s support plans to ensure you’re meeting their individual needs.
  • Work with parents and carers to make sure they are comfortable with the discussions you’re having and know how to talk about healthy relationships at home.
  • Use a range of methods such as books, stories, drama, audiovisual material and role play to help keep regular messaging fresh.
  • Emotion boards or charts may help children with SEND express how some relationships make them feel.

Useful resources

Love Life

This set of films and resources is designed to help young people with learning disabilities aged between 11 and 25 learn about staying safe in relationships. It includes supporting resources to help you start conversations about a range of topics including privacy and boundaries, online safety and feelings.

Talk PANTS

Our free PANTS resources can be used with children and young people who have learning disabilities.

Books to read

We’ve also put together a reading list of books you can use to start conversations about sex and relationships with children and young people who have SEND.

Curriculum guidance

Curriculum guidance

Each nation of the UK has curriculum guidance which sets out how schools should educate children and young people about healthy relationships.

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) has published statutory guidance about how relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education should be implemented (DfE, 2021a).

The DfE has also published guidance on planning your relationships, sex and health curriculum (DfE, 2020) and training materials on teaching about relationships, sex and health (DfE, 2021b). The training materials include modules for primary and secondary school teachers on topics such as caring friendships, online relationships, sexual relationships and consent. They also include a module on teaching relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) to pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

> Read our briefing on what schools must and should deliver

The DfE has also published guides that primary and secondary schools can use to explain RSE to parents (DfE, 2019).

The House of Commons Library provides answers to frequently asked questions about RSE in schools in England (House of Commons Library, 2019).

In Northern Ireland, relationships and sexuality education is taught as part of personal development and mutual understanding (PDMU) in primary schools, part of the personal development and home economics statements of requirement for key stage 3 and as a statutory component of the personal development strand of learning for life and work (LLW) at key stage 4. The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) provides guidance on what should be included at each level (CCEA, 2021b).

The CCEA also provides guidance and resources on relationships and sexuality education for primary and post-primary children (CCEA, 2021a).

In Scotland, relationships, sexual health, and parenthood (RSHP) education is part of health and wellbeing; one of eight curriculum areas of Curriculum for Excellence, introduced in August 2010 for 13- to 18-year-olds. RSHP Scotland has developed an RSHP online resource. It provides learning activities, lesson plans and resources for all year groups in mainstream, specialist and non-denominational and denominational schools (RSHP Scotland, 2021).

The Scottish Government has provided guidance on the Conduct of relationships, sexual health and parenthood education in schools (Scottish Government, 2014).

In Wales, the Welsh Government has published guidance on the new curriculum for primary and secondary schools (Welsh Government, 2022a). The curriculum includes an area of learning and experience on health and wellbeing, which covers topics including recognising relationships and developing and maintaining healthy ones (Welsh Government, 2022b). The curriculum will be implemented from September 2022. Schools and other funded, non-maintained settings will need to include the learning set out in the relationships and sexuality education (RSE) code (Welsh Government, 2022c).

Inclusive education

Guidance across the UK highlights the importance of providing inclusive and accessible sex and relationships education (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, 2019a; 2019b; Department for Education, 2021a; Scottish Government, 2014; Welsh Government, 2022c).

When teaching children and young people about sex and relationships, it’s important to make sure you’re representing everyone in the class. Use resources that reflect a broad range of people, for example different sexualities, gender identities, races, cultures and disabilities. You should also make sure teaching reflects different kinds of families, for example single parents, same sex parents, adoptive parents, foster care and residential care (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, 2019a; 2019b; Department for Education, 2021a; Scottish Government, 2014; Welsh Government, 2022c).

In Scotland, LGBT inclusive education is being phased in across all schools. The Scottish Government has created an online toolkit to help teachers embed LGBT learning themes throughout the Scottish curriculum (Scottish Government and Time for Inclusive Education (TIE), 2021).

Find out more about:

The right to withdraw children from sex and healthy relationships education

There is guidance in each nation of the UK about whether parents and carers can withdraw their children from sex and healthy relationships education, and how this should happen. It’s best practice for schools to help parents and carers understand why sex and healthy relationships education is important. Head teachers should have a discussion with parents and carers about how being withdrawn from lessons will impact on their children.

In England, statutory guidance states that parents and carers cannot withdraw their children from statutory topics such as relationships education, health education or the parts of the science curriculum that cover human reproduction (DfE, 2021a).

In primary schools, parents and carers can withdraw their children from sex education, if it is on the curriculum (DfE, 2021a).

In secondary schools, parents and carers can request that their child is withdrawn from some or all sex education lessons. The head teacher should grant this in all but exceptional circumstances, up until three school terms before the child turns 16. At this point, the child can opt to take part in sex education if they would like to. The school should arrange for the child to receive sex education in one of those three terms, unless there are exceptional circumstances (DfE, 2021a).

In Northern Ireland, relationships and sexuality education is a statutory component of the curriculum. However parents or carers in Northern Ireland have a right to have their children educated in accordance with their wishes (CCEA, 2019a; 2019b).

Schools should consider how they can support parents or carers who choose to withdraw their child from all or part of the relationships and sexuality education curriculum (CCEA, 2019a; 2019b).

In Scotland, guidance for the conduct of RSHP education highlights that schools and authorities must be sensitive to situations where a parent or carer wishes to withdraw their child (or a child wishes to withdraw themselves) from all or part of sexual health education (Scottish Government, 2014). Schools should discuss the issue with the parents, carers and/or child, reminding them of the child’s right to an education, explaining why the curriculum is important and encouraging them to see participation as a positive and constructive part of the child’s development.

Decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind the child’s age, maturity and capacity. If it is agreed that the child will be withdrawn from RSHP, arrangements should be made for them to have alternative positive educational provision that meets the Health and Wellbeing requirements of the Scottish curriculum (Scottish Government, 2014).

In Wales, relationships and sexuality education (RSE) is a mandatory part of the new Curriculum for Wales framework (Welsh Government, 2022a).

Parents and carers up to and including year 6 will not have the right to withdraw their children from lessons on this topic from September 2022. As the phased introduction of the Curriculum for Wales continues, the right to withdraw will gradually be removed from parents and carers of all pupils of all ages (Welsh Government, 2022d).

References and resources

References and resources

References

​Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) (2021a) Relationships and sexuality education (RSE). [Accessed 27/10/2021].​

Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) (2021b) Personal development and mutual understanding. Belfast: Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).

Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) (2019a) Relationships and sexuality education guidance: an update for primary schools. Belfast: Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).

Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) (2019b) Relationships and sexuality education guidance: an update for post-primary schools. Belfast: Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).

Department for Education (DfE) (2022) Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum. London: Department for Education.

Department for Education (DfE) (2021a) Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education: statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers. London: Department for Education.

Department for Education (DfE) (2021b) Teaching about relationships, sex and health. London: Department for Education.

​Department for Education (DfE) (2019) Relationships, sex and health education: guides for schools. London: Department for Education

House of Commons Library (2019) Relationships and sex education in schools (England) – frequently asked questions (FAQs) [Accessed 31/03/2021].

Relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP) Scotland (2021) RSHP Scotland. [Accessed 27/10/2021]. 

Scottish Government (2014) Conduct of relationships, sexual health and parenthood education in schools. [Accessed 27/10/2021].

Scottish Government and Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) (2021) lgbteducation.scot [Accessed 27/10/2021].

Welsh Government (2022a) Curriculum for Wales. [Accessed 11/02/2022].

Welsh Government (2022b) Curriculum for Wales: health and well-being. [Accessed 11/02/2022].

Welsh Government (2022c) Curriculum for Wales: relationships and sex education (RSE) code. [Accessed 09/02/2022].

Welsh Government (2022d) Curriculum for Wales: summary of legislation. [Accessed 09/02/2022].

Related resources

> Browse all our safeguarding resources for schools and colleges

> Discover the types of child protection training schools can take

> Find out more about promoting wellbeing and mental health in children