Seattle One good way to prevent teen pregnancy may have nothing to do with sex.
A program to help schoolchildren earn good grades and get along with others unexpectedly led to fewer pregnancies by age 21, even though the project involved no sex education, a study found.
The findings could influence the nationwide political debate about sex education in schools.
The program was developed by University of Washington researchers.
"These results fit with our theory that if children become bonded to school and committed to achieving in school during the elementary grades, they are less likely to risk that bond by engaging in behavior that puts their future success at risk," said J. David Hawkins, a social work professor and head of the university's Social Development Research Group.
"We never predicted such a big drop in the teen pregnancy or birth rate in our sample."
A report on the program was published in today's issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
The program involved about 350 students, as well as their parents and teachers, at 18 Seattle schools in high-crime areas between 1981 and 1986.
Some children took part in the program throughout elementary school. Others did not take part at all, and served as a comparison group.
Teachers were trained to show children how to control their impulses, get what they want without aggressive behavior and recognize the feelings of others. Parents were taught how to juggle family life, give positive reinforcement and monitor their children.
By the time young women in the program had reached 21, the pregnancy rate among them was 38 percent, compared with 56 percent among those who got no training. The birth rate was 23 percent among those with the training, compared with 40 percent among those without it.
Participants also had significantly fewer sexual partners, and single people were more likely to have used a condom the last time they had sex.
Advocates for sex education agreed that improved academics and self-esteem can help reduce teen pregnancies.
"We spend an awful lot of time in this country arguing about the shape, stripe and content of sex education classes. Meanwhile, one of the things this study is showing is it may not be the sex-education programs at all that are having this impact," said Bill Albert, spokesman for National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in Washington.
Nevertheless, sex education remains important, said Tamara Kreinin, chief executive for Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.
"It would be very simplistic to say that kids need more attention more after-school programs or other school programs and not address the fact they are surrounded by sexual messages and that they are sexual beings," she said.