Let’s make over the “period talk” in primary school

At the Real Period Project our aim has always been to get the period conversation going and, crucially, set periods in their proper place as one part of the whole menstrual cycle. We believe that once periods start being consistently taught in this way, they have a chance to make more sense. Because let’s face it, when seen in isolation, especially to a 10 year old, they can seem a bit unfair.

So the challenge has been how  to make this distinction understandable to children in primary school, so we can raise a new generation of menstruators who know where they are in their cycle and how it is affecting them. This excites us, because the current situation seems to be that very few people are even aware of the other phases of the menstrual cycle, let alone how they might be experienced – physically or emotionally.
We have been working on our primary school pilot for some time now. We enlisted the help of the wonderful Melonie Syrett, a PSHE (Personal, Social, Health & Economic curriculum in schools) consultant in London, and got 11 schools in Bristol interested in taking part. Our mission was to produce a session for year 5’s in primary school (aged 9 and 10), include the whole class, and make it an interactive, engaging session that promoted both understanding of the cycle as a whole and also an appreciation of the different experiences menstruators may be go through, to promote confidence and empathy for others.

Two weeks ago we tested our session for the first time in a Bristol primary school. We had great feedback from the teachers and the children all really came on in their understanding. We learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work with that age group, and we confirmed our belief that this topic needs a lot more time than most school timetables allow it. However – it’s a start!

Primary schools already cover the changes of puberty in their year 5 science lessons, but the depth into which they go, and how much they discuss the practicalities and detail of the menstrual cycle and managing periods varies widely between schools. Some schools do it really well, starting young and revisiting the topic each year. Others less so – covering the basics in science and then a quick session for the girls – taken out of class – at the end of year 6.

Female puberty starts on average around the age of 8, and new research from Plan International shows that 14% of the UK girls they spoke to still don’t know what is happening to them when they start their periods. Leaving the ‘period talk’ until just before they leave will mean unless they have families who are happy to talk about managing periods, many girls start with no information.

We thought long and hard about the age we should deliver this education to. Ideally we could reach all children before there is a chance of anyone starting their periods. But given there are some now starting as young as 8 this would mean covering the subject much younger. Teachers already report significant resistance from parents in tackling this topic “too young”, and so we decided that year 5 was a compromise worth taking, given that puberty was already part of the curriculum for this year group. We believe schools and parents are most likely to want this topic covered in more detail at this time.

And what we found in the classroom was that this is a great age. The children were open, engaged, interested and keen to learn. They were full of questions, and the classic shame/disgust reaction was virtually no where to be seen. It is our experience that the older children get, and the closer in they get to puberty, the more they recoil from learning about puberty and periods. No doubt society’s negative messages have had more of a chance to take hold.

The 60 children we taught went away with more understanding of what having a period is like, how periods fit into the cycle as a whole and how it is normal to feel different through the different phases, who they might go to talk to if they wanted to know more or were in difficulties, and what people with periods use – including the difference between disposable and reusable products.

We only had an hour and a half – it flew by and much of what they heard will fade as they move into other subjects and other experiences. But we know we have planted seeds. Seeds of possibility, for a generation of menstruators who trust their body and its cycles, and non-menstruators who trust and support them from the sidelines.