Beginning Menstruation In Elementary School: How To Help


     

     Menstruation is a fact of life for all girls and women. There is increasing research suggesting that menarche, a girl’s first flow, is happening at younger ages, and why that might be. According to the American Academy of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the national average is 12.5 years. While some of the causal data might be controversial, many women will agree that menstruation brings with it a host of challenges that truly take a village to successfully manage.

     Girls in middle school and high school will generally find a number of resources in their schools to help. From sanitary supplies, to a school nurse and/or counselor, to sympathetic teachers and friends, older girls can often find help to navigate the journey.

     Elementary school-aged girls (ages 9-11) who begin their menstrual cycles have unique challenges. Some of them are:

1.  Though it may be that more girls are beginning menstruation at earlier ages, it is outside the norm to begin in the elementary grades. Experiencing something so essentially female can be difficult when your peers don’t understand.
2.  When any child, boy or girl, has a “first time” experience related to their body, it can be an emotional event. Add hormones that can make a girl feel new physical sensations and emotions and you can have added stress.
3.  Parents can be reluctant to begin these conversations with their young daughters. From simply not being aware of their child’s unique growth to not knowing the best time to broach sex-related topics can be a challenge. This can mean that our girls are shocked, and even traumatized, by a perfectly natural event.

     Teachers try to serve their students’ academic, social, emotional, and physical needs in the best ways possible. Here are some ways that we can support our girls through the experience of menstruation in the elementary years.

1.  Communication. Be proactive in addressing menstrual issues with parents. In a private email or text, or a note on your welcome letter, let parents know that elementary girls do sometimes begin their first period at school. Be as private as possible to keep younger children from hearing conversations they might not be ready for. Be cautious as a teacher about having these discussions with your students. They should only be held within approved curricular boundaries. If you must talk about any sort of “sex ed” topic, be certain that you have administrative support first. This should apply even if you have a child who begins menarche at school and she is totally unprepared for it.
2.  Encourage parents to begin these discussions. These changes can happen rapidly, without warning. It is traumatic for a child to begin bleeding in a way they never have with no understanding of what is happening and why. It is even more traumatic for a child to have bled through their clothes and not know how to handle it. Remind parents that a girl’s menstrual cycle can be very irregular for the first year or two, another reason for clear explanations. Of course, we cannot control what parents choose to tell their children and discussions in this realm can be emotionally-charged. You can only encourage. They do need to be aware that, if their daughter does begin menstruating at school, you will have to do the best that you can. We wouldn't have a child gash their leg at school and be bleeding and in pain and tell them to, "Ask your parents." Neither should we dismiss menarche. 
3.  Have supplies ready. Consider all of the needs a child might need in this situation, remembering that some kids have to wait out the day and ride the bus home. Include stick-on sanitary napkins, clean underwear, clean outer pants, and large zipper bags for stained clothing. Again, preparation is key. Check out Lost and Found, solicit donations, or you may want to supply them yourself. Do you have parent volunteers? This would be an excellent project or committee! Click here for more parent volunteer ideas.
4.  Preserve privacy. When a child does begin flowing, either for the first time or unexpectedly, you’ll need a way to get supplies to her discreetly. In the past, I’ve handed girls manila folders and large envelopes with supplies hidden inside. My goal was to preserve the child’s privacy by making it look like she was running an errand for me. Another option is to have a soft lunch bag filled and ready to go. It looks like a teacher is simply delivering a forgotten lunch. You could also use a back pack, especially if extra clothes are needed.
5.  Emergency contacts. Sometimes a child simply needs to leave school. The reality is that many parents simply cannot walk out the door to come for their kids. I always asked my parents to always have a no-fail contact I can call for emergencies.

6.  Make a plan. Consider formulating a procedure with your grade level or grade span colleagues. It’s so much easier when everyone is on the same page! Consider that male teachers especially need to protect themselves While men can certainly be as compassionate and comforting as women, a young girl may not want a man to have that much information about her body. Also, men should not go in the girls’ bathroom and certainly not alone to discuss such an intimate situation. Additionally, parents may not want a man involved. If you have male teachers on your staff, designate a female staff member who can step in as part of your plan.

          Thoughtful planning and communication can make a potentially difficult situation much more positive. I'd love to know how you handle girls who deal with menstruation in elementary school. 

Pat McFadyen
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