Relationships and Sexuality Education

Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE)

Menstrual Wellbeing

The Importance of Teaching about Menstrual Wellbeing

RSE gives young people opportunities to acquire comprehensive, accurate and age-appropriate information on sexual and reproductive health issues such as puberty and menstruation.

Approximately half the population experiences periods. Despite this fact, periods are rarely talked about and are often seen as a taboo subject.

For many girls, getting their first period is an indicator of the start of puberty. However, substantial numbers of girls have knowledge gaps or misconceptions about periods. These can cause anxiety and leave them unprepared when they start menstruating.

Plan International UK, in its Research on Period Poverty and Stigma, has reported the following statistics:

  • One in seven girls admitted that they did not know what was happening when they started their first period.
  • 26% of girls said that they did not know what to do when they started their period.
  • 49% of girls have missed an entire day of school because of their period.
  • 59% of these girls gave an alternative excuse for missing school.
  • Only one in five girls felt comfortable discussing their period with their teacher.

The charity’s report Break the Barriers: Girls’ Experiences of Menstruation in the UK also reveals that a culture of stigma and silence have turned periods into a hidden public health issue, which is putting girls’ physical, sexual and mental health at risk.

By discussing periods with young people, we can help to reduce negative social and cultural attitudes that can negatively affect girls’ lives. If girls feel more comfortable and less embarrassed about their bodies, they might be more likely to seek help when problems arise.

Who Should Be Taught about Periods?

From Key Stage 2 onwards, all pupils (boys and girls) should be learning age-appropriate and accurate scientific facts about periods and be having open conversations about them. This can help to break common taboos about periods, prevent stigma, and reduce negative perceptions and behaviours.

Involving Parents and Carers

Teaching about periods is a matter of health and should be treated as such. Teaching should be built into the curriculum on an ongoing basis, building on knowledge and understanding, rather than being treated as a one-off lesson.

You must follow your school’s guidelines and RSE policy and inform parents before you discuss menstruation with pupils.

Schools should also encourage parents to talk to their children openly as an ongoing process, rather than a formal sit-down talk. They could use prompts such as TV ads for period products or a trip to the supermarket to start the conversation about periods. They could also simply ask their children what they already know and go from there.

Primary

According to the NHS, most girls start their periods when they are about 12 years old, but they can start as early as eight years old. It’s therefore important to talk to girls and boys about periods from an early age to make sure they are aware of what is involved and how girls can be prepared for their first period.

Menstrual wellbeing fits into the Personal Development and Mutual Understanding Area of Learning at Key Stage 2 under Theme 4: Health, Growth and Change. This includes:

  • knowing how the body grows and develops;
  • being aware of the physical and emotional changes that take place during puberty; and
  • knowing how babies are conceived, grow and are born.

Both boys and girls should be taught about menstrual wellbeing. By teaching all pupils together, you can send a powerful message that periods are not secret or shameful. They are not ‘girls’ business’ and are normal and natural. It’s important that boys have knowledge of and understand what girls experience before and during menstruation, and how their mood might change as they go through the menstrual cycle each month.

Teachers should cover:

  • facts about menstruation;
  • menstrual wellness – physical and emotional wellbeing leading up to and during periods;
  • menstrual hygiene – essential facts and how to deal with related situations; and
  • challenges – pain, anxiety, fear, embarrassment and myths.

Primary Links

Here are some links that we think are particularly useful for this topic:

Post-Primary

Menstruation is a normal and natural part of a girl’s physical development. It should not be treated with secrecy or stigma, which can contribute to girls’ feelings of embarrassment during their period. The menstrual cycle is also accompanied by emotional, social and cognitive changes, as well as practical challenges.

Menstruating in school can be distressing, particularly if it happens unexpectedly. Teachers need to be aware of and sensitive to the physical, emotional and practical needs of girls during menstruation. These may include asking for permission to leave class, feeling uncomfortable during PE lessons, mood swings and lack of concentration.

It’s important that girls have access to period products and are aware of the importance of personal hygiene. They should also know which staff members they can go to if they are having their period and need help.

Menstrual wellbeing fits into Learning for Life and Work at Key Stage 3 in the Personal Development strand under the key concept Relationships, which states that:

Pupils should have opportunities to explore the implications of sexual maturation, for example sexual health, fertility, contraception, conception, teenage pregnancy and childbirth.

At Key Stage 4, menstrual wellbeing also sits under the Personal Development strand of Learning for Life and Work, which states that:

Pupils should be enabled to:

  • develop an understanding of how to maximise and sustain their own health and wellbeing; and
  • reflect on, and respond to, their developing concept of self, including managing emotions and reactions to ongoing life experiences.

Pupils who choose to study GCSE Biology, Double Award Science or Single Award Science will learn about the events of the menstrual cycle, including ovulation and when fertilisation is most likely to occur.

Teachers should cover:

  • key facts about the menstrual cycle;
  • what is and isn’t normal;
  • communication skills needed to ask for help;
  • the range of period products available, how and when they’re used, and their advantages and disadvantages;
  • menstrual wellness – physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing leading up to and during periods;
  • menstrual hygiene – essential facts and how to deal with related situations;
  • challenges – pain, anxiety, fear, embarrassment and myths;
  • endometriosis and other menstruation-related issues – symptoms, support and treatment; and
  • period poverty.

Period Poverty

Research from Plan International UK reveals that, in the UK, three in 10 girls aged 14–21 have struggled to afford or access period products during lockdown. According to the charity’s CEO, ‘Lockdown has exacerbated the already prevalent problem of period poverty in the UK’ (3 in 10 Girls Struggle to Afford or Access Sanitary Wear During Lockdown).

In Northern Ireland, some people have to make a difficult choice between food, warmth and period products. Many girls can’t afford period products and if their parents are struggling financially, they don’t want to ask for help to buy them (BBC News – Period taboo: Why can’t we talk about menstruation?).

A scheme to provide girls with access to period products in Northern Ireland schools has been approved by the Northern Ireland Executive and is expected to be in place from September 2021.

Post-Primary Links

Here are some links that we think are particularly useful for this topic: