In a study released today by Flinders University, researchers are calling for a significant shift in how schools approach period education, highlighting a pressing issue: children as young as eight are beginning their menstrual cycles without the necessary educational support. Published in the international journal Sex Education, the study reveals that over 12% of Australian girls experience their first period between the ages of eight and 11, yet national curriculum guidelines delay period education until students are between 10 to 12 years old.
Associate Professor Ivanka Prichard from Flinders University points out a concerning trend: the global average age for the onset of menstruation has been decreasing for decades in Western countries, now sitting at around 12.5 years. Early menarche, defined as starting before the age of 11, is becoming more common, yet the education system lags behind in adapting to this shift. “The education system has been slow to adapt to the earlier onset of periods, with a growing number of children now starting their period before being introduced to the subject at school. Early years primary students are often deemed too young to learn about periods or explain their own needs,” explains Associate Professor Prichard.
The implications of this educational gap are significant. Previous studies have linked early puberty and menstruation to various adverse mental health outcomes, including depression.
“We know that the school environment is central in a child’s social and emotional development during puberty, and they need to be well-prepared ahead of starting their period to ensure it doesn’t negatively impact their lives,” says Associate Professor Prichard.
The Flinders University research, supported by the Flinders Foundation, delves into the perceptions of school staff regarding the support available for students experiencing early menarche. Through interviews with 15 individuals working in Australian primary schools, including principals, teachers, counsellors, and support officers, the study sheds light on the current state of period education and support mechanisms.
Study lead-author Olivia Marie Bellas calls for a transformation in how period education is approached in primary schools. The study advocates for the normalization and encouragement of open discussions about menstruation among students of all ages, genders, classes, and cultures. Bellas stresses the importance of positive support practices and facilities to foster an environment where conversations about periods are not only normalised but encouraged.
“Positive support practices and facilities for period education are needed in primary schools to normalise and encourage conversations with students about periods irrespective of age, gender, class or culture,” says Bellas. “We hope the outcomes of our findings will lead to improved school processes and support materials that have been developed based on evidence of children’s lived experience, so those affected are adequately supported,” she adds.
The research identifies a “gatekeeping of knowledge,” where period education is confined to specific times, places, and student groups within the curriculum. This approach, according to the study, reinforces the notion that menstruation and early menarche are problematic and taboo subjects. Prichard and her team argue for a more inclusive and flexible approach to period education, one that allows teachers to discuss menstruation positively and openly with all students, regardless of age or gender.
By highlighting the social stigma surrounding menstruation, especially for young girls experiencing early onset while still in primary school, the study underscores the importance of school-based education in starting conversations about periods. This approach aims not only to reduce stigma but also to bridge the gap in knowledge and support that may exist in students’ homes.
The findings from Flinders University present a compelling case for reevaluating and enhancing period education in schools. By prioritising comprehensive education and support for both teachers and students, the study advocates for a future where menstruation is demystified, and all children are adequately prepared and supported through their developmental journeys.