Elizabeth Pappas

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I am new to teaching older students. This year I have a lovely group of 5th graders. This is a time when students’ bodies are changing in so many ways. I have some students who are menstruating, and I want to support them. Back when I was a student, I remember feeling so uncomfortable at school when I was on my period. I was thinking of providing students with bags of period products they could use discreetly when needed rather than needing to go to the nurse or feeling embarrassed. How should I navigate this? —Not Taboo Anymore

Dear N.T.A.,

Thank you for bringing up a topic that can sometimes be tricky to talk about. You are helping to normalize talking about puberty as a healthy part of growing up. We’ve all experienced how our own bodies changed in puberty. There can be a lot of uncertainty, confusion, and embarrassment. I, for one, never had a teacher offer me support beyond a brief sex education class in middle school. Your caring and sensitive approach to building a supportive classroom culture is inspirational.

There are a lot of changes students experience in late elementary age and beyond, besides getting their periods. Many kids feel confused and are not well informed about mood swings, pimples, body odor, body hair, and changes in their body shape, too. By offering supplies and an open door to talk, you are helping students to feel more comfortable about their own unique bodies and have compassion for themselves and others.

Many states have health education standards to support teachers in talking about puberty, with content and language that focus on learning about how bodies change during puberty. Schools keep families informed about sex education classes and often materials can be reviewed. By providing some supplies in the classroom, you are helping students take care of themselves.

When setting up a self-care system of support for your students, try and be open and matter of fact. You might say, “I care about each of you. I want to support your social, academic, emotional, and physical growth. I’ve created a self-care station for us all to use when needed. Sometimes, minor situations happen and you might need a bandaid or hand sanitizer before heading to lunch. And as we grow and change, our bodies have different needs. Other times, you might realize that you forgot to wear deodorant and you’d like to use some at school. Some of you will have your periods and you might need supplies. If you would like to talk to me about the self-care station, please reach out.”

Show your students the designated area in the classroom where you store masks, hand sanitizer, deodorant, tampons/pads, wipes, and bandages. At the beginning of the year, be sure to explain the procedures around using the supplies. There are benefits to letting students get what they need on their own. You are helping them build agency and independence in caring for themselves while also lowering uncomfortable feelings that may surface about asking for what they need.

Some students and teachers will prefer a more discrete approach. If this feels better to you, then consider saying, “We have supplies in our room for all different purposes, including your physical health. Let me know if I can help you with anything. We also have a nurse that we can contact for more support.” Consider writing a note or talking to smaller groups of students (and not just cisgender girls! Remember that you may have trans and nonbinary students who menstruate), sharing that you have period products in pencil case pouches they can bring to the bathroom to use.

As humans, we ALL have challenges and changes we go through for our whole lives. Thank you for taking the initiative to set up a safe and supportive classroom space where you are proactive and talking about taboo topics such as puberty.

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