EDUCATION IS FAILING TO PREPARE YOUNG PEOPLE FOR PERIODS: THE PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS

Period education

Poppy Taylor

Poppy is a PhD Researcher at the University of Bristol, with a background in biology and sustainability. Led by her passion for female health, she decided to investigate young women’s experiences of menstrual education during their time at school. 

Poppy’s current research explores the role of inequalities in menstrual health management using shopping data. For research updates, you can follow her on Twitter

 

Poppy Taylor Poppy is a PhD Researcher at the University of Bristol

Poppy recently published a research paper about young people’s experiences of menstrual education in English schools. Here she shares her findings. 

Menstrual education 

Have you ever thought that your education about periods was lacking or limited? You are not alone. In fact, 93% of young women* think that their education should have been better.  

Frustrated by my own poor experience of menstrual education (a ten-minute sex-segregated overview of periods coupled with a quick demo of pads and tampons), I decided to research the experiences of other young women, to establish the extent of this problem and crucially, explore how things might be improved. 

 

Research 

As part of my master’s degree research, I invited participants to take part in online surveys and interviews to share what they learnt (and what was missing) from their time at school. The findings were shocking but sadly, not surprising.  

Up to 1 in 5 did not learn about periods until after they had started menstruating

The research reveals widespread inadequacies; ranging from a lack of practical information and lateness in the delivery to attitudes which perpetuated the stigma. For 1 in 10 participants, education was missing altogether and for those who did receive education, up to 1 in 5 did not learn about periods until after they had started menstruating.  

EDUCATION IS FAILING TO PREPARE YOUNG PEOPLE FOR PERIODS: THESE ARE THE PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS

Approaches exacerbated the taboo 

Around the world, menstruation is regarded as a key issue for gender equality. When menstrual needs are unmet, it can create barriers to education and employment, pose long-term health risks and threaten human rights. The persistent stigma and lack of public understanding about menstruation is preventing needs from being met in the UK and this research found evidence of the stigma being perpetuated in schools.   

Several participants reported that the obvious discomfort in teachers delivering the subject, added to their own feelings of taboo. In some cases this was made worse through jokes and sexist comments, particularly from male teachers and classmates. 

“If they feel shame about it, why wouldn’t I?” 

“If they feel shame about it, why wouldn’t I?”

A common practice which exacerbated the taboo was gender separation. Although girls sometimes experienced bullying in mixed-sex classes, it was also noted that excluding boys contributed to a culture of secrecy and shame around periods. Boys were estimated to have missed out on half of all period education which, anecdotally, led to men having a poor understanding about women’s bodies and engaging in harassing behaviour later in life.   

If we are to address menstrual needs and tackle the stigma, everyone needs to be included and lessons should be delivered in a way which challenges the shame surrounding periods. 

Lack of health information 

Perhaps some of the most concerning findings from the research are those relating to health. Not a single participant was taught about menstrual health conditions and just 3% learnt about abnormal symptoms.  

A lack of information about what constituted as normal was frequently reported. In some cases, this had serious consequences. For example, some women with healthy cycles thought they were ill or dying whilst others with debilitating gynaecological symptoms put off seeking medical attention because they thought their pain was normal. Several were later diagnosed with conditions such as endometriosis, which with better awareness, could have been treated years earlier.  

 

EDUCATION IS FAILING TO PREPARE YOUNG PEOPLE FOR PERIODS: THESE ARE THE PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS

 

Lack of practical information 

Practical content about managing emotions, cycle tracking, menstrual pain, period poverty and stigma was also noticeably lacking. In fact, 7 in 10 received no information about these topics whatsoever. Schools could play an important role in promoting body literacy and raising awareness about wider menstrual issues.  

 Instead, many had to rely on other sources – particularly the internet and social media – to seek this kind of information. This came with its own risks and poses a barrier for those who lack access to such resources, thus highlighting the need for universally accessible education. 

 

Lack of sustainability content 

Just 2% of young women were taught about sustainable period products compared to 86% for disposable pads and tampons, and less than 1% learnt about the environmental impacts which, as we know, are substantial. 

Perhaps more encouragingly, 44% were taught not to flush products. However, given the fact that 2 billion menstrual items are flushed in Britain each year, it seems more awareness is needed in order to address this issue. More information about a variety of products along with discussion about their impact could allow people to make more informed choices and use products that are best for them and the planet. 

Recommendations for the future 

This research provides strong evidence that the current education system is failing girls and young people who menstruate. Overall, 62% said their education was ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ in preparing them for periods. We need and deserve better!  

Whilst lessons tended to focus on the biology of menstrual cycles, participants wanted information that would actually help young people to manage their periods and support their peers. Recommendations to improve menstrual education include: 

  • Earlier lessons: Teach pupils at a younger age to ensure they are prepared before their periods start. 
  • Inclusive spaces: Teach all young people (including boys and LGBTQ+ students) about menstruation to improve everyone’s understanding and reduce stigma. 
  • Practical content: Provide practical information which empowers students with an understanding of their bodies, what’s normal and how to manage their menstrual health. 

 

Better government guidance 

With the issues discussed, it is important not to blame teachers, who are severely under-resourced and relying on limited guidelines. Even with the curriculum shake-up and introduction of ‘menstrual wellbeing’ as a topic in 2020, the 50-page Relationships and Sex Education guidance dedicates just one short paragraph to menstruation. 

We must call on the next government to provide better guidance. Prioritising a comprehensive school curriculum, alongside training and support for teachers, would enable a universal level of education for all children and help to create a more empathetic and accommodating society, in which no one is limited by their period. 

*Not all women menstruate and not all people who menstruate identify as women. A limitation of this study was that it only explored the experiences of women aged 18-24 living in England. Periods are a truly global issue which affect us all – across every gender, age group and culture – and more research is needed to understand these experiences.  

 

Links to further information 

Thank you to my co-author Professor Alison Greig, as well as everyone who took part and made this research possible. You can read the full research paper here or for more information, head to the Planet Period website or get in touch

 

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