By Karen Coates, RN
I stand in front of the room, looking at the eager, nervous faces of my fifth graders. I have already broken up the class into what I call our Family Life groups, two small groups of girls and two small groups of boys. I start class with a game. “Please compile a list of 10 body parts that contain only three letters.” The inevitable questions follow:
“Can we use zit?” “How about butt?”
Finally, one group hits upon the answers: eye, ear, hip, leg, arm, rib. The game continues: “I am going to say the name of a body part aloud and you are going to call it back to me,” I instruct.
“Breas … Aghhh!”
Just like that, they did it (almost). They almost said the correct name for a private body part. We continue.
“Scro … What? What’s that?”
Nine years ago, when I decided to leave my position as high school nurse and transfer to the elementary level, I knew I also would be assuming the role of health teacher for grades K-5. I looked forward to the teaching aspects of this position, but wondered how I would deal with the Family Life section. After all, teaching puberty and the beginnings of fertilization and reproduction to innocent 10-year-olds is a daunting prospect. It did not take me long to realize that not only was this going to be a very important part of the curriculum, but it also was going to be some of the best fun that I have had in my entire nursing career. The hardest part to figure out was which of the children know the least — those who admit that they are clueless or those who think that they already know everything.
My lessons are not intense; we stress correct vocabulary, physiology and — most importantly — respect for each other.
Removing the mystery
Every year, I begin the Family Life lessons by reading an essay to the children, supposedly written by a student named Chris. Chris discusses the changes that are taking place within — body hair, body odor, acne and some burgeoning feelings for the opposite sex. I challenge the students to determine whether Chris is a boy or a girl and I give them one week to mull it over. The debates are entertaining:
“It’s a boy — he’s growing hair.”
“It’s a girl — a boy wouldn’t care about zits.”
Amazingly, no one ever guesses that every single change in the essay could refer to either a boy or a girl. Next I present a list of puberty changes and ask the children whether these happen to boys, girls, both or neither. While they get the obvious; breasts develop, facial hair begins to grow, feelings of independence emerge, there are a few that stump everyone. The most common question is “What is a nocturnal emission?”
If someone were to ask me what I was really going for with these lessons, the answer would be easy. I want to remove the mystery that was so much a part of my growing-up years. Although some may still find it shocking, I feel that it is imperative to discuss menstruation in a co-ed setting. No more days of whispering, “I’ve got my friend.” (By the way, my students think that comment is a riot.) It’s not something of which girls should be ashamed, and boys shouldn’t be afraid of the changes they experience.
I explain to the class that while boys do not have to deal with this important passage of puberty, they do have issues of their own. For almost all of the children, this is the first time they have ever heard the word “erection.” When I explain what this means, the crowd goes wild!
If I can encourage just a few children to forego words like boob in favor of breast, if I can compel the children to come to me or to their parents with open honest questions, and if I can in some way prepare them for the many temptations and difficult decisions that they will face, I will feel that I have had at least a small impact on their lives. Fifth graders are going through so many changes and have so many questions. These kids need an understanding ear and honest answers, not platitudes.
I once had a student who was in the midst of arduous chemotherapy. One day, he came to school, although he wasn’t feeling well, because — as he told his mother — “I am not missing health class!” It is the greatest compliment that I have received in my entire career as a nurse.
This generation of children has access to cable television, smart phones and, most significantly, social media, which means access to tons of misinformation. I learned long ago that when you correct and squelch, you inhibit and diminish. The most nonresponsive or shyest child in the grade will respond to kindness, encouragement and gentle humor. The bottom line — I love these kids!
Karen Coates, MEd, RN, BA, CSN, is a nurse/coordinator for the New Jersey School District in Ridgewood.
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