“Teaching puberty to 5th graders” is a commonly searched phrase. That means this topic draws a lot of interest. Let’s break it down and look at it from a few angles.
What Puberty Education Is
Puberty education is a part of sex education. It focuses on the changes that occur around the onset of puberty and includes the physical, emotional, social, and cognitive changes that occur once sex hormones are produced in the body. When done well, it also teaches the skills students need to have a positive puberty experience, such as hygiene, communication, healthy relationships, media literacy, and accessing reliable information and help.
What’s In a Name
The words “sex education” probably bring up all sorts of thoughts. It is unfortunate that this term is widely used and misunderstood. For example, some people think sex education teaches kids how to have sex or that it encourages kids to have sex. This could not be farther from the truth. Students who have effective sex education are more likely to delay sexual intercourse than students who do not. This is especially true for young people who learn about this topic both at home and at school.
In many European countries, sex education is called “Relationship and Sexuality Education” (RSE). I think this is a much more descriptive name because relationships are at the core of what it means to grow into adulthood while experiencing body and relationship changes. After all, sex is always in the context of relationships: with oneself and with others.
Sometimes, sex education is called “Sexual Health Education” (SHE), alluding to the importance of teaching people how to maintain sexual health throughout life. Since every person has sexual aspects—as well as physical, emotional, social, cognitive, and spiritual aspects—it’s important to equip young people to maintain their health in all these areas. Ignoring sexual health can impact all the other areas of life.
When to Begin Puberty Education
Since puberty is beginning at younger ages than in prior decades, it is important to begin instruction before children begin showing signs of puberty. Children who have ovaries can begin puberty as young as ages eight or nine; children with testicles typically begin two years later. This means puberty education is needed early so that children are not frightened and confused by unexplained changes in their bodies and emotions. Teaching puberty to 5th graders has been the norm for decades, but many schools are beginning in 4th grade because of the earlier onset of puberty.
In addition, young people are immersed in sexual messages from a young age. They see sexual images in movies, on television, and on their computers and smartphones. They overhear adult conversations and hear misinformation shared by their peers. Since most of their parents didn’t have a good sex education, they might not be prepared to initiate discussions about decoding all these sexual messages. This can leave young people confused, ignorant, and frightened about the changes they are experiencing on their path to adulthood.
Controversy or Not
Sex education is sometimes viewed as a controversial and divisive topic. It can provoke strongly divergent opinions about the best way to teach the subject, or whether it should be taught at all. Sex education also has strong supporters. In fact, most parents support school-based sex education, no matter their politics.
Educators may fear conflict from parents or community groups who oppose sex education. Lately, politicians and well-funded groups have been using sex education as a wedge issue to play on people’s fears and solicit donations and votes. These opposition groups have been targeting their ire at school boards. They have focused on getting candidates elected who run under the banner of “parental rights” and have an agenda of censorship of books and topics taught in schools. Sex education is a favorite target of their ire.
Consequences of Not Teaching
However, avoiding sex education altogether has produced even more disastrous results. In what other topics do we encourage ignorance? None. However, when it comes to sex education, we prize ignorance over education. It’s as if we think our young people will be protected if they don’t know what sex is; we certainly don’t want to admit sex can be pleasurable!
In fact, ignorance from not getting a good sex education can result in these outcomes:
- Greater risk for being victimized or abused
- Bullying based on body appearance, gender, and attraction
- Shame, confusion, and fear
What to Teach 5th Graders
You might wonder what is included in puberty education for 5th graders. One helpful way to look at sex education is to understand the Five Circles of Sexuality, a model developed by Dr. Dennis Dailey. We want sex education to help young people understand the multiple aspects of being a human. These aspects should be taught in age- and developmentally- appropriate ways. In fifth grade, students who receive puberty education learn foundational information and skills that will be built upon in higher grades.
Another helpful way to understand sex education is by looking at the National Sex Education Standards. These standards outline what topics to teach at each developmental stage from kindergarten through high school. Again, these standards provide guidance about what to teach in fifth grade.
Puberty: The Wonder Years is designed specifically for students in grades 4, 5, and 6. These students are typically aged 9 to 12. They are at a perfect age to learn about their bodies and puberty from their trusted adults because they are curious and open to learning about themselves. Learn more about Puberty: The Wonder Years and request a free sample lesson. If your school is preparing to adopt a puberty education curriculum, request a free, 60-day curriculum preview.