We’ve all seen it.
It’s probably even happened to you.
That is, where a compliant, easy going child’s body has been invaded by a less than pleasant, moody alien. “Where has my lovely young child gone?” is the response of many parents.
Yes, we’re talking puberty and it’s happening much earlier than most of us are aware of.
A recent article in the Age
highlights some potentially surprising results from the biggest longitudinal study of puberty in Australia, the Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study (CATS)
, as researchers try to understand why children are entering puberty so much earlier than previous generations.
There is ‘an earlier hormonal surge that happens at about eight years of age, which they believe has significant implications for children's social and emotional well-being and also sets the stage for the main event of physical puberty a few years later.’
The importance of the Middle Primary Years
What was previously thought of as a relatively latent stage of development, the years leading up to the onset of physical puberty are actually significant for laying the groundwork for ‘children’s identity and social connectedness’.
Dr Lisa Mundy, a researcher on the CATS team, says "This is a huge time of change, because they're gearing up for secondary school and there's obviously a lot of worries and concerns about that," she says. "There's obviously a lot going on at a biological level as well. Their relationships with their peers, changing relationships with their families, their school, and all of this is happening at a time when their biology is really changing."
The need appears to be greater than ever before to understand the developmental shifts in kids, particularly for boys around Grade 4. Recognising that moodiness and sullenness may be connected to these hormonal changes will help parents understand what is occurring and then respond in a supportive way.
Lead researcher Professor George Patton says, "This is a complex transition that these kids are going through. Their identity, their sense of self is emerging."
As the gap between physical and emotional maturity catches up, the social environment that children are dealing with during this transition can present huge pressures and emotional challenges.
Teachers can easily confuse willful, poor behaviour with confused and erratic behaviour, especially in boys in grades 3 to 5, when alas the poor sods are just going into puberty. A teacher’s awareness of changes means making some allowances as well as somehow, perhaps through parents, getting across that their child is changing.
Here are 3 ways schools can support parents and their children
during this phase:
1. Support parents with the changes
Research has shown time and again that times of developmental change always cause significant problems for parents. Early puberty as outlined in this article comes as a surprise as few parents expect these moody behaviours. As a school, offer information nights, place information and articles in newsletters and on websites about puberty. Individual teachers can help parents understand the developmental changes during meetings and interviews and also informally during conversations about children.
2. Build children’s emotional smarts
This highlights even more the importance of giving children a nuanced, specific vocabulary to help them explain what's happening. Also, there is a need for children to be aware of what's happening inside them. This takes not only empathetic teachers but teachers with specific knowledge of emotional intelligence frameworks to pass onto kids. Perhaps the greatest knowledge teachers can pass on to kids during this stage is self-awareness.
3. Build parents' emotional intelligence
Most parents I work with still think in behavioural terms when it comes to managing their children. We need to build an emotional intelligence framework for parents, particularly in the middle years of primary school. At the very least they need to be able to distinguish between deliberate misbehaviour and poor behaviour that is driven by confusion and ruled by emotional and developmental changes. This awareness will assist them to help their children more successfully negotiate future transitions into and throughout different adolescent stages. It will also lead to less stressed parents, and indirectly better parent- teacher relationships.
Australian schools do a fantastic job supporting parents. This early puberty is one area where schools can offer parents real, practical assistance that will impact on kids wellbeing and behaviour at home and at school.
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