We live in a world teeming with information—good, bad, censored and uncensored. In this technology-driven era, how do we ensure our children learn what they need to at a pace that is apt for them? My ten-year-old asks me the meaning of the F word. I fumble and say it is a bad word, try not using it. This was the genesis of my taking up an adolescent health education programme for school children, girls and boys 10-13 years old.
WHO defines adolescence as 10-19 years, which is divided into early (10-14 years) and late (15-19 years). It is a critical period of life marked by biological, social and psychological changes. It is a period of transition when adolescents learn to become adults. The lifestyle and behaviour during this period have a longstanding impact on an individual's health. So guidance at this stage on vital issues of human biology, health, disease and behavioural adaptation can provide them maximum benefit.
As puberty in females is earlier than in males, adolescent health education classes are best held separately for girls and boys rather than loading them with what is going on with the opposite gender. The objective is to impart correct knowledge at an appropriate time. The content, which includes growth and development, nutritional needs, importance of physical activity, development of secondary sexual characteristics, emotional changes and behavioural issues, is the same for both. Only the approach is different. The subtle difference in approach is based on the response of a random group of 50 students 10-13 years old we quizzed in a pilot study, which formed the basis of the adolescent health education programme. We have held sessions in private and public schools in Mumbai, Pune and some rural areas of Maharashtra. For a recent session at a government school in Karnataka, the announcement of separating the girls and boys was met with whispers and hushed giggles. A few smarter ones even suggested the possible reasons!
Having given health talks as a preventive and social medicine specialist, I have learnt to keep the dialogue simple and as close to things people come across in daily life as possible. Since the group was early adolescents, I began with their daily routine to lay emphasis on personal hygiene. I told the girls not to throw their uniforms and bags around and keep their rooms neat and tidy. I spoke to them about things that will be expected of them, that they will be treated as responsible individuals. I told them that sessions will soon be held for their parents, too, so they understand to be reasonable and not scold them unnecessarily. This went very well with the girls.
I gave them reasons to be physically active. I gave them information on the importance of having a balanced diet and consuming burger, cola, chips only occasionally. I touched upon changes in puberty and discussed the menstrual cycle. They heard patiently. The ones who knew exchanged knowing smiles. There were shocked faces and queries, too, like, are periods going to last for life?!
The session for the boys was conducted by the male specialist in our group, a paediatrician. As this was their first experience of an adolescent health session, the boys, we felt, would connect better with a man. The doctor asked the boys about famous personalities and suggested they keep a picture of their favourite one. Expect changes in mood, physical appearance, he told them, and less affection towards parents, which is all normal. Steer clear of lying, stealing, depression, hurting people, and trust your parents, respect all and communicate. They were also told about the importance of a balanced diet and physical activity.
As the girls were shy, we let them write their questions—ranging from what is a pad and how is it used to why should only girls have periods! Girls are special, I told them, and have the power of bringing forth new life, and this requires them to bear the periods.
The boys, too, were hesitant. Why were they silent when girls asked a lot of questions, we tried to provoke them. To this one smart boy said, the girls ask many questions because they cannot understand easily!
More such activities need to be undertaken to prime our youth and prevent social aberrations such as drug abuse, stealing and untimely sexual activity with the ultimate aim of seeing them grow up to be good citizens.
Tawar is a preventive and social medicine specialist.