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The number of children going through puberty as early as age seven or eight has been on the rise for several years. As a consequence, by the time these children take sex education in fifth or sixth grade they're already well into puberty; well into the period when they are wondering what is going on with their bodies. Now, if you're a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, this might be your first introduction to puberty at school.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHTMARE ON PUBERTY STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Rapping) Hello, I'm Natalie. My body is growing fast so they all call me names and they treat me like trash...

CORNISH: Natalie is a character from the play "Nightmare on Puberty Street." Going to see it is a middle school tradition in the Bay Area.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHTMARE ON PUBERTY STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Rapping) I didn't pick how my body would grow, and I don't feel normal 'cause I'm not in control...

CORNISH: Youth Radio's Donisha Dansby wanted to visit some real Bay Area school children to find out what it's like for kids who start puberty early. To protect their privacy, she's just using the first names of kids she's interviewed.

DONISHA DANSBY, BYLINE: One morning when she was eight, Rachel woke up and noticed something different about herself.

RACHEL: I actually, honestly don't really remember this. But what my mom told me is that I woke up and I was like: Hey, Mom, what are these like things on my chest? I don't know what they're doing there . And she had to explain it to me.

DANSBY: Rachael's 15 now and fully grown. Back then, when puberty started, she still played like a little girl.

RACHEL: Fairy princess clothes tend to be not well-made and revealing and stuff like that, so I was playing dress up even though I'd already started developing. So there are some pictures of me in dress up clothes that are kind of revealing or too tight in some areas.

DANSBY: At school, Rachael stood out.

RACHEL: Some of my friends had parents who they weren't as comfortable talking to about this kind of stuff. I actually was a person who answered a lot of other people's questions.

DANSBY: That's a weird position for kids. But some girls show signs of puberty even younger than Rachael did. Jaidyn was just six.

JAIDYN: Six when I got armpit hair and I started wearing deodorant, and about nine when I started wearing a bra.

DANSBY: By fourth grade, Jaidyn still hadn't received any puberty education at school, which left the conversation to her mom.

MARELLA: Honestly it made me feel a little uncomfortable, but I did my best.

DANSBY: That's Jaidyn's mom, Marella.

MARELLA: I just brought her home some bras and said here.

(LAUGHTER)

MARELLA: And she put them on. You know, I just made as easy for her as possible.

DANSBY: But really, it's not easy for parents or kids. That's partly why schools offer puberty education, to help us not freak out.

ANNE PEACOCK: It's not a big deal, but what I like to call it is a picture of Mr. and Ms. Naked, OK. So take a deep breath.

DANSBY: And then comes the question from Oakland 5th grader, Isabel.

ISABEL: Let's say you get your period during class, what would you do then?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Run.

(LAUGHTER)

PEACOCK: She could run...

DANSBY: Ann Peacock is a puberty education teacher in this classroom at Redwood Heights Elementary.

PEACOCK: Ask the teacher to go to the bathroom. OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

DANSBY: She recommends that every fifth grade girl carry a personal pouch containing pads, and a fresh pair of underwear, since periods can start at anytime for girls this age.

PEACOCK: My personal view is that we should do some form of sexuality education from kindergarten onwards, and that they are made to feel comfortable.

ISABEL: Yeah, I feel like it's important to learn but it's sort of like an awkward lesson.

DANSBY: That's another girl named Isabel, also in fifth grade last spring at Flynn Elementary School in San Francisco, talking on the playground the week she and her friend Mila were about to start puberty class.

MILA: I heard that while having your period you can get very moody. You can get really grouchy...

ISABEL: Yeah.

MILA: ...like a rollercoaster.

ISABEL: Yeah, I heard that you have like a lot of different like feelings at the same time. Like, you're sad and suddenly you're happy and suddenly you're angry.

MILA: I'm worried some of my friendships are going to be on the line.

ISABEL: Yeah.

DANSBY: Why not talk to your parents about this stuff?

MILA: It's just one of those things that it's like you don't want to talk to your mom about. It's like boyfriends, you don't want to talk to your mom about your boyfriend.

ISABEL: Like, you don't want to tell them about it because then they might be like: Oh, my God - you're growing up...

DANSBY: But we are growing up. Oftentimes way before we hear the word puberty in class.

DR. LOUISE GREENSPAN: I really feel like I'm on a mission now to make sure that people understand that teaching kids about puberty in fifth grade is way too late.

DANSBY: Dr. Louise Greenspan is a pediatric endocrinologist at Kaiser in San Francisco, who is studying the causes and effects of early puberty. To be clear, Greenspan is not saying little kids should be learning about sex in school. Instead, she says they should get the message that being physically mature doesn't mean they're ready for adult relationships. To Greenspan, kids who start puberty early don't necessarily have a medical problem.

GREENSPAN: But is it a disorder, as in there's something wrong with our environment or there's something wrong with what's happening in the world, maybe. Something's changed. So the girls don't have a disorder but maybe our world does.

DANSBY: While scientists try to find what's causing early puberty, schools are left to deal with what looks like a new normal. In the meantime, kids are left wondering.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHTMARE ON PUBERTY STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Rapping) Normal, am I normal?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: (Rapping) Am I normal?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: (Rapping) Am I normal?

DANSBY: For NPR News, I'm Donisha Dansby

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHTMARE ON PUBERTY STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED children: (Rapping) I really hope I'm normal.

CORNISH: That story was produced by Youth Radio.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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