In autumn 2017, #Metoo began trending on social media networks. Across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, women were posting, tweeting and sharing about their experiences of sexual violence.
In the wake of that movement, the spotlight has been on challenging the beliefs, behaviours and social norms that enable and excuse a predatory culture and the actions it encourages.
No part of society has been left untouched. Sadly, it is inevitable that many students will face challenging situations themselves – even in school.
It’s therefore essential that we begin to teach students about consent in our schools and learning environments. By furnishing young people with the right strategies and knowledge, they will be empowered with the confidence to speak out against wrongdoing. Moreover, they will know how to act when they are in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation themselves.
A note on this content
Please always take into account your cultural situation when approaching topics like these in the classroom. Depending on where you are in the world, bringing up issues around sexual consent may need parental or school approval. While we always stand by our words, we understand political and religious situations can be complex and we never, ever want to put educators at risk.
With that in mind, if appropriate for your classroom, here is some guidance on how to teach consent at different ages, and how to create a classroom environment that is respectful of body autonomy.
Teaching consent to primary children
Teaching children about consent goes beyond the context of sex and relationships. Consent is about each person’s right to their own body. And a robust understanding of consent is a factor in both the prevention and recognition of child sex exploitation (CSE).
We can start teaching children about physical boundaries as soon as they can understand language. Teaching children how to share, how to take turns, and how to ask before touching each other, all form a solid foundation to help them understand the concept of consent and body autonomy.
At this age, you can talk about consent in non-sexual situations, like tickling, playing a game, or giving hugs. Books and songs can provide good teaching moments about physical boundaries. Give children the language they need to both withhold their consent – “I don’t want a hug right now” and seek others’ consent – “Can I hold your hand?” Provide them with alternative ways to show approval and affection, like high fives or thumbs up.
Another important way to uphold body autonomy is to believe children when they talk about their bodies. Sometimes students might use a stomach ache as an excuse to get out of class, or say they need to visit the bathroom repeatedly, and this can be challenging to handle. But responses like, “You don’t need to go,” can undermine children’s confidence in talking about their bodies openly and honestly.
Teach your students body literacy. Using the correct words for all body parts is an important part of CSE prevention. Children should also be familiar with The Underwear Rule – that nobody should touch them on the parts of their body covered by their underwear. You can download Kiko and the Hand, a book to share with your class. And Consent for Kids is a good video resource for slightly older students who have some awareness of sex and sexuality.
Teaching consent to secondary students
When it comes to secondary education, students will be hearing about sex from their peers, possibly forming their own romantic relationships, and also be going through puberty. That makes it a key time to talk openly about relationships – and the importance of consent and communication. It’s also important that students know that you are a trusted adult who will talk to them openly. That way, they can come to you with questions or issues about sex or about their bodies.
Part of being that trusted adult is intervening and modelling respectful behaviour. But it can be hard to know what to say on the spot. So it’s good to have a script prepared. That way, instead of ignoring any teasing, you can address it with something direct. For example:
“In this classroom we respect each other and everyone’s bodies are different. Teasing people isn’t kind.”
Consent should be taught in the context of relationships and communication (both online and in real life). This is another opportunity to develop a script so that students have phrases to fall back on in uncomfortable situations.
It’s important to teach your students to check for consent with other people, as well as empower them to refuse consent on their own behalf.
You can start defining what sexual harassment is, by getting your students to talk through different scenarios – talking to a classmate at a party, for example, or being approached by someone on public transport. They can then brainstorm what characters could say to one another. Talk about non-verbal cues where people express discomfort, like facial expressions and body language.
Here, you can show students how to intervene to support one another in asserting their bodily autonomy when harassment happens in a public place like school or a park. It’s also a chance to explicitly state what is legally defined as sexual harassment or assault.
Finally, it’s important to teach consent and bodily autonomy in an intersectional way. That means being aware of the ways that different students can experience unwanted interactions. For example, Black students often experience unwanted hair touching. Trans students are often asked intrusive questions about their bodies. Use these situations to reinforce how to set and respect boundaries.
You can teach consent across the curriculum, from history to literature. Books are a powerful way to educate students about consent. After #MeToo: Educators Seek Strategies To Teach Students About Consent has a list of books, which are appropriate for different ages, and good to have in your classroom and school library for further reading. Teaching students about consent is the most effective when it is a cornerstone of their education, not a one-off class.
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