Consent has become a somewhat divisive buzzword in the wake of the #MeToo movement. But at its core, it’s an idea that many learn as early as preschool — the notion that we should respect one another’s boundaries, in order to be safe, preserve dignity, and build healthy relationships.
For middle school or high school students, discussions around consent will, in part, involve sexuality, but for younger students, the conversation is different. Teaching them about consent can help keep them safe from child predators, but it can also be about simpler things, like whether they want to play a game or get a hug from a classmate — laying the groundwork for an understanding of sexual relationships much later on, as well as ensuring a safer classroom environment in the present.
Usable Knowledge spoke to educators and researchers, as well as identified resources, on the best ways to discuss consent with different age groups, compiling their ideas into the following strategies for talking about consent with students in early education, elementary school, middle school, and high school:
Develop a shared vocabulary, says Gideon Kahn, who has taught in preschools in California and New York. Use a “consistent and clear” vocabulary with students around the concept of consent, — simple words like body, space, and touch. (“I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘consent’ with a three-year-old before,” Kahn says.) The goal is that “if a kid doesn’t want to be hugged by another kid, he can say, ‘This is my body,’ and be understood.”
Lay the social-emotional groundwork. A lot of early education, Kahn says, is centered around giving kids the social-emotional skills to thrive, and these naturally dovetail with the concept of consent and respect. “Emotional intelligence, perspective-taking, empathy — these all allow you to basically understand your own feelings and the feelings of others, and are foundational to respect,” Kahn says.
Teach kids that it’s OK to express hurt. Junlei Li, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is fond of a quote often espoused by Mister Rogers, “Attitudes are caught, not taught.” Listen to children and check in with them about their emotions. Too often, adults try to discourage students from showing sadness, anger, or discomfort, Li says, but learning to identify those emotions can help them advocate for themselves when they’re hurt, as well as develop empathy and recognize similar emotions in other children and adults when their actions are making others uncomfortable. “If a child is really sad, it’s not uncommon for us to tell them, ‘Don’t cry, it’s not that bad,’ or we try to distract them very quickly, so they don’t focus on the sadness,” Li says. “But expressing a certain amount of sadness or anger is important for learning and development.”
Model consent and empower students. Of course, some of consent is skill-based: learning to simply ask questions about what behavior or actions are appropriate. “Would you rather a hug or a high-five?” Give children agency over what is age-appropriate, like what snack to have, or what to read at story time.