Help kids feel confident asserting their personal boundaries
by Gabby Cushman
Consent is a critical thing to understand and make use of in adult life. We’re taught to say no to commitments when we’re already overwhelmed with previous ones, ask new friends if they’re comfortable with a hug or a handshake, and assert our boundaries with physical intimacy in more serious situations. However, many people don’t realize that consent is an essential concept for children to understand as well. Whether it’s sharing toys or deciding who’s allowed in their personal bubble, helping kids conceptualize the ideas of consent and boundary setting will allow them to foster better relationships with their peers and the adults in their lives. With that being said, here are five ways you can model consent for your students in the classroom!
#1- Practice saying “no” and setting your own boundaries with your learners
Modeling behavior for kids starts with incorporating these habits into your daily life. If you don’t follow the same guidance you give to your little ones, they will question why they have to follow it. Additionally, this provides you with an excellent opportunity to set boundaries for yourself in the classroom so you can foster a better relationship with your learners! For example, if a student wants to hug you when they greet you for the day, you always have the option to turn it down by saying, “No, thank you, I don’t want a hug right now.” You can offer a different greeting instead or leave it at that.
Your students may feel offended when you set a boundary with them, as boundaries can sometimes feel like rejection, which is difficult for young ones to deal with. You can assure them that you’re setting your boundary based on what you’re comfortable with, and that doesn’t mean that you are rejecting them showing their care for you. You would just prefer for them to show their care in another way! Try to practice setting boundaries outside of just physical ones too. You can tell your learners to ask before taking something from your desk or let them know when you don’t want to discuss an aspect of your personal life with them. Any way you do this, your students will learn from your example that they can say no in these situations.
#2- Start asking your students for permission so they can set their own boundaries
When you ask your students for their permission on something, it allows them to think about what they’re comfortable with and what boundaries they may want to set. As we discussed above, this is crucial for setting body boundaries with your students, but it goes for non-physical actions too. When I used to work with students as an Engagement Specialist, I often asked them if they were okay with me contacting their guardians to go over the plan we made to tackle their missing assignments. Their reactions would let me know how comfortable they were discussing school-related topics with their guardians and would build their trust in me as someone they can be honest with.
Other situations you may want to ask students’ permission in are:
- If they want to be included in a picture you’re taking.
- If they’re comfortable presenting something in front of other teachers/faculty members.
- If they’re okay with you moving one of their personal items.
- If they’re okay with moving seats in the classroom.
#3- Teach your little ones to use verbal and nonverbal cues when communicating about consent
When giving or denying consent, verbal consent is usually ideal, as it’s clear and concise. However, many situations call for being able to read nonverbal cues, and kids may find nonverbal cues easier to rely on than using direct verbal communication. That’s why practicing these actions is just as important as practicing verbal consent. An easy example to use with little ones is hugs! If someone enthusiastically approaches you with arms open, they are likely happy to accept a hug. However, if you’re hugging someone and they pull away, it’s likely that they might not feel comfortable with a hug.
When setting boundaries verbally, it’s essential to be direct with what you mean. You want to make sure your learners understand this as well. Model direct boundary setting for them, such as saying, “I don’t like that” and “I’m not okay with that.” This goes for asking for consent as well! Teach your kids to ask straightforward questions about consent, such as “Is this okay with you?” or “Can I move this?” This explicit language will help them avoid miscommunications with the boundaries they set now and in the future!
#4- Don’t force your students to physically interact with one another, even for the sake of a class activity
Although it’s somewhat common to have students engage in class activities that involve physical touch, forcing students to participate in these activities can be harmful when it comes to consent. It could make your learners feel like there are situations where they have to agree to engage physically with another person, regardless of if they want to or not. That goes against the whole message of consent we’re trying to teach them. I distinctly remember being in preschool and going on a class trip where we had a buddy system and had to hold hands with our buddy while walking in the city. I was uncomfortable holding hands with my buddy, but I was required to for this trip. I could not wait until it was over and we arrived at our destination! Although I understand consent now as an adult, I wish I had known I had the agency to say no to this activity when I was little. If you clarify to your learners that they can opt out of an activity involving physical touch for any reason, this will continue to show them they can set boundaries on what they’re comfortable with.
#5- Remind them that someone can always change their mind about giving consent
How comfortable someone feels in a situation can fluctuate depending on many factors that influence their established boundaries. Because of this, some may change their mind about the consent they initially gave, which is completely understandable and okay! It’s crucial to teach our little ones that consent is never fixed. Perhaps their friend has told them they love hugs, so the two of them hug every day when they see each other. But one day, their friend feels claustrophobic and says they don’t feel like a hug today. If this student understands that consent can change, they likely won’t get upset that their friend changed their mind about hugs that day! You should also emphasize to your students the importance of directly communicating these changes in boundaries when they are able to. They can easily just say something like, “I changed my mind about that,” or “I’m not comfortable with that anymore.”
Teaching our learners consent at a young age will help them navigate their childhood and set a foundation for them to build on as they grow up. It can also help minimize chaos in the classroom with better communication between your little ones. Hopefully, these five ideas are a great starting point for an ongoing lesson on consent in your classroom!
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