By Liz Bergren
The recent #metoo conversations and the increasing number of sexual assault allegations in the media bring attention to the questions of where and how we are teaching about topics like respect and consent in the classroom. These topics have been well-covered on all types of media for months, and it is important as parents and educators to be aware that news like this affects our children. It is our responsibility to make a conscious effort to help students sift through the information they hear.
One of the most important topics to discuss in the classroom and at home is consent. An understanding of consent can be the biggest stepping stone toward preventing sexual assault. Starting as early as possible, help children understand body autonomy. Many children are not given direct instruction on appropriate touch and body autonomy at home, so educators should work that into their instruction.
Many young children love to hug and hold hands. Teach them to ask permission before they hug someone or hold hands with the person. Tickling can be brought up in a discussion about touch. Some kids like to be tickled, and some like to tickle. Grown-ups tickle their children and it can be funny and fun, but sometimes tickling can go on too long to where it becomes uncomfortable or even painful. Teaching children to say “no” or “stop” when someone tickles them is a good foundation for empowering them to protect their bodies from unwanted touch. It is also important never to force your child to hug or kiss people if they don’t want to. If you are working with your young child to establish a relationship with a loved one, suggest giving a high five or hand shake if the child is uncomfortable with kissing or hugging the person.
For older elementary-age children, teach them to trust their own intuition when it comes to uncomfortable situations regarding their bodies. If they don’t want to be touched, or if they have an unexplained feeling about a situation or person, teach them to trust that inner voice and say “no” or get away. It may be helpful to discuss (at home or as a class) what a “gut feeling” is and how to listen to it. Some good examples might be if a friend puts an arm around them when it is unsolicited or if someone starts to massage their shoulders unexpectedly. Help kids understand personal boundaries and that it’s okay to say “no” or tell someone not to touch them. Role playing can help reinforce this concept. After you’ve discussed scenarios, have students create a script and work together to act out the situation. Have someone listen to his or her gut and communicate personal boundaries.
For tweens and teens, the topic of sexual assault is often taught in a sex education course. For students this age, dating can be a big priority. When I was a health education teacher, I would incorporate education on sexual assault into a unit on healthy dating and relationships. According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 93 percent of juvenile victims of sexual violence knew their perpetrator. We must equip our students with the skills necessary to recognize signs of an abuser and empower them to leave those relationships. Teaching students to pay attention to red flags of abuse in a potential partner and helping them understand consent can be lifesaving.
Again, role playing is a good strategy to help teens understand what consent is and what it is not, and can provide practical application to real-life situations. Know It, Own It, a global campaign for comprehensive sexuality education launched in 2016, has two well-designed lesson plans on consent using role play. It offers examples of scenarios to use for two different age groups. I have also developed my own scenarios for role play by using student examples. You can poll your students and have them share situations that they have heard in the hallways, things they’ve read about, or perhaps situations they have been involved in. By polling students, you get a sense of what is really going on in their lives, which can help guide your instruction and make the lesson more applicable to them.
Another way to teach about consent and initiate a discussion is by watching this video produced in 2015 by the Thames Valley Police in Britain. It explains sexual consent by using the analogy of offering someone a cup of tea. This is an excellent and very simple approach to help your students understand consent.
Many resources are available to help teach these concepts and start discussions around uncomfortable topics. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) just compiled a guide for teaching young people about sexual assault, harassment, and consent called the #TeachThem Toolkit. The New York Times’s Learning Network created lesson activities for an article called “The ‘Click’ Moment: How the Weinstein Scandal Unleashed a Tsunami.”
It is important to remember—and tell young people—that victims of sexual assault are of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, orientations, socioeconomic statuses, etc. No one “looks” like a victim, and no one “looks” like a perpetrator. Whether you’re an educator or a parent, teach students self-esteem, encourage a powerful sense of worthiness and purpose, and help kids develop strong communication skills and a solid support system.
How is sexual assault addressed in your school or home?
Liz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with fifteen years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.
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