Who Has a Voice

I have been thinking quite a bit about how to teach the concept of consent to young children. It is often said that morality is better caught than taught and I think that is apropos in this case. But that does not mean the teachers aren’t actively teaching consent. Rather, I think the focus is on creating a culture of consent in the classroom. Then the teacher can find times for short “direct instruction” to help instill what consent is.
In the classroom it means that adults and children have a few basic agreements. I would use the term “guidelines” in a classroom setting. The agreement is essentially that everyone has a right to their own body and that when mistakes happen, we can fix those mistakes. Here is the wording I have used in my preschool classroom and my colleague used in her toddler room:

• We take care of each other
• We solve problems together

Together these allow for wording to use over and over. If Lena (a toddler) tackles someone who clearly does not want to play rough, the teacher can say, “Remember, we take care of each other. You have to ask if they want to be knocked down.”

If the other child cries or gets mad, the teacher goes to the next guideline. “Oh no we have a problem, but we solve problems together.” Then the teacher can follow the steps of conflict resolution.

The teacher will be repeating the two guidelines over and over, but toddlers do start to internalize them. The teacher can also post the guidelines using different color for each so the toddlers can keep track of them. The teacher can point at the words when they say them. Many of the toddlers will start pointing at them as well.

The first guideline is a little more obvious. If each child has a right to decide what happens to their body then they must respect others bodies. I don’t use the word respect for young children because it doesn’t seem concrete enough. Most young children know the phrase being “taken care of” so it seems to work better. I have seen toddlers use this terminology after it is used.

The second one might not be so obvious: solving problems together. When I started using guidelines, I thought We Take Care of Each Other encompassed this one. But in the classroom I saw how useful it was. Some children feel shame when they hurt someone, intentionally or not. Other children at this age honestly don’t realize they caused someone to get hurt (not yet understanding cause and effect).

I found myself referring to this guideline all the time. It had an unexpected effect. It helped restore peace in the classroom. Children learned that the teachers were not interested in blaming children, but rather solving the problem and moving on. Many toddlers and preschoolers will step in to help when there is this focus on repair. It doesn’t matter if an individual was even part of the conflict, each child can be part of the solution. I think this aspect of consent is often missing in our culture’s recent discussions on the topic.

If children mostly see adults searching for someone to blame and “take responsibility”, many may try to simply avoid getting caught or deny any responsibility if they are caught. Instead, children should step up and try to solve the problem (whether they are the one responsible or not). I think this is where the important learning can happen. Because consent is not simply an agreement between two people about what is allowed to happen. It is a community deciding who has a voice.

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Stop Means Stop

Our society has a problem with understanding the concept of consent.  The Stanford case is only the most recent public example of a culture that fosters sexual harassment and sexual assault.  The Stnaford rapist obviously disregarded the notion of consent, but there were many in the media and legal system that also did not seem to understand that no one has the right to touch or interact with another person without permission.  I have been thinking about this situation for a while, but since this blog is geared toward those who work with young children, I didn’t think I would address it here.

 

But when I look at the problem as a cultural phenomenon, I realize that all of us have a responsibility to do something.  In closer reflection, I see that there is something I can do.  While preschoolers have different types of interactions than adults, they are also deal with the issue of respecting others and their belongings.

 

 

We have the guideline “We Take Care of Each Other” in my classroom.  This guideline covers any type of play or interaction.  I can’t take a toy from someone else just because I want to play with it.   I can’t say something that hurts another child’s feelings, even if I didn’t intend to hurt them.  For example, preschoolers love to rhyme words, but I can’t call Chuck, “Truck” if he doesn’t want me to.  Even if he thought it was funny earlier in the day.

 

 

 

One of the ways children learn to take care of each other is roughhousing.  

Some teachers will stop children if they play rough so they don’t hurt each other.  I think this is a missed opportunity for children how to learn to respect each other.  If two children want to roughhouse, they are taking care of each other when they roughhouse, meeting the need they have for physical play.  However, if one child wants to play rough and tackles a child without asking, that is clearly not OK.  That child is not taking care of the other child.  The child must ask first.

 

If Sandra and Kenneth knock over Latifa’s block building while they are playing rough, they are not taking care of Latifa.  If Sandra and Kenneth move to the mat where no one is building, they are taking care of each other.  If Kenneth says, “Stop,” at some point, Sandra needs to stop.  If Kenneth decides to resume the roughhousing, he will let Sandra know.  It’s not a question of whether the play itself is “right or wrong, but rather it is a question of whether children are respecting each other.  Stop means stop.

Often children will say, “Stop,” frequently if they are new to roughhousing or if their play partner is new.  They are testing whether this partner is trustworthy.  Do they stop when I ask?  Usually after a short pause they will play rough again.  As they gain trust in another, they usually pause the game less often.

Sometimes children don’t even need to say, “Stop.”  They express their desire to stop by crying or cringing a bit.  In this case, not only do the other play partners stop roughhousing, they also check in.  Are you OK?  Can I help you?  Do you want a hug?  As teachers, we may have to teach some children to check in with others, but most children pick up on it fairly quickly.

There are some children who are not yet able to read the body language of others.  They may continue to play rough despite a child tearing up.  It might be easy to simply not allow these children to play rough, but I think these children are precisely the ones we need to teach by giving them more opportunities to play rough.  The teacher can describe the body language.  “He’s scrunching up his face, try not pushing so hard.  Now he’s smiling, he liked when you knocked him down.”  Children can learn with this direct instruction.  If these children don’t learn to read body language, they are at risk of being rejected by other children.  These rejected children have less opportunity to gain social skills and often end up exhibiting anti-social behavior later.

The last thing I would like to say about children learning to respect others and asking for consent is in regards to interactions with adults.  Our culture often has an expectation that children must hug certain adults such as relatives.  If children hesitate, they are told they must hug Auntie.  I think it is seen as a sign of respect toward the elder, but it shows little respect for the child.  I think it sends the message that children don’t get to decide who touched them.  This is hardly a message we should be sending.  You can ask if  child wants to give a high five, or you can ask if the child will give a hug with you, but then leave it up to the child.  Don’t admonish them if they say, “No.”  No means no.

Teachers of children all ages have an opportunity to change the value of consent in our culture.  We just have to start seeing it as something we teach.  There may be no greater lesson.