Student Well-Being

How One Teacher Explains Consent to Her 3rd Grade Students

By Sarah Schwartz — October 09, 2018 2 min read
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As the sexual assault allegations against now-confirmed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh made headlines over the past few weeks, some teachers were grappling with how to address the hearings in the classroom.

One teacher responded by starting conversations about consent early.

Elizabeth Kleinrock, a 3rd grade teacher in Los Angeles, created a simple chart to teach her students about the concept. As her students are in elementary school, the conversation doesn’t center on sexual behavior.

“Instead, we talk about safe physical interactions that occur daily in the classroom and outside at recess, and how to communicate your personal boundaries with those around you,” Kleinrock wrote in a blog post discussing the activity on the website for Teaching Tolerance, an organization that provides social justice and anti-bias resources for educators.

To make the chart, Kleinrock brainstormed with her class: When do we need to ask for consent? Physical touch, like giving hugs and kissing, her students said. But her 8- and 9-year-olds thought of other activities, too: sharing, telling secrets, or borrowing things.

Students suggested ways to give consent (“Of course!” and “Yaaass!” made the list) and ways to say no (including “I don’t like that” and “Maybe another time”).

View this post on Instagram Everything about Kavanaugh in the news has been making me HEATED. So whenever I get frustrated about the state of our country, it inspires me to proactively teach my kids to DO BETTER. Today was all about CONSENT. We even explored the grey areas, like if someone says "yes" but their tone and body language really says "no." Role playing is a great way to reinforce these skills, but they MUST be taught explicitly! A post shared by Liz Kleinrock (@teachandtransform) on Sep 26, 2018 at 3:02pm PDT

The class also discussed situations that might not seem as clear-cut. In a role-playing exercise, Kleinrock and her students paid attention to “the speaker’s delivery, body language and tone of voice,” she wrote in her blog post. There’s a difference between an enthusiastic yes and a hesitant “um, ok,” Kleinrock writes—and the latter demonstrates a lack of consent.

Kleinrock’s lesson has received national attention, making headlines in the Huffington Post and CNN.

“I think whenever I tend to look at things spiraling in society, particularly political events that are going on, I like to think about what kind of foundational skills should have been in place earlier to prevent these things from happening,” she told the Huffington Post.

In follow-up lessons, students wrote why consent was important to them, and drew pictures of their “safety network"—the people they could go to “if someone makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable,” Kleinrock wrote on her Instagram.

View this post on Instagram More evidence that my 8-9 year old students are smarter and have more emotional intelligence than half of congress. A post shared by Liz Kleinrock (@teachandtransform) on Sep 27, 2018 at 6:28pm PDT

View this post on Instagram I've gotten a lot of questions about helping kids identity WHO to talk to if someone makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable, so today my class identified their safety network. We revisited the concept of "trust" and talked about who we feel comfortable talking to when things occur. To concretize this important step, all of my students drew pictures and labeled the people in their life who they know they can turn to. A post shared by Liz Kleinrock (@teachandtransform) on Oct 4, 2018 at 4:54pm PDT

Teaching Consent in the #MeToo Era

As the #MeToo movement has ignited a national conversation about consent, coercion, and sexual violence, K-12 students are among those speaking out. Some have shared their stories of sexual harassment with the hashtag #MeTooK12.

Advocates have said that young children can’t be left out of these conversations, and that discussions about respecting personal space and practicing empathy should start as young as kindergarten.

Fewer than half of all states mandate that schools teach the topic of “avoiding coercion” in sex education. But as my colleague Stephen Sawchuk wrote earlier this year, sex educators are hopeful that the #MeToo movement will highlight the importance of teaching healthy sexual behavior. Even before the allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein became public, more states had introduced legislation to mandate that students learn about consent and violence prevention in health classes, he reported.

Some schools are already reworking their sex education curricula to include discussion of healthy relationships and consent. Earlier this year, Education Week correspondent Lisa Stark visited Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., where high schoolers learn this type of comprehensive sex education.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.