My dad is a bluegrass guy. He loves everything about it: the fiddles, the banjos, the stand-up bass, the tinny harmonies. A perfect day for him is pulling up his rocking lawn chair at a bluegrass festival green and listening to music all day long. Recently, my daughters, ages 9 and 10, and I joined him at one such event. Uninterested in the music and not too keen to sit still, my daughters scampered around the fields with other kids in the back of the venue. I moved my chair closer to the back to keep an eye on them while also enjoying the music.
At some point, I became aware of a man in his 50s eyeing my 10-year-old. She didn’t notice, but I did. I watched closely as he approached her, put his hands out, and asked her to dance. She looked conflicted, confused, and frightened. She, like many kids her age, is being raised to value kindness. She even has a “Choose Kindness” shirt (although she was not wearing it). She has been taught to be polite to adults but also to be wary of strangers.
I could see her mind racing. What should she do? Be kind and accept his offer or run away in stranger danger? I didn’t give her time to make a choice. I made a beeline to her and pulled her away. As I did, the man said to her back, “You are a very beautiful little girl.”
Recently, I read in the news that a 10-year-old rape victim was forced to scramble across state lines to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. Now, in the safety of our own home, as I watch my daughters through the kitchen window make “stew” out of potting soil, bird seed, and wildflowers from our backyard, I can’t stop thinking of this child rape victim. The same age as my eldest daughter, that child should be giggling in a sandbox not searching for abortion clinics.
The sunlight catches my daughters’ golden hair as they playfully stir their colorful concoction. The man at the concert was right. They are beautiful. And so very innocent. How do I explain things like abortion, sexual predators, and rape to them? More importantly, how can I keep them safe?
In light of recent school shooting tragedies and monumental setbacks in reproductive rights, I plan to start this school year in my 4th grade classroom differently. I, like many other educators, usually begin the school year by co-constructing strategies to create a kind and respectful classroom environment. But I think this model may be missing a vital component.
This year, I would like to highlight the importance of awareness and self-advocacy. I would be remiss if I didn’t provide students the tools to advocate for themselves. Whether it be an unwanted advance, an offensive comment, or an uncomfortable situation, students should be equipped to define their boundaries and keep themselves safe. Here are some strategies I encourage my fellow educators to join me in implementing.
1. Set out a “yuck it” bucket.
Empower students to identify unwanted behaviors through an anonymous “yuck it” bucket in the classroom. This is a place where students can anonymously share anything inside or outside school that has made them feel uncomfortable or “yucky.”
Teachers can also pair the “yuck it” bucket with a “smile pile” where students leave anonymous notes describing welcome behaviors that made them smile. This is a way that students can practice identifying behaviors that are wanted and unwanted. This will help them develop a clearer picture of how they want to be treated as well as how others around them want to be treated.
2. Model “I Feel … When you … Could you please…” language.
Once students have identified unwanted behaviors, they need a vocabulary to communicate assertively to put an end to it. This vocabulary can be used by students to advocate for themselves when they feel uncomfortable, bullied, or unsafe.
Teaching students to use “I” statements can help them communicate clearly and assertively. Sentence starters such as “I feel… When you… Could you please…” make it simple for students to verbalize to others how unwanted behaviors of classmates and teachers make them feel.
For example, a student can use this construction to share her feelings to a teacher stating, “I feel uncomfortable when you call on me when my hand is not raised, because I’m shy. Could you please only call on me when my hand is raised?” Teachers could place a poster with sentence stems in a prominent place in the room for students to reference. Students use this tool to help them advocate for themselves in an assertive and appropriate way.
3. Act it out.
Some students may need practice advocating for themselves. Provide them with opportunities to act out scenarios to practice communicating assertively. Scenarios can be fictitious or drawn from the “yuck it” bucket. This is a fun and safe way for students to experiment with voice and expression to convey their message. Encourage them to use a firm voice and exhibit strong body language to become comfortable with telling others how they feel. Sentence starters are a great tool to use during dramatizations to help students communicate effectively and confidently.
In addition to being kind to others, students must be kind to themselves. This can start with defining their own boundaries. I want students to be able to tell people how they feel, what they like, and what they don’t like. Educators need to teach students to not let kindness stand in the way of their own safety. They must understand that it is OK to tell people, even adults, what they don’t like. It is not unkind or impolite to stand up for yourself.
I will never know the true intentions of the man at the concert. But I do know that it is my responsibility to teach students not only to be kind but also to be safe. I hope that students, like my daughter, will not be at a loss for words when an unsafe person approaches them at a concert, on the street, in their neighborhood, or even at school. Every student leaving my classroom will have the confidence to say, “Your behavior is making me uncomfortable, leave me alone.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 17, 2022 edition of Education Week as Don’t Let Kindness Stand in the Way of Safety