Naima is an irrevocable believer in the power and potential of early childhood education as a form of activism that can sustain and strengthen community. A first-year teacher in an Early Head Start toddler classroom in East Harlem, she is tirelessly committed to implementing a pedagogy of care in order to effectively support and build partnerships with all who enter her classroom.
Prior to her current position, Naima has worked with young children for over twelve years as a teaching assistant, a performing arts educator, and a one-to-one aide. She has a BA in Sociology & Anthropology and Black Studies from Swarthmore College, and an MA in Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Special Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also a member of QUIERE, a Teachers College based fellowship program for educators committed to providing high-quality education to learners with disabilities, especially those of immigrant backgrounds.
Given our ongoing conversation this week on the Forum, we are asking Naima to help us understand, “What is consent, and what are some ways we can teach it to young children?”
Here’s Naima’s thoughtful response:
I find the matter of teaching consent to young children to be of the utmost importance for one irreproachable reason: children, like adults, have the right to feel safe in their own bodies. Not only be safe, but feel safe. Caring for children is made up of countless measures that adults take to ensure children’s bodily safety. But what of the interconnectivity between bodily safety and emotional safety? In other words, what can we do to ensure that the children feel safe in their own bodies? How can we show them to use those feelings to not only keep their body safe, but engage with other people in ways that are meaningful and pleasurable?
This is where consent comes in.
Consent has a very simple definition by necessity, and I will specify it slightly for the sake of this conversation: consent is the explicit approval of physical contact with someone else. It is nothing more, and it is certainly nothing less. There are many ways in which I purposely cultivate and enforce a culture of consent in my classroom. As early childhood educators, we’re all intimately familiar with sociocultural pedagogical theory, or the idea that learning is fundamentally a social process; we also know that young learners need repetition and concretization in order to grasp and retain understanding of concepts. This is why I have found that a great time to teach consent is at dismissal. As my learners prepare to leave with their families, I verbally ask them if I may have a hug goodbye. Any number of things can happen at this point. Quite often, the child says yes, or smilingly jumps into my arms, and we share a pleasant hug. Lovely! Sometimes, I receive a flat, verbal “no”, the child hides behind the family member who has come to take them home, or the child physically shrinks away from me. Also lovely! They have effectively communicated to me that they do not give me consent to give them a hug. I then honor their decision by telling them–with the family member(s) looking on–that it’s okay if they don’t want a hug. I give a variety of options, from high-fives to waving. Even if they choose to completely ignore me afterwards, I honor that decision.
Teaching consent in this way has a number of repercussions. It affirms the child’s bodily autonomy, particularly in the face of authority; in other words, it shows them that it is okay to say “no” to undesirable touch, even (and especially) to adults. It honors their feelings and allows them to form the boundary that they want and need to feel safe. It models for them and their families that refusing a hug is not a matter of noncompliance, but rather a perfectly reasonable response that should be actively respected. One of my brightest moments this academic year was watching one of my learners go from classmate to classmate asking them if they wanted a hug, and reacting appropriately when she was given a “yes” or “no”. Success!
Consent can and should be taught, because consent is for everyone!
For additional information on this topic, see:
- The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21 by the editors of The Good Men Project
- Healthy Sexuality Development: A Guide for Early Childhood Educators and Families by Kent Chrisman & Donna Couchenour
- The case for starting sex education in kindergarten by Saskia de Melker
- It’s never too early to teach children about consent and boundaries by Anne Theriault
- Your Child Should Never Be Forced to Hug Anyone (Yes, Including a Relative) – Here Are 7 Reasons Why by James St. James
- How to Teach Consent to Kids in 5 Simple Steps by Michelle Dominique Burk