In Liz Kleinrock’s third-grade classroom, don’t be surprised to hear children asking each other for permission to give hugs.
The first step was creating a straightforward chart that provides a simple definition for the word along with a breakdown of what situations require consent, how to give it, and how to recognize if it has been granted or denied.
“We made the chart together,” Kleinrock said. “I organized the different sections of it, but everything in it is student-generated.”
And her students, age 8 to 9, appear to be getting it.
Take, for example, an illustration done by one child showing a conversation between a male stick figure and a female stick figure.
With his arms outstretched, the male stick figure asks, “Can I give you a big big hug!” The female stick figure, drawn with angry eyebrows, responds emphatically, “No!”
“Please,” the male stick figure says, only to be met with another “No!”
Kleinrock, who has taught at the school for seven years, said she was inspired to create the consent lesson by current political and social events in the United States, namely the contentious nomination process of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. He has been accused of sexual misconduct by three women and denies all the allegations.
“I always like to think about what can I do to be proactive,” said Kleinrock, who started talking about consent with her class of 25 students late last month. “You can’t change what’s happened in the past, but what I feel like I do have some control over is the future of our country and how we’re educating our children to be better and more responsive than we currently are.”
Kleinrock’s lesson started to attract widespread attention after she shared a picture of the chart to her Instagram and Facebook pages on Sept. 26.
But the chart is only one part of the lesson that tackles the challenge of getting third-graders to grasp the often murky and confusing idea of consent. To make the subject easily understandable for her students, Kleinrock said she explained it in terms of physical boundaries and respect. For example, the class went over how to clearly communicate not wanting to be touched by somebody and how to tell someone who is making you physically uncomfortable to stop.
Over the past two weeks, Kleinrock said her students have participated in a variety of exercises meant to teach consent, ranging from writing assignments to role-playing.
In one writing assignment, Kleinrock had her students explain why asking for consent is important, sharing some of their responses on Instagram along with the caption, “More evidence that my 8-9 year old students are smarter and have more emotional intelligence than half of congress.”
“Asking for consent is important because if you don’t they might not trust you the next time you ask,” one student wrote.
“Asking for consent is important because if you didn’t thay [they] midof [might have] not wanted to get tuchd [touched],” another entry read.
Her students also illustrated comics depicting scenarios in which consent was either given or denied and drew pictures of their “safety networks,” the people they trust and can go to if they ever feel unsafe or uncomfortable, Kleinrock said.
When some of the children were confused about “telling secrets,” one of the scenarios that they decided needed consent, Kleinrock said she helped her class differentiate between when you should and shouldn’t share information.
“I don’t want my kids to walk away thinking if somebody says, ‘Don’t tell ever,’ that they have to be sworn to secrecy because if it’s a matter of somebody being in danger of hurting themselves or hurting somebody else or being hurt by somebody, that’s absolutely information that needs to be shared,” she said.
Though it’s been only a matter of weeks, Kleinrock said she is already seeing a change in her students’ behavior. Now, many will ask her for permission before giving her a hug.
“It’s really sweet to be bombarded with five little kids being like, ‘Can I give you a hug, is it okay if I give you a hug?’ ” she said.
But her work is far from done, as she plans on continuing to reinforce the lessons throughout the school year.
“It’s not like every single student absorbed this 100 percent the first time,” she said. “It takes practice. It’s like developing fluency and comprehension the same way you teach in reading. If you don’t practice, you’re not going to be able to do it independently.”
She added, laughing, “As long as kids are putting their hands on each other, which will pretty much always happen, it’s definitely something we’ll be revisiting and going back to.”
The lesson has been met with largely positive reactions. Kleinrock said the school’s other third-grade teachers will also be using her methods to educate their students about consent.
“There’s a really strong belief that we’re not just here to teach students reading, writing, math, science and things like that, but that we are trying to equip our students with lifelong skills that will set them up for success when they go off into the world,” she said.
Social media users have also showered Kleinrock with praise. In the hundreds of comments on Kleinrock’s Instagram posts, many expressed thanks.
“She’s doing incredible and thoughtful work as an educator, and I’m glad she is teaching children about respectful communication with each other,” wrote one person on Instagram.
Another person called Kleinrock “amazing,” adding, “Thank you for being the exact type of educator our world needs right now.”
Others pointed out that adults could benefit from her lesson.
“Perfectly stated, and not just for children,” read one comment. “I think many grown folks need this simple chart to understand consent.”
“Might be a bunch of adults who need to repeat the third grade,” an Instagram user quipped.
However, not everyone has been pleased with the idea of young children learning about consent, Kleinrock said.
Critics have accused her of “sexualizing third-graders” and “pushing a particular agenda on children,” she said.
Kleinrock is adamant that the topic of sex has never come up in any of her discussions in the classroom, attributing the criticism to the fact that “so many people have associations between consent and sex, and that’s very hard to separate.”
As for concerns that teaching consent is somehow related to politics, Kleinrock said that while she may have been inspired by current events, she doesn’t believe the subject to be a partisan issue.
“These are important lessons for any student, any child, and I would also hope that any parent or caregiver or teacher, regardless of your political beliefs or religious beliefs, would want their kids to feel safe and respected,” she said, adding, “I live in a blue state in a blue city, but I would hope that a teacher in a red state in a red city . . . would still see value in teaching their students about boundaries and respect.”
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