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How One Teacher Explains Consent to Her 3rd Grade Students

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").

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.

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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