A playground occurrence involving my 9-year-old son offered an important reminder that educators of even the youngest children can help pave the way to a healthier climate.
My son and his friend were swinging on the swings when two other boys pulled my son’s friend off and began to kick him. My son demanded they stop. Instead, they put him in a headlock and paraded him around the playground in front of two supervising teachers who did not seem to notice. His friend tried throwing rocks at the boys to get them to let my son go.
When I emailed my son’s teachers and the principal about the situation, they were compassionate and quick to offer their support. The principal sent back a short email sharing he had called all the boys into his office together.
“It turns out this was a case of chase gone bad,” he told me.
I shared that I was under the impression the boys had been swinging and had not heard about a game of chase.
Yes, this was true, he responded. The boys were swinging.
After I pressed the principal for more of the story, I learned that the boys had asked my son and his friend to play chase, and they had declined and went to swing. After they pulled my son’s friend off to kick him, my son and his friend ran away.
Because they ran away, the principal said, my son and his friend invited the game of chase. He told the boys, “No one can chase you if you don’t run.”
There was no mention of the fact that my son and his friend had told the boys they did not want to play. The teachers in charge detained my son’s friend from recess for two days because he threw the rocks to save my son from the headlock.
Though the incident was not sexual in nature, many elements of this event foreshadow possible future ones involving romantic relationships. The educators missed an opportunity to teach valuable lessons about consent.
Conduct Separate Interviews
As educators and parents, we must create a climate where students feel safe to speak up and share their experience when addressing any type of incident. One of the many reasons rapes go unreported is the fear of confronting the perpetrator again. In my son’s case, when the administrators interviewed the aggressors and victims in the same room, the aggressors could claim it was a game while the victims had to relive the physical humiliation.
Adopting a policy of speaking individually with students about acts of aggression or physical threat increases the probability that we will not further traumatize students and the likelihood that they will be able to speak with more confidence about the experience.
Teach That “No Means No”
Supportive educators should recognize when children say no and take that opportunity to further empower them. School-age children are developing beliefs, values, and behaviors that drive their response to uncomfortable or threatening situations. Educators can provide social-emotional instructional opportunities that help level the playing field, such as highlighting self-advocating models in the books students read. We need to teach our children that they do not have to accept poor treatment.
My son’s friend’s defense was an act of courage, not grounds for punishment. Teaching children how to be an upstander instead of a passive bystander when they witness poor behavior is another key lesson. Role-playing language to assess the safety of a situation and intervene appropriately gives children relational tools that can have a long-term impact.
Being an upstander requires courage. Staying silent can be interpreted as support of the bully. A responsive educator will give students tools and language to assess risk factors, such as brainstorming a list of responses in class that students can use to diffuse tension and mentally rehearsing what those conversations will look like. Brain research tells us that mental rehearsal is just as powerful as the physical experience.
Some administrators will use the “boys will be boys” phrase that has endorsed bad behavior for decades. Gendered notions of behavior are no excuse for using physical violence. That is inappropriate action by children who have not learned respect for other people’s boundaries.
Learning how to deal with rejection is an important skill in consent education. We can help students to evaluate their actions, the situation’s outcomes, and alternative responses to use when someone else says no. Such lessons might start by identifying a few educators who can offer support if a student feels rejected or lonely or by providing clear parameters for play, such as a sign-up wall for all those interested in a group game at recess.
Educate for a Healthier Culture
As educators, we must learn to think carefully about any conflicts and hurtful behaviors we see manifest in our classrooms. What messages are our resolution tactics sending to children? How do our responses affect their long-term emotional development and the beliefs they are formulating to navigate their lives?
We are, in a very real sense, creators of consent culture in schools, which in turn affects the culture outside school walls. Explicit instruction on how to say no, handle rejection, and be an upstander are proactive approaches to prevent and address these types of events. By developing a healthy classroom culture around these issues, children will learn how to interact in healthy ways in our world.
Kristina Herrera is the assistant director of professional learning at Pre-K–4 San Antonio in San Antonio, Tex.