Welcome to the world of education, where every day brings something entirely different.
But among the hustle and bustle, there are a few things that should never be allowed to fall through the cracks. One of these things is teaching students how to navigate consent and boundaries.
This is where Erin’s Law comes into play. With 42 million survivors of child sexual abuse in America, it’s more important than ever to understand the impact of these traumatic experiences – and to take steps to prevent them.
As educators, we play a vital role in keeping our students safe from harm and identifying abuse when it occurs – did you know that 90% of children are sexually abused by someone they know and trust?
This is a daunting statistic, but it points to the need to be vigilant at all times for signs of abuse so we can stop it in its tracks.
By arming ourselves with knowledge and the tools necessary for prevention, we can provide a safe and supportive classroom environment for all students.
Let’s dive in and explore the world of consent and boundaries, in the pursuit of creating a safer and healthier society – one classroom at a time.
Erin’s Law is a child sexual abuse prevention program that mandates that all public schools in each state implement a prevention-oriented program. That means students in grades PreK through 12th grade – kids of all ages – will learn techniques to recognize child sexual abuse and know how to speak up and tell a trusted adult.
But it’s not just the students who are getting educated here. School personnel will also learn all about child sexual abuse, and parents and guardians will be taught warning signs to look out for and how to get help and support for sexually abused children and their families.
Erin Merryn, the founder and president of Erin’s Law, is a childhood sexual assault survivor and activist who put her experience to work to make a difference for kids everywhere. As of early 2024, the law has already been passed in 38 states and is pending in the other dozen.
Vermont was one of the first to require this back in 2009, but the movement has really spread nationwide. We’re talking Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, and the list goes on.
To understand how Erin’s Law is best carried out in the classroom, we need to first explore the topic of consent in a bit more detail.
Although the term “consent” has gotten a lot more attention in the post- #MeToo era, it’s something that’s been around forever – and it’s not just a buzzword. It’s a crucial life skills that need sto be taught directly to children.
Simply put, it’s an agreement between two (or more) parties that something is alright with everyone involved. While it’s often associated with sexual encounters, consent should also be taught outside that context. As educators, we should emphasize that consent is a crucial element in any relationship, whether it be between friends, family, or acquaintances.
But consent doesn’t just mean a mere “yes” before intimacy. It can also mean making sure everyone involved is of sound mind and that neither party is being coerced or pressured into doing something they don’t feel comfortable with. This, again, might mean intimate activities, but it could even be something as seemingly innocuous as sharing a hug.
The idea of consent also requires us to be mindful of power dynamics and authority that can often make someone feel like they can’t object. Consent is an ongoing process, not a one-time affair, and either party can change their mind at any time.
Conversations about consent and intimacy with our students can be awkward, but essential. Giving your students the tools to practice consent in their everyday lives will not only benefit them as they grow up, but will also assist in creating a culture of consent and safety for everyone.
Now that you know exactly what we mean when we say “consent,” here are a few ways to keep it in mind as you navigate this tricky area in your classroom.
Many states already had mandated reporting laws in place, but as more school districts develop plans to implement and carry out Erin’s Law, knowing the signs of abuse is more important than ever before.
Keep an eagle’s eye on any signs that may indicate potential abuse. These can vary by the age of the child and by the child’s personality, but some of the most common signs include nightmares, trouble sleeping, bed wetting, changes in appetite, fear of certain people or activities, mood swings, depression, aggression, and isolation.
In some cases, students may resist removing clothes during appropriate times or exhibit adult sexual behaviors, knowledge, and language.
These signs are even more prevalent in adolescence, so keep an eye out for eating disorders, self-injury, drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuous activity, running away, and academic problems.
If a child discloses abuse or trauma to you, it’s crucial to listen to them and assure them that they did the right thing by telling you. Take any and all concerns seriously. There’s no such thing as “being paranoid” when it comes to a child’s safety.
Let them know that it’s not their fault and that they are safe now. As educators, it’s our responsibility to report any suspected abuse, but we also need to ensure that our students feel comfortable confiding in us. Encourage open communication and let your students know that they can come to you if they need help or support.
Erin’s Law is something that should be on every educator’s radar, but sadly, it’s still falling through the cracks in a lot of places (despite being mandated).
Find out what is being done to teach Erin’s Law in your school. If you don’t get answers, take it to the school board and superintendent. If you’re still not getting answers, take it to the state board of education.
Again, there’s no room to slack here – everybody needs to be on the same page when it comes to teaching students about consent and boundaries.
Be proactive. Ask questions. Don’t wait for someone else to start the conversation. Ask the kids in your life what they are comfortable with in terms of sharing, playing, and physical touch in general.
For example, you can ask them who they like playing with the most at school, who their favorite person is to share with, and who they like sitting next to at story time. Be curious and non-judgmental and take the time to truly listen.
Teach kids that setting boundaries is a normal part of healthy relationships.
Whether they’re playing with friends or spending time with family, it’s okay to say “yes” or “no” to different activities or interactions.
You may want to use social stories to help illustrate different scenarios where setting boundaries might come up – for example, a child doesn’t want to share a toy, or they don’t want to be hugged by a family member.
Another useful tool is to practice communicating preferences for boundaries. You can show kids different ways to express their feelings and preferences – for example, using phrases like “No, thank you” or “I don’t like that, I like this.”
Have your students practice saying these phrases in different situations, such as when a friend or family member approaches them for a hug or other physical touch.
Consider coaching your students to be specific about their preferences.
For example, they might say, “Can we play a different game instead?” or “Can I have a fist bump instead of a high-five?” This helps reinforce the idea that setting boundaries is about expressing your needs and desires, rather than just shutting down an interaction altogether.
Along with practicing expressing preferences, role modeling good communication skills can be helpful.
Teach your students to ask questions like “May I?” or “Do you want to?” when approaching others for physical touch or other interactions. This encourages respectful and consensual interactions, which are key components of healthy relationships.
Let’s face it – working with kids can throw some awkward situations at us from time to time which can be challenging to navigate. However, these moments provide us with a valuable opportunity to teach our students about boundaries, respect, and consent.
Create a safe space for students to talk about their feelings and concerns regarding any incidents that may have made them feel uncomfortable. In this, we can consistently initiate discussions around boundaries, appropriate touch and respectful communication at every chance possible.
Digital consent is something that should not be overlooked, especially in our increasingly modern and connected world.
We must teach students digital consent and privacy as well. This includes warning students about the dangers of sharing personal information and photos online and highlighting the importance of asking for consent before sharing anything online.
It also means teaching students about the boundaries that exist between them and us. For example, teaching them why it’s not okay to send a teacher a Facebook request (or vice versa) or to chat with a principal on Snapchat. These, again, are tough conversations to have, but are incredibly important in the digital age.
Navigating consent and boundaries in the SPED classroom is an important task that requires continuous effort and dedication from educators. Erin’s Law serves as a great starting point for addressing these issues and ensuring the safety and well-being of our students.
Not sure where to start? You may want to think about incorporating the Stanfield Company’s Circles curriculum into your teaching practices, so you can empower your students with the necessary life skills they need to navigate social interactions and develop healthy relationships.
Remember, teaching these skills is a lifelong process that requires patience and consistency.
As educators, it is our responsibility to foster a safe and inclusive learning environment where all students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. Through open communication and a clear understanding of consent and boundaries, we can create a better future for all.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.