Content note: bodily autonomy, child abduction, stranger danger, child sexual abuse, classroom discipline
Each of my students is the boss of his or her own body. That sentence may seem simple, straight-forward, and fairly basic. But the more I dig into it, the more radical it becomes for me to abide by it in my classroom.
I grew up in an era of Stranger Danger. When I was four years old, Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped. The fact that it happened only three hours from my hometown, which is just a stone’s throw in rural areas like North Dakota, made it hit pretty hard. I remember asking my mom if the Jacob boy was home with his mommy yet. I also remember yearly Red Flag Green Flag® programs. But I lived in a small town, where no one was a stranger, so it was an odd juxtaposition for me.
As time has passed, our fear of strangers has reached a fever pitch. Neighbors call the police when they see children walking home from school unattended. Kids are often not allowed to play in their own front yards. But stranger abductions like Jacob Wetterling’s are extremely rare, so our focus on Stranger Danger is often misplaced. What we need are kids (and teens who used to be kids) who develop a sense of autonomy over their own bodies, and who trust their gut when it comes to saying no.
In college, I worked at a daycare and after-school program for kids with special needs. One of my favorite clients was a child who loved to hug. He was full of love and wanted to share it with everyone. When he got to middle school, his teachers came down on him hard and said that hugs were no longer age appropriate. Um what? I don’t think people grow out of hugging at some magical age, and his teachers’ concern about the inappropriateness of him hugging girls and women missed the point. The issue wasn’t age–it was consent.
Starting in first grade, my students ask for hugs. I usually say yes. Their friends usually say yes. But when they say no, we accept the no.
I have a student who uses a wheelchair. Her friends are prone to over-helping, and that contributes to disempowerment. So we have a two-part rule: the chair is an extension of her bubble, and everyone must ask before offering help or push her chair. And by everyone, I mean everyone: students and staff. If she says no, we accept the no.
I don’t use time-out as a behavioral consequence very often. I like to create a community with my students, and sending the message that they can be banished for rule infractions does not sit well with me. Most rule infractions can be handled with a look or a conversation, usually short. My students are capable of discussing their behavior and any precipitating factors; they do not behave in a vacuum, and we all know this. I respect them enough to have these dialogues. The only times I use a time-out or a break is if a student is making the classroom emotionally or physically unsafe for the rest of the students. Then we exit the room to have our conversation (ideally). Here’s where it gets radical: if a student says no, we accept the no.
If a student will not remove himself or herself from the classroom when asked, directed, or reminded, the rest of my students practice self-care. The move to a different part of the room, bring their work to the couches in the hallway, or if the student is still physically safe, they have been known to assert themselves by saying, You are not being fair to my feelings and my learning, and I think you need a break.
I play the long game with my students. And the long game takes time and infinite patience. The long game does not depend on immediate compliance, but on multiple small conversations and reminders and tending the seed that sprouts and grows into an understanding of why we behave the way we do. It grows slowly. Sometimes painfully so.
I will not violate my student’s bodily autonomy to enforce immediate compliance; I’m trying to dismantle the Cult of Compliance, not reinforce it. My desire for order, or respect, or discipline, or consequences, or whatever classroom management buzzword of the week happens to be floating around does not supersede a student’s right to be the boss of their body. That is an abuse of my power and position. If I teach my students they are the bosses of their bodies, and then demonstrate that as an adult I can violate that rule, what message does that send? Since the majority of sexual abuse cases involve an adult known to the child, and since children often get in trouble for telling their adults no, am I not upholding rape culture by rejecting the very word I am trying to build up??
When a student says no, I don’t remind them to be “polite.” No is no; the content is more important than the tone. And the content of NO can’t get much clearer than that.
For some great Safe Kids rules, including I AM THE BOSS OF MY BODY, click here!
For a perspective on the cost of physically forcing compliance, and what that means for the bodily autonomy of an autistic child (as told by a parent), read this: the cost of compliance is unreasonable.
For a perspective on those outcomes, as told by an autistic self-advocating adult, read this (trigger warning: stories of abuse, poverty, discrimination): No You Don’t