Consent in a Classroom

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Consent is a topic we think about, or should think about, quite often in a classroom. Teaching children that they are in control of their own bodies is a message that starts at a young age. This is something that was talked about often when I worked with RIE, Resources for Infant Educarers. To go from a world where the youngest of infants are asked to be picked up, toddler’s personal boundaries and love languages are respected, and children are over-all viewed as in charge of their own body, to Reggio, where children are viewed as capable and competent in regards to learning, but maybe less so in other areas, was really difficult for me. Particularly because, as far as I know, there isn’t a black and white approach to these topics outlined by Reggio Emilia educators. Teachers who choose to adopt Reggio Inspired Approaches adopt approaches in regards to curriculum, environment and relationships with children and families, typically keeping the approach to topics like behavior they had before exploring Reggio Emilia.

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I recently was in Italy for a study group and while I loved 99.99999% of what I was able to see, there were some questions, some cringing, and some confusion as well. Why in a community where children are viewed as capable and competent are children being swooped up without being asked or even spoken to first? Why are children being told they cannot choose where to play but must go where the teachers are guiding them? Why are children active protagonists in their learning, but not actively in charge of their own body?

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This is something I have been thinking more about in regards to project work and curriculum threads. I will start out by saying I do not know the answer. This is largely speculative, and I think more conversation is needed. I was recently told that redirecting children back to their project work, a provocation, or other activity they were otherwise engaged with is not controlling but it is rather helping them follow through with what they said they wanted to do. On the surface, I nodded along and didn’t immediately see a flaw in this thinking but on further reflection, I have a different perspective.

Correct me if this is a stretch – but don’t we want to teach children they are allowed to change their mind? That they are allowed to say they want to do something, and then later say they don’t and have that decision respected?

What message about consent are we giving children if we tell them, “You said you wanted to build a rocket, so we are going to go build a rocket.” after they clearly state they aren’t interested in building a rocket anymore, maybe even just at that moment?

I have been there. I went to the studio to paint with my project group while we listened to a playlist of music provoking various emotions. After about 10-15 minutes they were more so just trying to paint as tall as they can and the actual point of the studio had shifted. Could I have redirected them back? Sure. In fact I even tried to, but they clearly were no longer interested in what they initially went to the studio for, and I think that is okay. I think saying, “We came here to ___ so that’s what you are going to do.” would have felt really strange to me.

I often sit down and start a blog post, only to pin that one and start another that I end up loving even more. If someone had been over my shoulder telling me to stick with my original plan, half the blog posts I have written would not exist. But that is not a problem I deal with, because as an adult my agenda, my thoughts, my opinion, and my personal choices are respected. 

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I recently was lucky enough to collaborate with Jen from Not Just For Christmas while in Italy. She just shared her thoughts on the intersection of RIE and Reggio Emilia. It was really helpful for me to talk about Reggio with someone not actually involved in a center that is Reggio Inspired. I think we have a tendency to idealize the educators in Reggio Emilia, or at least I know I have. This is surely not their fault – during a sit down conversation with the pedagogista in one of the Infant-Toddler centers the idealistic view of their teaching was addressed. “No one is an expert in this approach, not you or me or any teacher here. No one is an expert in teaching. Everyone is learning, growing, developing their own methods and approaches.” 

While I admire the work Reggio Emilia educators are doing in regard to curriculum, environment and community involvement – I also think there could be more awareness for listening and respecting a child’s voice. I think we should think about what messages about consent we are sending children because we put so much value on project work and curriculum, that we want to keep the thread going even if it is at their expense. 

 

 

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9 thoughts on “Consent in a Classroom

  1. An absolutely fascinating read and beautiful point you have made. I feel that the right to change your mind is definitely something that educators and teachers need to look deeper into.

    I believe that there is definitely a place for children to persist and times to allow them to step away. Like in adult life, it’s a balance. There a time where we need to continue to do something to get from point A to point B, for example essay writing to gain a degree. While the act of writing an essay is arduous for some and they wish to not complete it, the greater outcome outweighs that ability to change your mind if you’re determined and invested in reaching the end goal. It’s all about picking the moments, sensing the tone of the children and pinning it against greater outcomes that benefit them. That’s why it’s our job to be super flexible.

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    1. Gwendolyn,

      Thank you for commenting! This really is a topic that I think benefits from lots of dialogue and deep reflection. I agree that like many aspects of what we do, we have to find a balance that works. I guess I am exploring this because I have no idea what that balance looks like for me right now. I do project work, set up provocations, and do sometimes aim for more focused work.

      Today my project work group was illustrating their angriest memory. One child started to draw hers, then ended up experimenting with the marker and forgetting completely the “goal” we sat down with. I simply asked her if she was still interested in drawing her angry memory, she remembered, and grabbed a new paper to start again. That felt completely comfortable to me, maybe because the wordage didn’t feel controlling? I also wonder if she had said no, should I have then tried to redirect her back again or let it go? I lean towards letting it go and letting her enjoy what she has moved on to. Which makes me really yearn for a concrete example of a time I wouldn’t “let it go”, I’m having trouble thinking of one!

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  2. This is a really important idea to think about and understand as a group of teachers finds their shared image of the child. I am not one for “making kids do things” – but I see the reasoning in helping children focus. The center where I currently teach has been having children say where they are going to explore during choice time before they leave the circle, as they are released one by one – I continued it because there is not really a reason to fight. But I observe the children say one thing and go there for a second, then choose something else.

    I think that if something is working, we stick with it and support children. If it is not working for the group, we stop and switch gears. If children are bouncing around unfocused, that is not their fault – we need to think about all of the different factors in that, from if they have had enough to eat to how we display materials.

    I, personally, have been associating myself much less with the “label” of the Reggio Emilia Approach because, in truth, it is a snippet of curriculum in a culture. We don’t need to agree with everything that a philosophy encompasses because we get the choice at the end of the day to create the learning community that reflects the culture of the children, families, teachers, and surrounding places.

    The consent piece is cultural too, I think. Italians are, in general, more hands on with each other than North Americans. I teach all of the children to ask before hugging or grabbing, and that no means no, period; I ask them if its ok before I pick them up. This is a really important topic, and it is (like every other aspect of curriculum) something that needs to be decided by the group and the individuals in it. In a dream world, everyone’s curriculum would be bits and pieces of what works for them, all mixed together in a way that works.

    Thanks for your thoughts 🙂

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    1. Allie, I continue to further myself from any labels, particularly ones that feel like buzzwords like Reggio. I think visiting Reggio Emilia really helped me realize they are educators like the rest of us. They are doing some incredible work – but so are teachers elsewhere. We can all learn from each other, and I have definitely learned from them! But it feels strange to name my personal approach after the personal approach of another group of educators.

      Thank you for reminding me of the cultural piece! It is definitely really important to keep in mind.

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  3. Thanks for the link to my post, Cynthia (although I’m disappointed that you don’t idealize me…:-)). I wonder how much of wanting children to stay with one activity is tied up in the adult’s (including mine) desire to see the children get something out of an activity we’ve set up, and/or to not want to clean up multiple activities? I know I can feel a little disappointed or even irritated if I’ve put effort into setting something up and Carys isn’t into exploring it that day (she’s obsessed with bubbles at the moment but has been lukewarm to my enormous bubble making setup).

    I, too, tend to start many blog posts and bounce between them as I’m researching and learning, but if I start a craft activity I generally see it through – or at least to a stopping point dictated by time or the needs of the project (drying time, etc.). To what extent do you think the children’s focus is driven by whether they chose the activity? Do you find they stick with it longer if they came up with the idea for the activity in the first place and if it’s connected to a Big Idea they’re exploring?

    Always more to ponder…

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    1. You’re very welcome Jen, I was happy for the opportunity to dive into this conversation with you.

      I think most of the time when I feel like redirecting children back it is typically because I grew my own attachments to the plan, and I expected them to want to participate. Provocations that are put out are chosen because of the child’s interest – a lot of thought and sometimes work goes into the planning and execution, so when they show no interest or use the provocation differently than I had thought they would, there is certainly an aspect of, “No, this isn’t what I had in mind, this isn’t right.” Which is a flaw in my thinking for sure – I think the whole intention of provocations is to provoke (whaaaat), not to reach a desired outcome. It can be easy to forget that sometimes, especially when we are so dedicated to our work.

      I rarely redirect due to clean up, but I can see some adults doing so. I know there have been times I have put out new materials that I fell in love with and sometimes police them, not allowing them to be used in a different area or a different way than I think they should be – though I have gotten much better at letting go in this regard!

      I do think a child’s focus is driven to a certain extent by whether or not they chose the activity, but the word ‘choice’ is a tricky one here. If we set up a provocation, they have the choice to participate or not. So they technically “chose” that activity, which would have been put out due to their interests, schemas, or current learning threads. So then, it didn’t used to feel strange to me to redirect them back to that provocation, because it was designed for them and chosen by them. But I do think the idea of being allowed to change your mind is an important one I hope to consider more in these moments.
      Thanks for reflecting with me even further, this isn’t a black and white topic, that is for sure!

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  4. Interesting read. Well worth a discussion! Regarding the project work and curriculum threads, my initial reaction is that while it is about listening to children’s voice it is also about negotiation because there are many voices in the classroom. It is our job to pull together the threads, make decisions, scaffold experiences, plan provocations and provide materials. It’s more democratic than one voice. One voice matters but how do we move forward as a classroom of learners?

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    1. Lesley, that’s a wonderful addition to the discussion! Scaffolding multiple voices in one classroom is definitely a balancing act. We have four project groups in our classroom, and then classroom curricular threads as well. I have altered the classroom or set up provocations for individual children, knowing other areas of the room could of course also be used but the other children. Negotiation is an important tool, but I don’t think it is a “counter” to the thought of consent in the classroom. I think if you are discussing, negotiating, maybe trying to find a compromise with a child you are respecting their voice and their right to choose. If I was in the studio with my project group and one child chose they were done and wanted to leave but had no way to walk them back to the classroom because other children were still engaged – that moment would definitely require some negotiation. A direct, “No, you have to stay here.” would feel like denying them a right to change their mind, but a simple explanation and discussion would most likely lead to a middle ground everyone could agree on.

      Thank you for adding your thoughts to this reflection!

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  5. This is such a fantastic post…I constantly reflect on my own practices as an educator and mother regarding consent. The balance of being a “confident leader” versus being a “gentle observer” is what I call “the dance.” I float back and forth between both roles (sometimes clumsily) and am learning as I go. Thank you for articulating these insights, especially the intersection of RIE with Reggio…I look forward to reading more.

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