Teaching consent can feel challenging and triggering. I teach workshops on consent and have developed exercises that can be practiced in the low-stakes environment of the classroom so that they become second nature before students may need them in higher-stakes real-life situations.
Something I have learned while teaching consent is that these skills need to be incorporated and felt in an embodied way in order to be effective, and that’s why I encourage educators to go beyond short films and discussions and lead their students through these interactive exercises.
Some of the consent skills I teach are:
- saying no confidently,
- hearing no graciously,
- knowing what to do when you’re a maybe,
- changing your mind,
- asking for what you want clearly,
- noticing body language, and
- apologizing authentically.
Classroom Consent Exercises
Here are two exercises that focus on the first two skills: saying no confidently and hearing no graciously.
It’s important to always give students the option to sit out any exercise and just watch if they are uncomfortable. At the same time, encourage them to stretch their comfort zone and participate if they can, because they will get more out of it. First, make a group agreement together, and if they don’t come up with this rule, add a rule that says “no comments from people sitting out of an exercise.” My experience is that most students want to do the exercises and have fun doing them, but it’s essential to be understanding of kids who want to sit one out.
Let the students know that these exercises involve talking about touch, but that there will be no actual touching.
Saying no confidently: For the first exercise, put the kids into pairs—one student will be A and other B—and ask them to face each other. Tell them that A’s job is to ask for a hug and B’s job is to just say the word “no” and nothing else. Then have them trade places and do it again. A lot of kids will laugh, some will quietly say their lines, and some will start saying things like, “No. But I would say yes if I didn’t have to say no.”
To unpack the exercise, ask students how it felt and if anyone felt uncomfortable saying no. Mention that you heard people explaining their no even though everyone heard you tell them to say it. Ask if anyone noticed that they made their no into a joke. Then talk about how most people have a hard time saying no and the reasons why, such as not wanting to disappoint people, not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, and wanting to avoid conflict. Ask if anyone can think of other reasons why it can be uncomfortable to say no.
Hearing no graciously: For the second exercise, ask students to get into their pairs again and do the same exercise, except that this time after B says no, A needs to respond with “Thank you.” You can talk about how they can find a way to say thank you that feels natural for them, such as, “Thank you for letting me know how you feel,” or “Thanks for having clear boundaries,” or “Thanks for taking care of yourself.” Whatever works for them is OK, as long as it’s a sincere thank you.
After the pairs switch roles and take turns doing this, unpack the exercise again. Discuss how it feels different with a “thank you” added. Discuss how it feels to say thank you when someone says no, and how it feels to hear thank you after you say no. At first young people might find saying thank you after hearing no a bit weird, but after a few more exercises in which they practice it, you can see how it starts to come easily and how it shifts the dynamic.
Discuss how hearing no graciously makes others feel safe to express their true boundaries, and also makes moments that could feel like rejection or conflict feel more like moments of receiving important information.
This set of exercises teaches students a few things. It’s important for young people to understand that a lot of us struggle to say no, even when we really want to. These exercises give us a tool to help others feel more comfortable saying no to us, and to make us feel more comfortable when we hear no.
Students also have a real-time embodied experience of what it feels like to have their no heard and honored within a safe environment and a low-stakes situation. If they later find themselves in a high-stakes situation with someone who is not hearing and honoring their no, their previous experience can help them to notice that this behavior is not OK.
Try these exercises with your students. You can learn more at my website and in my book Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook for Educators.