In the past, the word consent has not been commonly associated with young children or the early childhood education sector more broadly. Dictionary definitions of consent emphasise giving permission for something to happen—in other words empowering children to understand their own rights in regard to their own bodies. This is a basic right of each child. These rights are outlined in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child.
Using the correct names of body parts, including private parts of the body, plays a vital role in body safety, empowerment and scaffolding learning about informed consent. According to Vanessa Hamilton, an expert in sexuality education, it is important that adults are comfortable using the real names of genitals and having conversations about sexual development in order to best support children to form an understanding of the distinction between public and private parts of the body.
Consistency between children’s homes and learning environments supports best practice. Views on what is appropriate differ between families and cultures, however, and these views have changed regularly over time, resulting in a confusingly long list of names for the genitals. Transparent and honest conversations with families about the whole-service approach to this topic are integral. This might be done through individual family orientations or whole-service information sessions with an expert on this subject.
According to the Early Years Learning Framework, it is important for educators to draw on a rich foundation of pedagogical practices to support and foster children’s learning, including being responsive to children, implementing learning through play experiences and intentional teaching (DEEWR, 2009). These pedagogical practices support children to develop knowledge and understanding about themselves and the world. For each child and age group, different consideration needs to be taken into account.
It is important for educators to pay particular attention to how the rights of the child are being respected and communicated in the case of infants. According to the World Association for Infant Mental Health’s Position Paper on the Rights of Infants, it is vital to remember infants will communicate using gestures and cues. Adults should not make assumptions about what infants will and not remember. Here are some ways to support knowledge about consent and body safety:
- Be respectful and timely during routine moments such as changing nappies. For example, if there is no need to change it when a child is playing, interrupt when they aren’t engaged in important learning.
- Let the child know what you are doing and why you’re doing it before picking them up and moving them. Use language such as: ‘I am going to pick your body up off the ground to change your nappy. I am changing it to keep your body healthy. I am going to lay you down here, open your nappy, and use this wipe to clean your vulva/penis/bottom. The safe people that can change your nappy are …’
- Name and acknowledge different feelings and emotions to provide each child with a reference point and sense of security.
- Use music, songs and age-appropriate books to talk about different parts of the body, including identifying the differences between public and private body parts.
- During peer interactions, if a child becomes upset, speak to both children with language such as: ‘Being kind is important. (Name the behaviour) Hitting/pushing is not kind. We need to ask someone before touching their bodies.’
The suggestions above should also be used with toddlers. Language and consistency will reinforce to each child that adults are respecting their rights and autonomy. When presented with situations where the child wants to reassert their autonomy, it is important to continue explaining what is happening and why. Here are some ideas:
- Read books such as Everyone’s got a Bottom by Tess Rowley.
- Play the song and/or video: I’m the Boss of my Own Body by the Teeny Tiny Stevies
- Use teaching moments, songs, books and images to talk about safe adults (families and educators).
- Reinforce respectful relationships through activities that speak to a child’s needs for support with their feelings.
- If a child uses a different name for a body part, reinforce the correct name.
- Use teachable moments such as a child taking a toy off another with language that emphasises being kind, taking turns or playing together.
Children aged three to five years begin to become more aware of their bodies, interests and sense of autonomy. There are physical, linguistic, emotional and social changes in their worlds. Helpful suggestions for preschoolers include:
- Reinforce who their safe people are to help them with their private body parts.
- Talk about the differences between secrets and surprises.
- Have whole-group and small-group discussions regarding who can help with private parts of the body. For example, family members and educators can help change a child when they have an accident, not friends and peers.
- Read books such as the ABC’s of Body Safety and Consent by Jayneen Sanders.
- Use activities, music, books and stories and language that scaffolds learning about respectful relationships, building friendships, understanding emotions, children knowing their safe people and celebrating difference.
There are many different ways educators can advocate for every child’s right to understand consent. Working in partnerships with families is a vital part of ensuring children are given clear and consistent messages in regard to their rights and how to develop respectful relationships.
- ECA Shop: Body Safety Education
- ECA Shop: My Body What I Say Goes
- ECA Publication: Children’s sexual development and behavior – pants aren’t rude
- ECA Shop: Rituals: making everyday extraordinary in early childhood by By Memory Lyon and Toni Christie
- Blog: Early childhood is the ideal setting for learning about rights and respect
- ECA and Human Rights Commission, Supporting the rights of Young Children – Statement of Intent
- Blog: Early learning matters for babies, but what do they even do?
- Blog: How do educators engage in toddlers’ play to support the construction of collective knowledge?
- ECA Learning Hub Module: Respect: a guide to calm and nurturing infant care and education by Toni Christie
ABC’s of Body Safety and Consent
By Jayneen Sanders
The 26 ‘key’ letters and accompanying words will help children to learn and consolidate age-appropriate, crucial and life-changing body safety and consent skills. Designed as a ‘dip in and dip out’ book, the text, the child-centred questions and the stunning illustrations will reinforce key skills such as consent, respect, body boundaries, safe and unsafe touch, Early Warning Signs, Safety Network, private parts, and the difference between secrets and surprises. Also included are Discussion Questions for parents, caregivers and educators. Purchase on the ECA Shop.