BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


Incorporating Consent in International Primary Schools

By Dallin Bywater
Incorporating Consent in International Primary Schools

“Imagine a world where no one fears a violation of their boundaries. A world where everyone feels safe in their bodies and confident in asking for what they want. A world where personal agency and autonomy are honored, and people feel free to express their boundaries, preferences, and needs” (Baczynski & Scott, 2022). Is this ideal attainable in a primary school setting? Can teachers incorporate consent education into everyday school life? Once educators are tuned into the naturally occurring daily opportunities to encourage and respect body autonomy, a safer and healthier education environment can be created for our young students.

The Foundations of Consent

Let’s first examine basic consent concepts. Due to the cultural complexity and diversity of international schools, it would be impossible to prescribe a single definition or way to teach it. However, there are many achievable and appropriate ways to model and facilitate consent in each school community.

Scaffolding the concept of consent in early years education does not require the word “consent” at all. “Permission” is better understood at early ages, but even this term can be simplified further if necessary. Permission means saying yes to letting someone do something (Kleinrock, 2018). It means asking for and allowing an action.

Personal boundaries are inseparable from consent. Consent is permission to cross (or better understand in the moment) someone’s physical, emotional, or other personal boundaries. Every person gets to decide what they are okay with, and what they are not okay with in regard to their boundaries. A child’s boundaries can change depending on who they are with, what they are doing, when it is happening, and where they are.

Later understanding of consent includes more depth, where consent is only truly given with a clear mind and without pressure. The adults in a child’s life must acknowledge that children cannot consent to certain acts and experiences, including exposure to adult media and sexual acts. Additionally, part of understanding consent is knowing that people give permission for things that are not good for them, especially in oppressive environments and situations where power is unequal. In these situations, verbal consent is not enough; an awareness of nonverbal cues is also essential (Scott, 2020). In schools, the power between teacher and student is unequal, therefore teachers must continuously be mindful of interactions that may be coercive rather than consensual.

For children, learning to apply consent is a life skill, not merely a sex education skill (Sparks, 2019). It is a fundamental principle of creating trust and empathy in any healthy relationship or friendship (Murphy, 2018). True consent education is not only explicit instruction about what consent is but is also about creating an environment where consent is normalized in relationships and in the community.

A Daily Necessity at School Where Opportunities Abound

Expressions of affection, playtime interactions, voicing body sensations and needs, personal space, and digital activities provide ample opportunities for giving and asking for consent at school.


As part of their social-emotional learning (SEL) program, many schools include instruction about safe and unsafe, wanted and unwanted touch. These early discussions help students pay attention to how their body feels and give them permission to give voice to it. Students decide when, where, and by whom they are touched at school. It is imperative that teachers and other adults respect these boundary expressions. Adults can also ask for permission from young students when cleaning or adjusting their clothes and inform them whenever they will guide them with gentle touch.

Adult Modeling

A culture of consent in schools relies on adults to model and allow body autonomy, and to empower students to be experts on their own body sensations. Teachers must believe students when they talk about their bodies. It undermines a child’s confidence in talking about their body if we do otherwise (Mario, 2021). Educators are in a position of power; therefore, they must give power to students to make choices about their bodies. Students must see that it is okay to say no to an adult and that adults will respect their choices. Through appropriate adult modeling, children can feel empowered to say no to unwanted images, touch, and attention (Murphy, 2018).

In addition to interpersonal touch, educators can model other aspects of consent by asking for permission from students before (Erlendson, 2022):

  • touching or moving their belongings
  • offering feedback
  • writing on or erasing their work
  • sharing their ideas or experiences with others
  • sharing their work or photos online or with others

Adults have a responsibility to intervene when they observe personal boundaries being crossed improperly (e.g., “I heard Dalia say two times that she doesn’t like it. Please listen to her words.”). These opportunities are expected because childhood is a time of testing boundaries and learning where the lines of appropriate behavior are.

The Language of Consent

The youngest learners can express what they like and do not like. We can teach learners to voice boundaries as soon as they are developing language. In reality, children learn about boundaries as soon as they are able to observe others. Adults’ daily behaviors give both positive and negative examples of boundary setting.

Some situations where primary students can learn to ask for consent include:

  • giving hugs
  • borrowing things
  • touching a person
  • kissing
  • sharing
  • secrets
  • making group plans
  • engaging in rough play

Educators can offer or co-construct language with children to learn how to express consent or withdraw it in each situation. These expressions will look and sound different depending on the sociocultural context.

Language for sharing and taking turns may include:

  • “Can I use this?”
  • “Are you finished with this?”
  • “Would you like to use this?”
  • “Can she have a turn?”
  • “Is it okay if I use this?”  

Language for touch may include:

  • “Would you like a hug?”
  • “I don’t like it when you touch my hair.”
  • “I feel uncomfortable when your arm is there.”
  • “I don’t want it.”
  • “There is food on your nose, can I wipe it off?”
  • “Can I show you where to put your hand on the racquet?”

In conjunction with the knowledge that students can refuse a request from both peers and adults, it is important to provide language to children where they can say no in a way that is comfortable for them.

Language for when students do not want to give consent may include (Kleinrock, 2018):

  • “I don’t feel like it right now.”
  • “Maybe another time.”
  • “I don’t like that.”
  • “No.”
  • “I don’t want that.”
  • “No thank you.”
  • “Nah, I’m good.”
  • “Ask me again later.”
  • “No, I’d rather…”

It can be challenging for children and adults to manage feelings that come from a rejection of their offers. Thus, students need to observe models of appropriate reactions to refusal, and also receive guidance from adults when their offers are refused. Teaching children that rejection is a possible outcome prepares them to consider more appropriate choices. Instead of protesting, convincing, prodding, or a number of other coercive reactions in response to a rejection, they can alternatively learn to say: 

  • “Okay, no problem.”
  • “Okay.”
  • “Can I ask again later?”
  • “What would you be more comfortable with?”
  • “I will go do something else.”
  • “That’s okay. Tell me if you change your mind.”

With practice, the language of consent becomes more natural over time, inducing a more authentic culture of consent.

Healthy Relationships and Friendships

The importance of friendships to young people can be a motivating factor to better understand and apply consent principles that could help them have more healthy relationships. The basics of consent can be framed within the reference of friendships that feel good and have respect. This perspective also helps children understand that when they set a personal boundary that a person does not respect, this person is not acting as a true friend.

In the playground of a primary school, it is common to hear, “If you don’t play with me, I won’t be your friend!” Adults can offer a response that respects autonomy. “It looks like they don’t want to play right now, maybe you can think about something you both want to play or find something else to do.”  The student whose offer to play was rejected could reply, “That’s okay, tell me if you change your mind” (Dillon, 2021).

Bullying prevention also includes an element of consent education. Students are often taught to be upstanders instead of bystanders. An upstander acts to strengthen vulnerable people and help prevent negative behaviors from continuing. Upstander behavior certainly applies to situations of consent. Children and teachers can help each other respect body autonomy (e.g., “Hey, he said no so leave him alone!” “Look how she feels, stop doing that.” “He doesn’t like when you put your arm on him.”).

Secrets and personal information are a part of friendships. Middle to late primary school students have the capacity to consider what secrets or surprises people might not want to be shared (Tatter, 2018). The principles of consent apply here, asking for permission to share information and respecting the wishes of a friend as long as it is not a risk to someone’s safety.

Body Literacy

Teaching body literacy encourages body autonomy and respect for personal boundaries. Consistently using the proper names of body parts allows for clearer communication, a better ability to report situations where a child’s body is touched without permission, and also destigmatizes talking about their body.

Noticing Body Language and Tone of Voice

Directing students’ attention to body language encourages a deeper understanding of consent. Some guiding prompts could include:

  • “What is the expression on their face?”
  • “How do you think they are feeling?”
  • “What does the way they said, ‘I guess so…’ mean?”
  • “What does this hand gesture tell you?”

These and other guiding questions can be used to examine video content, stories in books, and real-life instances and examples. Teachers can point out these details explicitly (e.g., “I see the expression on his face, and it looks like he doesn’t want your arm around him.”).

Students can also learn that the tone of voice is significant in the message that is received from a person. With practice, students can become better at understanding the complex messages they receive.

Digital Interactions

Photo-taking and photo-sharing are strongly related to body autonomy and consent. Students and adults can ask for permission to take a photo, inform a person how that image will be used, and respect the person’s decision about whether or not they want a photo taken or shared. In a school context, this is one of the most direct ways that children can learn that they have autonomy over their bodies, and the right to say no. Conversely, denying a child the ability to say no is a sure way to communicate a lack of respect for their body autonomy.

Because so much communication and information sharing occur online, it is equally important for consent principles to be applied virtually as it is in person. Students can ask what information people are okay with sharing with others (e.g., “Can I share this picture of you with my friend?”).

Pornography and Other Media

A frank discussion about how to deal with exposure to pornography empowers students and helps them set boundaries. Children are encountering pornography at earlier and earlier ages, oftentimes by accident, but also sometimes from school peers (Walker & Kunaharan, 2020). Students need the language and strategies to manage these experiences.

Language for media sharing:

  • "Would you like to see a picture of …”
  • “I don’t want to see things like that.”
  • “No.”

The regular incorporation of consent principles can also occur through the examination of literature and other printed texts. Some books have been written to explicitly address consent, while many other books include scenarios where these ideas can also be explored.

Some reflections could include:

  • “Did this character ask for permission?”
  • “What could they have done to respect their friend’s autonomy/body?” 

Films and other videos contain ripe opportunities to point out when media portrays consent wrongly, or when they get it right (CAESV, 2021).

Curriculum Connections

While many subject areas have natural connections to consent education (Child Safeguarding, SEL, PE), most other subjects can also link to it. For example, the way societies have behaved in history (e.g., invading countries, forcing belief systems, etc.) can be viewed from the lens of consent. Literature contains innumerable examples of relationships, coercion, and lack of consent. In science, students can explore how the body responds to various touch experiences. Principles of consent pervade much of our daily lives, thus the potential for opportunities to model and teach respectful, consensual interactions is practically unlimited (McGuire, 2021).

The link below has many potential resources for consent education in primary schools:

Culture, Diversity, and Inclusion

Culture must be considered in all facets of consent (Levand, 2020). Culture affects how relationships are developed and how people communicate. Nonverbal communication varies across cultures. A clear “no” in one culture could be completely missed by a member of a different cultural group. The amount of personal space acceptable may be understood within a culture, but they may feel violated by others who do not share the same understanding. In collectivistic cultures, it may be unsuitable to voice personal needs in certain situations. Sharing, for instance, is non-negotiable in some cultures, whereas in others it is an opportunity for a child to voice their needs and wants.

In addition to culture, there are other dimensions of diversity that are part of consent education. Consent conversations cannot assume that all participants are cisgender or heterosexual. Furthermore, every victim of unwanted touch is not female, and not all perpetrators are male. We must decolonize these conversations and steer away from stereotypes (McGuire, 2018).

Ethnicity, privilege, and religion all intersect with consent principles. Internationally, there are too many interconnected contexts than could be described here, but some examples include:

  • Black students may experience more unwanted hair touching than others.
  • Individuals who identify as transgender may receive intrusive, unwanted questions about their bodies (Mario, 2021).
  • Muslim students wearing hijabs may experience unwanted pulling and touch.
  • Students in wheelchairs have more people patting or touching their heads.
  • Multiracial students may be pressured for more extensive information about their heritage than others.

Each diverse community with unique individuals will bring more nuance and richness to consent conversations, requiring a thoughtful, reflective approach.

The Present Vision

Consent education is most effective as a cornerstone of education, not as a lesson plan (Mario, 2021). Let's make creating a culture of consent a point of emphasis and a daily occurrence at international schools, not a one-off lesson or secondary school topic. Consent education is about putting children first, empowering them, and helping them understand relationships in healthy ways. May we strive to shape a world “where everyone feels safe in their bodies…A world where personal agency and autonomy are honored, and people feel free to express their boundaries, preferences, and needs” (Baczynski & Scott, 2022).



Baczynski, Marcia and Scott, Erica (2022). Creating Consent Culture. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence (CAESV) (2021). 8 Ways to Teach Kids about Consent and Healthy Boundaries.

Dillon, Sally (2021). Teaching consent to children: ‘The joke is where it starts and rape is where it ends.’  The Guardian.

Erlendson, Nadia. Regenerative Parenting Edu. Tweet August 8, 2022.

Kleinrock, Elizabeth (2018). How My Third-Graders and I Address Consent.

Levand, Mark (2020). Consent as Cross-Cultural Communication:  Navigating Consent in a Multicultural World. Sexuality & Culture, 24, 835-847.

Mario, Maria Di (2021). Me too in schools: how to teach your students about consent.

McGuire, Laura (2018). The Role of Education in Preventing Misconduct.

McGuire, Laura (2021). How to Teach Consent Across the Curriculum.

Murphy, Trish (2018). Why we should teach about consent in primary schools. The Irish Times.

Scott, Emily (2020). How, and when, to teach little kids about consent and their bodies.

Sparks, Sarah D. (2019). We’re Teaching Consent All Wrong.

Tatter, Grace (2018). Consent at Every Age. Harvard Graduate School of Education Website.

Walker, L. & Kunaharan, S. (2020). Childhood 2020 Update:  Statement of Research Relating to Pornography Harms to Children. Available at


Dallin Bywater is an international school counselor on hiatus. He has published articles on a range of topics related to student mental health. 

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


There are currently no comments posted. Please post one via the form above.



Not a Real International School?
By Gavin Kinch
Jan 2024

By Kokushubira Joanita Mercy, Grade 12
Nov 2023