Expert Q&A: Teaching consent and respectful relationships

In the first part of our Q&A with Ingrid Laguna and Vanessa Hamilton, the author-educators discussed the themes of their new book Kit and Arlo Find a Way: Teaching consent to 8-12 year olds and some of the research on the impact of consent education in schools. In this follow-up Hamilton explores what consent education is (and some of the misconceptions), examples of what it looks like for students in primary and secondary, best practice for schools, and some of the challenges faced by teachers and leaders.

What's the current situation around consent education in schools in Australia?

Consent education will be compulsory in Australian schools from 2023, but already has been in the state of Victoria for 12 months. The outgoing Morrison Government recently recognised the need for consent education as a priority for the wellbeing and safety of Australian children. They have recognised the issue of gender-based violence as a serious and timely issue. The recent announcement to make consent education mandatory is a big step in the right direction, so is committing to funding the education, but delivering evidence-based resources in an effective way will be key to making it a success and giving our students the skills that they need to build and maintain respectful relationships.

It is unclear how federal resources will be implemented at a state level. Current plans for federal funding appear to be aimed at secondary and above – there needs to be primary school funding (even pre-school). At this stage, it seems the priority is the secondary curriculum, but overlooking the crucial early years of a child’s life would be a significant lost opportunity.

When we talk about consent education what do we mean - there's often a focus on sex, but it's a lot more than that, isn’t it?

Teaching consent to children is teaching them about being human (and, by the way, has hardly anything to do with ‘sex’). Consent is: wanting the best for yourself and for others; essential to humanity; connection, communication and safety; showing kindness, compassion, empathy and respect; and shared experiences that result in immense and (potentially) limitless happiness and joy, ecstasy and pleasure.

Human love and relationships (both sexual and non-sexual), equals consent. Those relationships include family, friendships, play, work, society, professional, care giving and receiving, cultural, religious, intimate, and sexual (just to name a few).

Teaching consent is teaching about permission, kindness, empathy, reciprocity, generosity, and how to show respect for ourselves and for other people. Consent and Respectful Relationship education encourages children to be critical thinkers about disrespectful attitudes and behaviours that are pervasive in our current negative consent culture. It also gives children and young people, fundamental, internal decision-making skills and knowledge of the nuances of consent communication, so that they can take them into all relationships, including sexual ones, when they are older.

Teaching consent it about human connections and relationships in play, work, society and school, as well as romantic ones. Current conversations focus on sexual consent being only based on aspects such as: laws and domestic and family violence, and what ‘not to do’ – i.e. don’t blame the victim, don’t presume consent, inhibit a positive and empowering approach to wellbeing and safety, happiness and enjoyment.

By only talking about sexuality within the context of violence and laws, we are ignoring the broader, complex, aspects of human rights, which include sexual right to shame-free, sexual wellbeing, pleasure and mutuality.

What about the age groups involved in consent education – there seems to be a tendency to think it’s just 'high school stuff'. What about the primary years?

As Jacqueline Hendriks (2021), Research Fellow and Lecturer at Curtin University, says: ‘Consent…relates to permission and how to show respect for ourselves and for other people. Consent should therefore be addressed in an age-appropriate way across all years of schooling.’

We need to acknowledge the importance of the primary years. Consent education isn’t just about sex. Even very young children can be taught about building respectful relationships in an age-appropriate, sensitive way.

The teachable moments in Kit and Arlo are childhood examples that have been intentionally created to correlate or mirror a sexual analogy or violence against women context in order to scaffold knowledge in an age-appropriate way. For them to develop inherent decision-making skills that travel with them into their adult intimate experiences.

Could you give an example of how you'd teach consent to students at a primary level, and how that differs in the secondary years?

I have addressed this in a podcast for teachers and parents, with two examples I have used in the classroom: giving permission to tie someone’s shoelaces and mutually negotiating an enjoyable game to play like Lego. Older secondary consent is addressed within the context of sexual and respectful relationships and encounters, avoiding analogies.

What are some schools already doing in the area of consent education that you've been impressed with?

Consent education needs a collaborative approach both in the home and in the classroom. Teachers and leaders should be looking to implement best practice whole-school approaches that: normalise the learning of this topic and prioritise it; value consent education delivery, not in isolation or as a stand-alone topic, but incorporate it with respectful relationships and sexuality education for all year levels; provide parent education sessions; and share resources in the school newsletter under a wellbeing banner, on a regular basis.

Fact-based learning at school can occur by discussing topics like body parts, body boundaries, relationships, communication, and sexual behaviour in ways that are sensitive, and age- and developmentally-appropriate. Values-focused learning enhances this and should mainly come from home – extending the learning and recognising differing cultural views and beliefs around sex, sexuality, gender, respectful relationships, the role of children, parenting and caring.

From your discussions with teachers and leaders, what difficulties do they face?

All adults need consent education, but especially teachers. They are well placed to address the topic, but need the support and guidance to do so. It is surprisingly simple to educate teachers and address their main concerns: familiarity and personal comfort with teaching it.

We live in a culture of non-consent and gendered power imbalances. Teachers and educators are not immune from exposure to this culture, so it is critical they have initial, adequate training, information and support to deliver the alternative consent narrative education, if it is to be successful.

Consent education must be lead and overseen by current experts in the field, i.e. researchers and consent educators. The content must be evidenced-based and there should be access to adequate/expert training for those who will be expected/mandated to deliver it, especially by experts in early childhood and primary settings.

Effective consent education depends on two factors: evidence-based resources delivered by skilled educators. Giving teachers the tools, they need to maximise the impact of consent education is crucial.

A dire outcome will be if [the Federal Government] doesn’t fund the training of teachers who will be expected to deliver the content. There is a lack of skilled teachers capable of delivering relationships and sexuality education resources and curriculums in safe, trauma-informed, inclusive, sexuality-positive ways. It is surprisingly simple to train them, as there is a cohort of them in every education setting who are willing and ready to be educated, but this must be given as high a priority as creating resources.

There is a well-established sector of credible, effective educators already delivering consent education across K-12; I am one of them. There are: experts who already teach consent education in early learning settings and primary schools; those who have created and currently use consent, sexuality, respectful relationship resources in classrooms; and those who have extensive research expertise specifically in the domain of educating children on these topics.

This sector has spent many years building and refining resources, based on in-school experiences, that make a real impact in classrooms. Inviting these educators to be part of the process of identifying touchstone issues and developing curriculum content to address them would be a significant and powerful step in the right direction and needs to come from leadership.

Schools are uniquely placed to respond to the challenge of sexual violence among young people. While the burden of teaching young people about respectful relationships and consent does not fall to schools alone, the role of schools should not be underestimated. Providing consent education in schools has the potential to fundamentally shift attitudes and behaviours around gendered violence.

Kit and Arlo Find a Way: Teaching consent to 8-12 year olds, by Ingrid Laguna and Vanessa Hamilton, is published on 1 June 2022 by ACER Press and available from the ACER Shop.

References and related resources

Hendricks, J. (2021, February 23). Not as simple as ‘no means no’: What young people need to know about consent. The Conversation. shares nine videos to support addressing these topics in the classroom. A Sexuality Education resource that is based on capacity building teachers to deliver ‘done for you’ sexuality, consent and respectful relationships lessons: Virtual Classroom. includes further resources, such as blogs and podcasts.

Sexuality Education resource links:

As mentioned in this article, consent education will be compulsory in Australian schools from 2023. How is your school preparing for this change?

As a school leader, what expertise already exists among your staff in the area of consent and relationships education, and what are their training requirements? How will you draw on external expertise and evidence-based resources to inform and strengthen your approach?

Kit and Arlo Find a Way: Teaching consent to 8-12 year olds, by Ingrid Laguna and Vanessa Hamilton, is published on 1 June 2022 by ACER Press and available from the ACER Shop.