Small child, seated in between two adults looking at a visual picture book being used to make a choice.

Over the past two years, in addition to our traditional Upstream Arts programs, we have had the pleasure of bringing our Art of Relationships classes, focused on healthy relationships, bodily autonomy and consent, to Minneapolis Public Schools’ (MPS) high school and Transition aged students. In recognition that the education around consent and bodily autonomy should start as early as possible, this fall we have begun integrating the concepts of consent and bodily autonomy into our programs with MPS Early Childhood Special Education students ages 3 to 5, and will be providing a training to Birth to 5 Special Education educators this Spring on modeling consent in their day to day instruction.

Upstream Arts’ Art of Relationships curriculum is rooted in consent, bodily autonomy, and healthy balanced relationships. Since 2014 we have been in conversation with adults, teenagers with disabilities, direct support providers, educators, and social workers learning together through the power of stating “My body belongs to me. Your body belongs to you.” Such a clear concise concept, yet so powerful and complex. It prepares us with a clear phrase to use when setting a boundary: My body belongs to me, your body belongs to you. 

We began piloting and shaping this curriculum in our adult programs, knowing that many in our disability community are left out of this critical learning. Over the past 2 years, we have expanded this offering to students receiving Special Education services in high school and transition programs.

When asked how young we should go with this content, what immediately came to mind was to start at the very beginning, with our youngest learners, with students in pre-k who are building the foundation of their social and emotional skills. What could be more foundational than learning about your own bodily autonomy, having the opportunity to practice setting boundaries and navigating other’s boundaries. 

Imagine a scenario: you ask a child to move to a different location and they don’t budge. The temptation with a small child is to pick them up and move them yourself. If they don’t perform the action that is expected of them, to speed things up, we do it for them. But imagine the learning that could happen if we could slow down and hear their “no” (said non-verbally here in the form of not moving). That could be an opportunity for a conversation or a compromise. In turn, it would teach the child that their feelings and choices matter and to respect other people’s “no.”  I recently read in the book Hunt, Gather, Parent that on the flip side, if we are to constantly instruct and physically intervene with a child’s actions, we undermine their confidence, provide practice in dependency, and model disrespecting boundaries.

So why is this important prevention work at this young age? When we build a foundation and practice around consent, children will know how to recognize when their bodies are being disrespected. If they have experienced positive relationships where their boundaries are respected, they will be able to recognize when a relationship doesn’t feel safe. When a culture of safety and consent has been built in a community, there will be trust built among adults in that community, who a child can come to when they feel unsafe. On the flip side, if students’ bodies are being moved and manipulated without consent, regardless of their ability or need for assistance, they are practicing and learning that they don’t have a say in how their body is handled. They don’t have the experience of their space being respected. They don’t get to build confidence and trust in their own internal desires for how they want to be treated. 

By the time we get to educating students who are receiving Special Education services -in high school, they’ve already lived at least 14 years, potentially not learning that their body belongs to them. This year we are looking to adapt and pilot what the essence of our relationships curriculum teaches to our youngest learners: my body belongs to me. In doing so we hope to collaborate with our partners in establishing more core phrases and concepts such as this one that can be adopted by our pre-k early childhood programs, to instill a sense of ownership and safety in one’s own body. 

Prevention starts upstream, at the source of the river’s current.

By Lindsey Samples
Program Manager, Principal Teaching Artist
Upstream Arts