SEXUALITY IN SCHOOL
The Knowledge Promotion Reform 2020 emphasizes public health and mastery of life as one of three multidisciplinary subjects in school. The pupils will receive competence which, among other things, promotes good mental health and gives them the opportunity to make responsible life decisions. Relevant parts of the subject are, among others, sexuality and gender, media use, establishing your own boundaries as well as respecting others’ boundaries, and managing thoughts, emotions and relations (Udir, 2019).
Illustration: Jens A. Larsen Aas
LINK: (Life Mastery in norwegian class rooms)
Book: Folkehelse og livsmestring i skolen
Ringereide og Thorkildsen, RVTS South, PEDLEX.
Listen to a read-aloud version of the text on this page
Brain-based class leadership – a reflection
In this audio recording you will hear special education teacher Kristin Larsen and teacher Kjersti Draugedalen’s reflections around “Brain-based class leadership”, and the importance of creating a safe environment for pupils in difficult situations.
Read a transcript of the audio recording
Nils: Could we repeat how the different parts of the brain work.
Kjersti: We are, in short, talking about this thing with the survival brain, the emotional brain and the logical brain. To learn we need the logical brain, but if we sense danger the survival brain will cut the connection to the logical brain.
Nils: Meaning scared people aren’t capable of learning?
Nils: Why is this an important term to bring into schools? Why is that?
Kristin: Because we meet different children with different challenges, and some of them can become really activated and end up outside of their tolerance window. If this happens, they won’t be able to respond to messages or learn from the teacher, unless we are aware of what happens when the survival brain cuts the logical brain off.
Nils: But communication goes both ways, so doesn’t this just as much apply to the teacher?
Kjersti: Yes, it does. And the more assured and more in our window of tolerance we are, the better we can tune in on and regulate the pupils who need help. Unsafe pupils especially need safe people around them to regulate back into their tolerance window.
Nils: Are these thoughts newly introduced into schools, would you say?
Kristin: It has been a relevant subject for a few years, but there are still many teachers who haven’t heard of it.
Nils: Are any teachers of the opinion that all the talk about trust and safety is a bit much, that there are too many niceties?
Kjersti: It may seem that way, but it’s true what Kristin says, there is quite the focus on relations. Schools focus a lot on relational competence, but I think what happens when we teachers become uncertain, is the safety and close relationship disappear in favor of enforcing boundaries. We prioritize consequences over safety in the difficult situations.
Nils: This isn’t asking too much of the teacher? I personally find this hard to live by.
Kristin: But if you don’t have a positive relationship the pupil won’t commit, and making agreements becomes difficult. This can in turn disrupt your lessons, which makes it very important to be aware of. Teachers get a master’s degree in mathematics because they want to teach the subject, so of course it’s natural to prioritize the lesson, but our job is to create a safe learning environment for everyone.
Nils: So if I understand this correctly, we require teachers to understand themselves intimately, to know “how to get back into my tolerance window” etc. Isn’t that almost superhuman?
Kjersti: Yes, and I think this is one of the hardest things we do as humans; personal development, inspecting ourselves, finding areas we need help to improve on. For teachers this can be an incredibly difficult task, but then we need to look at how sexual assaults against children is a national public health problem. Schools have a unique opportunity to work on prevention at a grassroot-level through these relations, and the more children have safe relations to adults, the more they open up about difficult things in their lives. Building relationships is therefore the cornerstone of our work. At the same time, though, we have to be aware – and I know we ask a lot of teachers, but we have to be aware of the huge ethical responsibility that follows the profession. We carry children’s lives in our hands, watching over and protecting children from violations and hurtful experiences is a part our duty as teachers.
Nils: Where do teachers learn all this then?
Kjersti: This is based on brain research from only the past few years, so we think teachers should be afforded the space to learn these new theories which can help us better approach children.
Nils: But also, teachers are in the first line (which does not need referral) when it comes to regulating unwanted sexual behaviour. They are also in the first line when it comes to encouraging normal sexual behaviour, so in some respects teachers are more important than parents, are they not?
Kjersti: In many ways, yes, since they are leaders of a group. Parents and guardians deal with the individual child, but teachers have this unique opportunity to establish ground rules for an entire group of children. This, too, is completely dependent on building relations. The stronger your relation to every individual child in your class is, the easier it is to lay down boundaries and a framework for the group. And if a school is building these safe environments in every classroom, we’re talking about systemic universal prevention of unwanted behaviour – not just sexual, but every form of violating and challenging behaviour.
Nils: Why is brain-based class leadership also relevant when talking about sex and sexualized behaviour?
Kjersti: When you have a close relationship with a pupil who suddenly infringes on boundaries in some way, it’s natural to tell them “hey listen, you can’t do that” and model the behaviour we want to see instead; a good relation can withstand correction and guidance. However, a bad relation – or none – makes it almost impossible to correct a child who is overstepping boundaries.
Nils: When we’re on the subject of good relations; if you are a dictatorial football coach you can sort of gain “good relations” by playing off of fear, but this isn’t actually good, is it? A good relation isn’t necessarily equal, but rather having communication go both ways. Is that right?
Kristin: You can scare a child into silence, but it won’t last long; it’s not a long-term solution. You have to start at the bottom, build a relation with emotional equality and safety.
Kjersti: I think if you, as a teacher, display this type of leadership, we achieve the opposite of what we want – no children will feel safe enough to talk about difficult things. These relationships are incredibly important, and I think you’re right in saying they should in some way be equal. I think pupils respect teachers who have proven themselves to be authentic, and aren’t afraid to say “we need to look into this” if they don’t know something.
Kristin: It is also important to remember brain-based leadership and the tolerance window in the context of not just sexualized behaviour, but every kind of unwanted behaviour – sexual violations and other things like fighting should all be regulated the same way.