Establishing ground rules
Establishing a group agreement
At the outset of sexual health and relationships education, it is essential to establish a group agreement (a set of agreed-upon classroom ground rules) that outlines how teachers and students agree to conduct themselves in these lessons.
A safe space...
The sensitive nature of this subject area requires that students feel safe and comfortable in expressing their ideas, values and knowledge within a supportive environment. Students should not have to be concerned about being put down, humiliated, discriminated, rejected or mistreated. A safe environment encourages respect for diverse views, norms and values, and provides encouragement for decisions that support positive sexual health and respect.
A group agreement works best when students are involved in the creation process to ensure a sense of ownership rather than being given a set of rules they must follow (hence the term 'group agreement' as opposed to 'group rules').
How to establish a group agreement
- Explain that the purpose of a group agreement is to help everyone feel safe to join in and learn.
- Discuss with your class the need to be mindful of their own, their friends' and their fellow students' ability to conduct mature discussions about sensitive topics. Scenarios will be hypothetical and discussed in a general, not personal way.
- Ask the students to think of ways they would like the class to behave so that everyone feels safe, supported and respected.
- Choose a strategy for developing a group agreement with your class:
Whole class brainstorm: seek agreement upon ideas, add it to a poster that will be displayed during each lesson.
Small groups: each group designs a poster with a few key ideas. Each group displays their poster and provides an explanation of their ideas. Display the posters during each lesson.
Individual hands: students trace around their hand on a sheet of paper and cut out the shape. Each student writes an idea onto their hand cut-out to be placed around the room.
- Display the group agreement and remind the students of it each lesson.
It is critically important that the group agreement is consistently implemented and maintained, along with consequences for not adhering to the agreement. Students need to be able to trust the process and see that teachers are serious about creating a safe and supportive learning environment for all.
- Refer to the group agreement regularly as a behavioural management strategy.
E.g. If someone starts to tell a personal story with identifying information, use the protective interrupting technique and draw attention to the group agreement display. Say, “Remember we agreed to say, ‘a person I know’ when sharing a story”.
What to include in a group agreement
- Respect the opinions of others - You do not have to agree with others’ opinions, but you do need to listen and be respectful.
- Do not ask personal questions. i.e. Don’t ask the teacher or other students questions about their personal lives. e.g. ‘Have you ever…’
- Do not tell personal stories i.e. Don’t use identifying information. When sharing a story, talk in third person – ‘someone I know….’.
This allows hypothetical scenarios to be discussed, avoiding public disclosures. See Protective interrupting.
- Students need to feel safe that their discussions and opinions will not be shared outside of the room.
Except in the case of mandatory reporting. Students should be made aware that if anything they say raises concern that they are at risk of harm, it is a teacher's duty of care to report this concern to help ensure their safety. See Dealing with Disclosures: Mandatory reporting.
- Everyone has the right to pass i.e. not to answer questions, offer opinions or participate in an activity.
This is vital for establishing a safe space where students do not feel that they will be called upon to answer questions on sensitive (and possibly triggering) topics.
- Everyone has the right to speak – everyone has the right to their beliefs, values and opinions.
- Listen when other people are speaking – one person speaking at a time.
- Suspend judgement
Making judgements is human nature, encourage students to listen and find out all the information before making a judgement and to reflect upon why they make these judgements.
- No put downs
- Self-care – look after yourself
Give students ‘trigger warnings’ - warnings that some topics may trigger unhappy memories or be highly emotive. It is important that students can remove themselves from the discussions or the class if they need to. Informing the school counsellor or school nurse that you are covering these sensitive topics will give them warning that they might receive more visits from students during this time. They may wish to offer smaller, group workshops with students who need extra support.
- All questions are good questions
- Use correct terminology
- Use inclusive language
- It’s ok to have fun and laugh
It is common for people to laugh or giggle when they are uncomfortable and/or talking about topics of this nature. It may be worth discussing with students the difference between laughing WITH someone and laughing AT someone.
This teaching note appears in the following learning activities:
- Peer influence
- Body image
- Different bodies
- My achievements and strengths
- What's OK and what's not OK
- Qualities of respectful relationships
- Respectful relationships online
- Tips for making friends
- Appreciating friendships
- How to help someone being bullied
- Responding to challenging situations
- Self-protecting against bullying