Consent in Early Childhood

Consent and children’s rights go hand in hand in early childhood. No child is ever too young to have agency over their own body or decisions. The issue we most often see in early learning centres, is educators who lack understanding about what this means for children, even down to our youngest infants in the nursery. 

Consent is a topic that can be difficult to navigate. Despite most early childhood educators having a practical, working knowledge of the UN Convention of the Right of the Child, some still find it hard to explain, implement and teach. Consent at its core is the definition of giving permission, and for children this means recognising them as capable decision makers from birth, particularly regarding their own bodies. This is certainly not a new concept; this is a basic right of each child.

Across Australia diverse family groups with different cultures and traditions have at least one thing in common – increased use of early learning centres! With that diversity comes varied views on what is appropriate and what is not, in relation to consent, children’s agency, and bodily autonomy. There are also long lists of different names for body parts and genitals, which can cause confusion for children and educators. As educators we are advocates for children’s rights and sometimes this is a fine line to walk while also respecting families preferences. 

The best way to promote consistency between home and the service is to have honest and transparent conversations with families, perhaps during orientation, about a whole service approach to this topic. In the same regard, parents should feel comfortable to share any expectations they have of their children or the service. When shared understandings are determined from the beginning  this will set the tone for supportive, authentic and beneficial partnerships. 

There are a variety of considerations for different age groups of children. Here are some tips on how we can respect children’s consent from birth to Kindergarten age:

Infants – birth to 2 years

  • Infants communicate with us non-verbally, using gestures or visual cues that we need to be present to see. Crying is the obvious way infants can vocalise their thoughts, but when we take time to pay attention to their expressions, their body language and gestures, they are communicating with us constantly
  • Talk with the little ones in your care. Tell them what you are doing and why. For example, if they need a nose wipe, start by saying “I can see you might need your face cleaned up a little! Can I help you by wiping your face with this face cloth?”  Take a moment to show the face washer to your infant, if they are not ready, they will tell you! Do they turn their face away? If they do, let them. Often, in another moment they will turn their face to yours, which will indicate they are ready for you to proceed. 
  • Be respectful of their time and their place. If your infant is engaging in something they really love doing, don’t interrupt their moment to pick them up and change their nappy because it’s something you need to do based on your routine. This is so important to remember in our busy days, where sometimes schedules get in the way of what is really important – the child! 
  • When engaging in nappy changes and other care practices, ensure you are using correct names for the body and private parts with all children, from birth. Be respectful and responsive with infants, include them in the care practice itself by always informing them of what is happening and why.
  • When infants are showing emotions, name them. Acknowledge their feelings and respond accordingly. If they don’t want to participate or be in a space, allow them the respect and choice to express their own agency. By naming their emotions and feelings, we are giving them the tools they need early on to understand and be understood, and our respect and support will offer them a sense of security. 

Toddlers – 2-4 years 

  • Toddlers give us plenty of teachable moments, especially with their social development and peer interactions. With every interaction, toddlers are learning about others and about themselves. Often, this involves testing limits and boundaries, theirs and others! If a toddler is upset, use consistent language to reinforce respecting the rights and autonomy of themselves and others. 
  • Many of the same suggestions for infants can be applied to toddlers regarding toileting and nappy changes. To extend on this, toddlers can be invited to participate in their own care practices, such as washing their own faces, participating in routines or meals in their own time, applying sunscreen, and other care tasks. 
  • Toddlers can tell us if they are ready for a nappy change as well, and we can support this by using language such as “I think it may be time for a nappy change, would you like to come with me and I can help with that?” or “It’s time to change your nappy, can you carry the clean nappy for me?” If you have chosen the right moment, and spoken to the child in a respectful way, the toddler may come with you willingly. If they say no, (one of a toddlers favourite words!) you can say “OK, I will come back to check in a moment if you are ready, so we can keep your body clean and healthy”. You will be surprised to see just how well respecting children’s autonomy and choices like this works. Children of all ages are generally not happy to wait in soiled nappies for too long. 
  • If toddlers use incorrect names for body parts, reinforce the correct name.
  • Take the opportunity and use all moments as teaching moments, read books like Everyone’s Got a Bottom by Tess Rowley and Will Ladybug Hug by Hilary Leung. 

Kindergarten- 4-5 years 

Kindergarten children are more aware of their own bodies, their choices, and their autonomy. They are also more aware of differences between themselves and others, not only physical differences in what they can see but social preferences and emotional responses. 

  • At this age, educators and families can have some great conversations with children  regarding the safe adults in their lives. 
  • Use consistent vocabulary with kindergarten children, such as teaching the word consent and what it means. Have discussions about safe and unsafe touching, private parts, and the differences between secrets and surprises. There are some great books you can find to support these questions such as ABC’s of Body Safety and Consent and No Means No! by Jayneed Sanders 
  • Consider implementing a child protection program such as Bravehearts – this will provide you with resources, songs, books and activities to facilitate conversations. 
  • Kindergarten children will have developed their own preferences regarding their body, such as if they like to be hugged or not, and adults in their lives should respect and enforce this. Our young children sometimes need support to tell peers or other adults that they don’t want a hug during greeting. 

You can purchase books here:

Children’s books about body safety & consent ·

Contact us today and let our team of early years specialists work their magic.