Tips for Constructive Classroom Conversations

By Julie S. Lalonde, Sexual Violence Prevention educator

Consider the following tips when engaging students in conversations about situations involving gender-based violence. The tips are designed to focus such conversations on consent and to promote a culture of respect. Using these Better and Best tips helps engage students in thoughtful dialogue while challenging common myths, such as victim blaming. By focusing conversations on creating a culture of respect, we change the way gender-based violence is viewed and create an environment in which perpetrator behaviour is no longer condoned.

Better Tips

  • Always challenge victim blaming. Never blame or judge a victim. It is important to support survivors. Respect their choices even if they make choices that are different from the choices you would make.
  • Focus on ideas beyond the law. Students might be interested in knowing the law, which may be part of the intended learning of the curriculum; however, focusing solely on legal consequences is (or strongly tends to be) about “not getting caught” “getting away with it,” or not doing it only “because it’s illegal.” 

The legal standard should not be considered or condoned as the acceptable standard for decent respectful behaviour.

Encourage students to think beyond what the law says and to consider their actions based on respectful interactions with others and the characteristics of healthy relationships. Focus conversations on personal and societal morals, values, and ethics, which lead to changing social views, actions, norms, and culture.

  • Some things are not up for debate. While it is important to give students an opportunity to explore all aspects of an issue to promote understanding, it is just as important to set ground rules so discussions can take place in a setting that is accepting, inclusive, and respectful of all individuals. Establish classroom agreements that require students to respect the authority and currency of facts, laws, and data about gender-based violence. 
  • Focus on ways we can take action. Focus student attention on daily, common events and incidences that occur in order to help students recognize incidences of gender-based violence and be able to intervene safety and appropriately to potentially prevent situations from escalating. Note that although stories about suicide are important and need to be told, they send a dangerous message to survivors, especially young women, that the only way that they will get justice is to take their own lives.

Best Tips

  • Create space for uncomfortable conversation. Acknowledge that conversations about gender-based violence may make some people in the classroom and school uncomfortable. It is important for students to learn to recognize this feeling and know that it is okay to feel uncomfortable. These conversations are good opportunities to support students in developing their social-emotional learning skills. Create and maintain a safe environment to avoid students withdrawing from conversations when these feelings arise. Provide students with strategies to identify and manage their emotions by expressing them in respectful ways, by individually reflecting on what they are feeling and why through writing, or through stress management techniques such as deep breathing and mindfulness. 
  • Focus on practical tools. Focus student attention on the multiple ways a bystander might realistically and safely intervene in a situation. This focus can help students understand that small actions contribute to changing attitudes and behaviours about gender-based violence. Have students generate concrete ideas and actions that they can do, consider how they can take action in a real-life situation, and consider the impacts those actions might have. Helping students recognize that they govern their own choices and actions as a bystander empowers them to choose to intervene, which makes their school and community safer and happier places for everyone. 
  • Speak of gender-based violence as an issue of ethics and morals. Provide students with opportunities to reflect on their attitudes, biases, and values in a way that leads to more meaningful conversations and changing attitudes about gender-based violence. Ask students to reflect on the nature of their responses. Do they indicate actions based on a fear of getting caught or actions based on a desire to act as a responsible citizen who respects the rights and dignity of all individuals in a society?
  • Have support systems in place. Conversations about topics related to gender-based violence, harassment, gender based and identity base bullying, and sexual assault affect each person differently, depending on their personal experience. It is important to respect each individual’s reactions and provide support. Let students know that there are supports available, what those supports are, and how to access them.