ARTICLE

Students and Hair: The Freedom to Choose

Give your students a tool to help them evaluate a situation, like an unfair dress code, by teaching them the language of healthy relationships.

Many students are already searching for their identities. It’s hard enough for students to risk being themselves in an atmosphere where their peers might make fun of them or reject them. It certainly doesn’t help when schools reject students for their hair or the way they dress.

But how do we help students understand why it’s so important to allow others to be themselves? Power Up, Speak Out! believes that teaching students four “Healthy Relationship Statements” can help. 

Let’s take the recent example of the student in Florida who wasn’t allowed into class because of a dress code that prohibited his locs. Discussing this with students, you could start by explaining that you’re going to evaluate what happened to him in terms of his relationship with that school. You want to find out if the relationship was healthy or unhealthy. 

To do that, you’ll need a standard of what a healthy relationship looks like. Introduce the four statements, and then spend some time unpacking them through discussion.

 

1. I get to be myself.

While this statement might seem simple, it is really quite deep. Try asking students what “I get to be myself” means. In our experience, students usually say things like:

  • I don’t have to change for someone else.
  • I can dress the way I want.
  • I can hang out with who I want to.
  • I can listen to the music I like.
  • I can have my own opinions.

Those answers are great, but we also want students to see how much this statement encompasses. “I get to be myself” also includes family, heritage, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, appearance, race and ethnicity, height, weight, likes and dislikes, and more.

Explain that what it means to “be yourself” will look different for every student. 

 

2. I treat others well.

After asking students what this statement means, make sure to add your own answers that explicitly connect this statement back to “I get to be myself.” You might include things like: 

  • Let others be themselves.
  • Treat others how we’d want to be treated.
  • Treat others with respect.

Point out that the statement is written as “I treat others well” because each of us controls how we speak and respond to others. 

For more language and standards to help students think positively about their own identities and appreciate those of others, check out the Identity and Diversity domains—and the Justice and Action domains—of Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards.

3. I can say no.

Discussions about this statement can prove especially complex. After asking students what it means, you may need to help them expand their thinking. There are some important answers they may not consider. You can add: 

  • I can say no to anything.
  • In a healthy relationship, I should be able to say no without being put down for it, without pressure, without force and without fear of scary consequences.
  • Peers shouldn’t make me feel bad for saying no.

Explain to students that if someone allows us to say no easily, that is often a sign that our relationship is healthy. If it is scary to say no, it is a sign that our relationship is unhealthy.

 

4. I have fun.

Explain that relationships won’t be fun every moment, but they should be more fun than drama. Then ask why this statement is important. If students don’t say it, make sure to add that having fun often makes us feel like ourselves.

Point out to students that these four statements are interconnected; you can’t have one without the others if the relationship truly is healthy. For example, if someone lets you say no easily, do you think you are being treated well? 

Returning to the example of the student in Florida, then, an educator can use the “Healthy Relationship Statements” to help students think about why what happened was unhealthy. They can ask questions like:

  • Did the school policy allow that student to be himself? Why or why not?
  • Was the school policy treating the boy well? Why or why not?
  • Was there any way for the boy to say no to the school policy? What was the consequence for saying no? 
  • Imagine yourself in that student’s situation. Does it sound like he was having fun? Why or why not?

Once your students have used the statements to establish that the situation was unhealthy, they can consider what needed to change to make the situation into a healthy relationship. They can brainstorm ideas on their own or in small groups about why the policy creates an unhealthy relationship between the school, parents, educators and students and what the school should to do to change it. 

For a free lesson with more ways to unpack the “Healthy Relationship Statements,” visit powerupspeakout.org.

Hoover is the communications manager and an educator for Power Up, Speak Out!

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