* “Go and play”

boy-608821_640“Go and play.”  These are the words kids may hear when they report problems at recess.  How safe is a playground?  How well is it supervised?  What are some ways to improve playground safety?

Let’s be honest.  The playground can be a tough place to supervise.  There are often blind spots behind climbing structures, the surface material may not soften falls, kids/adults may be too far away from each other for effective monitoring, and kids may use this time to bully others or dare them to take greater risks on equipment.  In most schools I’ve worked, playground supervision is probably second only to cafeteria duty in appeal to teacher assistants.

The playground can be a dangerous place, physically and socially.  Between 2001 to 2008, a staggering average of 218,851 injuries required emergency department care, mostly from falls.  That obviously doesn’t include all those cases where kids get ice and bandages from the school nurse. The National Program for Playground Safety identifies supervision as one of the key elements in ensuring student safety.  Playgrounds are also ripe fields for bullying.  At StopBullying.gov, children who are bullied generally have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider “cool”
  • Are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves
  • Are depressed, anxious, or have low self esteem
  • Are less popular than others and have few friends
  • Do not get along well with others, seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention

Do those risk factors ring a bell?  For special needs kids, or black students in a mostly white school, recess may not be a time to relax.  It’s a time when these kids need greater support from supervisors who may not be equipped to provide it.  Over the years, I have attended a number of training sessions on how to improve playground supervision.  Providing an adequate adult-to-child ratio is crucial.  Ensuring that supervisors are not clustered in conversation is another key element.  A recent study to improve interactions on the playground suggested playgrounds be divided into sections by age, with supervision for each section.  Here are their results:

  • It was found that having a structured activity occurring within a section of the playground was related to much higher rates of cooperative play among children and less physical and rough play.
  • For example, having an activity in a particular section of the playground was associated with a three-fold increase in the probability that children would be engaged in cooperative play, while rough-physical play was cut in half and thereby reduced to a more normative level.
  • Further, when adults actively monitored their section of the playground, there was a significant increase in positive social interactions amongst children from different ethnic backgrounds.

As a special education teacher, I am particularly concerned about the safety of EC kids on the playground.  If a district has the resources, adding an additional assistant to watch out for identified kids can be helpful (if that assistant is properly trained).  Special ed teachers need to forewarn playground supervisors about potential social problems (see previous post).  I do not want to tell my kids to get help from an adult who routinely responds, “Go and play.”  I am also concerned that my kids may be perceived as the aggressors, no matter the circumstances.  In my next post, I will elaborate on these issues.

* Social narratives

I’ve posted previously on this topic but want to add a few more tips.

Where do you begin when writing a social narrative?  First you need to identify the specific behavior which needs to be addressed.  Saying that a child has “weak social skills” is much too vague.  You might want to write about “interactions with peers at recess.”  That puts you in the ballpark; you’ve identified where the problems are occurring and with whom.  But again, that does not specifically define the problem.  What kinds of interactions are you describing?  Verbal?  Physical?  And in what context?  Games?  On climbing equipment?  Lining up?  Identify the specifics so that your narrative is useful.

Gather reliable information on the problem before writing.  Ask your student to describe what happened.  I typically complete a drawing as we go through the process.  The following was a common problem for many kids at recess during the era of “football frenzy.”

drawing of events

I drew the schematic as my student, Trevor, described the problem.  He had gone out to recess and started playing football.  Everything was OK until another kid deliberately tripped him (note the first angry face).  Trevor complained vigorously to the offender and then resumed play.  When the other kid tripped him once again, Trevor was really angry.  The teacher assistant saw Trevor arguing and told both kids to follow the rules or they wouldn’t be allowed to play.  The situation went downhill as Trevor screamed when the other kid got close to him.  Trevor was “benched” by the teacher assistant, who told him he needed to cool off.  Trevor saw the other kid laughing at him and jumped off the chair, threatening to smack the other kid.  Trevor was sent to the office.

I also talked to the teacher assistant, who felt that Trevor was totally at fault.  Serendipitously, I had a lunch bunch with a different group of kids who told me that the “other kid” was always pushing and tripping others when they played football.  I had already seen a number of skirmishes as kids played football.  It seemed to me that the problem was global (lots of kids were getting upset) and represented a difficult choice for Trevor: to play or not to play?

Discuss alternatives through a social narrative.  I created a social story which described the situation in “steps,” so that Trevor was required to agree or disagree with the narrative:  “I want to play football, even though some kids cheat.”  We ended up with a kind of decision tree, where Trevor needed to decide if it was worth playing football (yes) even though he got upset every time (yes) and even though that other kid seemed to enjoy tripping him (yes).

Tackle obvious solutions (pun intended).  I took the liberty of alerting the other kid’s teacher and assistant teacher about the deliberate tripping.  That led to a slight decline in his rate of tripping others.  I also tried to help the assistant empathize with my student’s dilemma.  He really, really wanted to play football.  He was not the initiator of this problem, although other kids were better able to take the tripping in stride (unintentional pun).  It was difficult to get that empathy because Trevor had a “history” of threatening others.  (I’ll have to post later on that whole issue.)

Write a narrative that supports positive outcomes.  Begin with the obvious: You are going to play football.  The other kid may try to trip you.  From there, I included possible options.  I ruled out “seeking adult help” because Trevor didn’t want to leave the game and he doubted she would believe him, anyway.  I already had a number of options in mind and we agreed on these:

  1. Tell the other kid he was going to get in trouble if he kept tripping others.
  2. Ignore the other kid, remembering that professional players also trip one another.
  3. Calm down by remembering what happens if you threaten others.
  4. Calm down by taking a sideline break.
  5. Calm down by remembering that this kid is tripping others, too.

Have your student read the narrative before the problematic events typically occur.  In this case, Trevor would read his plan just before lining up for recess and then tuck it in his pants pocket.  He said it would remind him while he played.

Trevor did show improved self-control but recess was still a frustrating experience.  No one was happier than I when teachers decided that football season was over.