Principal’s Corner: The School Yard.
Every school deals with the challenge of creating an outdoor space that provides a safe place in which to play, grow and learn. Each school deals with behaviour issues of varying degrees, whether in the class or on the yard. Some years, issues are greater than others, depending on many factors including the size and complement of the playground, and how families and educators work together. Safe playgrounds should never be the sole responsibility of the school; rather they should be a collaborative joint effort between home, school, and parish. The approach to dealing with behaviour issues is basic and simple, yet comes with complicating factors that require a strong team approach to make it work. Playgrounds are not limited to schools; they are also sports fields, and workplaces. Adults deal with conflict and disagreement in their spaces and there is no exception to flared tempers and fingers pointing. These places are in many instances no different than bullying on the school yard.
Schools in Ontario have a Code of Conduct and protocol in which to follow to address issues as they arise. All educators are trained in, and regularly revisit, the steps which are needed to manage and control a safe learning place. Our first approach at St. Vincent de Paul is to build a positive and caring relationship with students and parents. According to research, the importance of positive relationships has been described in educational settings, in therapeutic relationships, and in familial relationships, as the single most important element in creating and growing a strong community. Creating a positive and trusting relationship is also a core component of preventing bullying behavior, and it has been considered a prerequisite to all interventions. Teachers can learn specific techniques to handle behavior problems, but they are not likely to result in lasting change if they are not implemented along with strong parent support. We have, and are developing, many approaches at SVDP to help build a great learning place. We are currently looking to introduce productive play such as cooperative games during recess to reduce aggressive behaviors. We have a newly formed group called, ‘Guardians of the Playground’ to help structure play in our primary yard. We host ‘friendship’ club during noon recess to help children direct their focus on positive play. We have divided our yard to pair two grades instead of four together. Teaching and promoting effective communication skills helps those children unable to express needs or wants. Child Youth Workers and community support workers are helping our school to develop Emotional Intelligence so that children can use acceptable ways to communicate their needs. Our teachers run classroom meetings weekly to create a solid infrastructure in which students can openly, without judgement, discuss concerns. Environmental factors need to be taken into consideration. Our current temporary school yard has contributed to the problem of playing safely without disruption to play. The close surroundings and lack of sports fields and equipment have created an invasion to our children’s play space. Some children, particularly children with autistic spectrum disorders, may be over sensitive to certain stimuli such as noise and tight quarters, and may therefore react by displaying challenging behaviour. Children get bumped into and hit by balls, easily causing an instant reaction to claim intention instead of accident. Attention-seeking is often identified as a cause of challenging behaviour. Negative attention can be motivating for some children, especially if they feel that this is the only attention they receive.
We are always looking at ways in which to improve and refine our school environment. The questions that arise are: Why are children so insensitive to each other? Where is tolerance for differences? Why do children join in the bullying rather than defend the victims? Where is their sense of community? Why do children believe that they should defend by fighting back? Might I add that children can defend ONLY to push off an attacker, not to join in on the hands-on with others. Perhaps, the answers to these questions are reflected in the larger problems of society as a whole. Members of society all share responsibility and need to be a part of the solution, which brings this corner to some closing thoughts. Our plea to parents is to step up and be part of our team. Research states that parents have the strongest influence in developing and teaching behaviour, and conveying attitudes to their children. Each parent needs to recognize the social problems that occur in school and after school, and take measures to guide their child away from adopting the wrong ‘group’ mentality. To achieve this, parents need to take the following actions.
- Recognize that even your child may be involved in bullying in social settings.
- Realize that all children can and do lie if they are scared of consequences or afraid that their behaviour will disappoint parents.
- Discuss any reported behaviours openly, and not defensively, with your child’s teacher. Work with the school to solve the problem; do not add to it. Denial does not result in solutions. Turn mistakes into teaching opportunities.
- Teach your child about bullying and have him or her look at things from the ‘victims’ side. Explain empathy to your child.
- Model proper language and behaviour at home; your child is watching.
- Eliminate exposure to violent and saucy television programs. Children emulate observed behaviours.
- Refrain from buying toys or games of violence. Why teach your child to pretend to kill or hurt someone? This is what they will model on the yard.
Parents, be aware of the following ideas that we have been implementing in the school setting to help alleviate aggressive behaviour.
- Students may well be the culprits, but they can also be part of the solution. Peer mediation and restorative justice programs involving students in monitoring and counselling their peers increase student responsibility, and can result in behavioural improvement
- A big buddy system where older students are paired with younger students who are having social problems could be developed. The older child would ‘supervise’ the younger individual in lightly supervised settings and would serve as a role model.
- Early in the school year, teachers co-create with their student’s classroom agreements. Students are then expected to follow the agreement that THEY created so they take ownership of their part in making our school a safe place to learn, and grow.
We thank you, the parents and guardians, for your unending support. It is easy to be critical, it is easier to be part of the team and work together. After all, your children are the single most important reason why we are in education.