Problems in the Playground

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Problems in the Playground

I was asked by BBC Breakfast News to discuss playground behaviour in schools as a former Deputy Head and as a Parent Coach and Mum.

It strikes me that there are two ways to improve playground behaviour.

The school needs strategies, techniques and skills for handling conflict and parents need to teach their children their values of tolerance, empathy and respect.

The first way is for a whole school approach to creating safe and happier school playgrounds with my 4 simple steps.

Step 1: Create Staff Guidelines for Defining ‘Appropriate’ and ‘Inappropriate’ Playground Behaviour.

I think it’s essential for each school as a whole, to sit down and agree upon some simple, clear and specific written definitions for what is and isn’t acceptable  playground behaviour so everyone is singing from the same song sheet and very clear in their own minds about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behaviour as this will instantly give teachers, playground supervisors, dinner ladies and supply teachers confidence.

I also think it is very helpful to be very specific and to ask:”What exactly is “aggesssive behaviour?” so it makes it easier to recognise. Is it any form of physical contact with malicious intent i.e hitting, punching, scratching or pushing in the dinner queue? Or is it unwanted or hurtful use of language (such as name-calling, verbal threats, or swearing).

This helps to make unwanted behaviour easier to recognise, prevent and stop.

It sends out a clear message.

I also think it helps to keep a diary of trigger points too so staff can come up with more creative ways to prevent the instances occuring again.

Prevention is always better than cure – so for example, is it always on a Friday when Year 4 are let out from Games 5 minutes early and come hurtling down the corridors and bang into Year 3 children coming out of Geography?

Step 2: Train Playground Supervisors.

The most important role in intervention is that of the member of Staff on Duty, the Dinner Ladies, Classroom Assistants or whoever is the playground supervising .

He or she has a very important role to play and should be trained to:

• Identify when children are behaving appropriately on the playground according to the school behaviour guidelines, and to give children specific praise and feedback about their positive behaviour e.g., “Tom, thank you for bringing back the ball. That’s really considerate and helpful of you!” or in Assembly for older kids where good behaviour can be picked out as examples of great attitudes, kindness or tolerance, as this reinforces positively what the school wants to see more of.

• Alternatively the playground supervisors need to be trained to be confident, assertive and able to handle situations when they see inappropriate, dangerous or explosive situations to nudge, guide or insist on the behaviour they do want to see.

• Children of all ages need to know that there are consequences to their actions so the school must be clear about what they are and pass them on to the Staff and children so they know too! It goes without saying that they must be fair, firm and consistent.

• It’s also helpful to have rewards and incentives for children based on their age and interests – so each school needs to decide that for themselves. Jenny Mosley ( whom I also trained with on her excellent Circle Time Model) has a whole school approach to setting up and maintaining a positive management system to promote positive relationships, a caring and respectful ethos in schools as well as providing efficient and effective systems and support for staff.

She even has fabulous playground games and ideas to help organise and teach children the rules of common playground games. Go to her website for more information => Jenny Mosley or I am very happy to come along and work with your school, staff or parents too as it’s ALL about building bridges not walls and passing on a culture of respect with everyone working together.

Step 3: Train Children in Appropriate Playground Behaviours.

In schools I have worked in it’s great to have a Theme of the Week like Tolerance, Patience, Respect etc so all of the teachers and staff can  lay down some new rules or remind the kids of the old ones! And PSHE lessons are really a brilliant way to practise these skills and have open discussions around this whole topic.

I used to put up posters around the school near dinner queues, corridors and loo mirrors to remind the kids of the themes.

Here is a positive teacher tip from an old hand! : Once your younger class seem to understand how they are expected to behave during playtime, take the entire class out to the playground for a supervised practice session.

Get your class to practice their skills and give them immediate feedback (e.g., “Look everyone, watch how Katy includes Charlie in her game.) Practising on the playground will help children to quickly get the idea and enjoy applying their new skills.

For older children it’s all about teaching them about respect, tolerance, empathy and developing their anger strategies (that’s another article and whole workshop I deliver) click here to read my Handling Anger or  Parents, Teachers and Anger on my Positive Parent Club site. Older children need to develop their social skills if their parents don’t pass them on at home.

One simple thing I get older kids doing is to stand on piece of paper with another child’s name on it and as they step onto the paper to see the world from that child’s shoes and socks or branded trainers !

Ask them:

What do you see?

What do you hear?

How do you feel?

This is so simple but really effective for shifting a child’s perspective – it’s a good exercise for teaching tolerance and empathy.

Step 4: Starting the Intervention.

Once a school decides on positive intervention to address problems in the playground here are some things I suggest:

• Playground supervisors can randomly distribute good-behaviour stickers or tickets for young children and notice and reward specific praise for their good behaviour on the spot and then very publically pass that great behaviour back to their teacher in front of the others.

• They can organise and oversee group games (if needed) and remind children of the rules. ( I used to get stuck in with the football – making sure the girls played too !)

• Playground supervisors can also set aside a “time-out” location (e.g. a cooling off place marked off with chalk in a supervised corner of the playground – a bit like Super Nanny’s naughty step !!!) So whenever kids misbehave, the supervisor can choose to deliver a single brief warning e.g., “Toby, a playground rule is ‘Treat others with respect.’ That means no hitting. This is a warning”.

 I used to use the yellow card – red card system as I’m a footie fan , and have cardboard cards make to hold up !

• If a child continued to misbehave, he or she was placed in the time-out location for a short period (e.g., 5 minutes) before being allowed to return to play.

• Another idea I used was for each teacher to collect the good-behaviour tickets or stickers when their children returned to their classroom after playtime and we counted up the tickets and put them into a jar. A running total was kept of the tickets collected and when the class had collected a certain number of tickets ( which can be determined by the teacher, the class got a prize or privilege e.g., watching a special TV programme or video, having a pizza party, or being allowed an extra playtime.

I also use my “That was easy” button – click here  to find out more and learn how to anchor good behaviour and to add a bit of fun to the whole thing.

I can only go into the basics here but teaching children respect, empathy, tolerance and how to handle their anger, disagreements and disputes is part of life long learning and a very important life skill.

Teachers need to be confident and effective in how they intervene and parents need to teach their children ways to handle conflict without fighting, punching or swearing.


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About the author

Sue Atkins is a Parenting Expert who offers practical guidance for bringing up happy, confident, well behaved children. She is also the author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the  famous black and yellow series published worldwide and the highly acclaimed Parenting Made Easy CDs. She regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and her parenting articles are published all over the world.

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Sue Atkins the Parenting Expert
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