Safe/Unsafe — What’s the difference?

Posted By on Oct 16, 2019 |

Last week, we had a couple of drills — fire, shelter-in-place. (You know the kind of thing, typical for this time of year at a school.) It’s a curious situation for a child — and a teacher — to be in. We always want our kiddos to feel safe. Yet, in order to keep them safe, we sometimes need to practice with our students what we would do if there were an unsafe situation. During both drills, our kiddos demonstrated that they trust us to keep them safe. What an honor, and what a responsibility.

The thing is, are we ever really safe? As adults, we can do everything we can to help children feel safe. Friendly smiles and eye contact, respectful tones of voice, help offered, constant verbal reassurances and direction (and re-direction!), developmentally-appropriate environment, etc. But there are always going to be things outside our control as adults, let alone outside a child’s limited control — fire, major storms, a new teacher we’re not yet comfortable with, being bitten by an infant or toddler friend, preschoolers inventing new rules for a game that a younger child can’t understand but wants to play anyway, our own confusing emotions. How can we help a child to manage self-control when there seems to be a loss of control?

A lot of what we do, as teachers and as parents, is to help children to know themselves, know the people around them, be aware of their environment, know what their options are, and to make good choices. Yesterday, a child squirming in his chair at lunch said to me, “That’s not a good way to fall and bump my head.” (His way of saying he thought he was being safe.) I explained that I still wasn’t comfortable with how he was sitting and it was my job to keep him safe; sitting in that position wasn’t an option. He found a position that was comfortable for both of us.

One of our older preschool girls hadn’t been comfortable/felt safe with climbing and high places. I was able to show her on the playground climber a new way to get from one area to another, a way that involved climbing at a height. She agreed to try it, and I held onto her to support her. The first time, her feet and hands weren’t in the right places and she slipped. It was a little scary, but she persevered. After analyzing the placement of each foot and hand and the progression of movement, she started to understand how she could climb. She started to believe that she could do it, that her own strength and agility were enough that she didn’t need my help and didn’t need to be scared anymore. She practiced for 40 minutes — 40 minutes! — until her movements were strong and sure. She was so proud to show off her new skill to her parents that evening! A few weeks later, coaxing her to try climbing a tree took much less persuasion, and again, she practiced until she felt comfortable with the movement and was reassured of her own strength and agility. What had initially seemed like a dangerous situation needing a lot of teacher support was a new-found skill. She could now control that situation.

The reality is, the only thing/person/situation we can really control is ourselves, our response. Which is, admittedly, at times, less an intentional response and more an out-of-control reaction, especially for a child who might not yet have the self-awareness or language to describe or understand powerful emotions like being frustrated, angry, or scared. It is empowering to locate control within ourselves as adults. Even more so for a child.

Can we protect our kiddos from every danger? We try, as best we can, with every fiber of our being, but the cold reality is — no. Can we teach them how to protect themselves? Absolutely, to the extent they are able. Can we teach them that they can control their response to a perceived and/or real danger? Yes. That’s our job.

A few days after our shelter-in-place drill, a group of children started playing under a table. This is not typical behavior, so I carefully listened in on their conversation. “A tornado is coming; take cover!” The chairs at the table become doors that they moved to invite other children to share their safe space. What had initially been a somewhat scary situation had become a scenario where they could not only control their response and reaction (to the point where it became a game), but they went a step further and created a space where they could now protect other people. Wow. Just, wow.