To be fair, our situation is about as extreme as it gets. Recently, one of my colleagues was talking to me about the health and social data for the local community as I had put together a policy document which she was contributing to. It was one of those hurried conversations as we both needed to be on our way to classrooms to teach, but I remember thinking that an average life expectancy of 57 for males (it was something like that) was possibly even lower than Russia! Anyway, the mental health situation is also very interesting and of course it permeates into our setting, affecting everyone and everything, especially the parts of the day when children have more freedom. When I am out on break and lunch duty, I cannot help but think that one of the flaws in our education system is the continued assumption that breaks and lunches do not require as high an adult to child ratio as during lesson time, that adults on duty do not need to proactively teach so much and that all children need and love the freedom of breaks and lunchtimes.
(For secondary teachers who are reading, what usually happens is that teaching assistants go out on break duties and then they take their break during lesson times – young children must be overseen by an adult at all times. I really don’t know what we will do when/if most teaching assistants disappear from the system because we certainly can’t go back to the 1980s when we just had one lonesome teacher with a no-lid cup of boiling hot coffee out on duty)
Of course, we adhere to the legal requirements for supervision of children, and staff who are out on duty are there to support and guide children, particularly when it comes to the squabbles that so easily escalate. Our staff have to work very hard on this aspect because our children do not have the same level of language and communication as children in other schools (yes, we are tackling this in our curriculum) and what is modeled at home in terms of settling disputes* isn’t always what we would like to see in a school. Of course, we also give the children suggestions for games to play and we act as referees for all those boys who want their football games to be fair. What happens during children’s playtimes is also supported by messages given during assemblies, in circle times and during PSHE lessons and you may be interested to know that a knowledge-rich curriculum certainly imbues their role-play with more imagination and creativity. Further, we provide a variety of lunch clubs and at various times purchase new play equipment (that gradually disappears as items are accidentally flung over the walls and into gardens around the estate) for the children to use. We have also got a year 6 playground buddy system as well as established routines for lining up after break that helps the children to calm themselves and be ready for their teachers’ instruction.
But I don’t think this is enough.
Being a reflective sort of person, I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that instead of fewer people watching over and supporting children during playtimes, we need more. Many more. It would be fascinating to run some kind of scientific experiment to compare levels of epinephrine and blood pressure of children at breaks and during lesson times and to compare this data set with that of another school serving an advantaged community. My hypothesis would be that epinephrine levels would be way higher in our children and this would be directly related to lack of ability to automatically self-regulate emotion and one’s body in a way that would normally be taught and expected by parents (through teaching sitting calmly, conversation as well as calming love and support etc).
Epinephrine, also known as adrenalin, increases heart rate, blood sugar levels and blood flow to the muscles. It makes you sharper, angrier, feistier, stronger, faster and louder and effects are amplified if you happen to be male, or if it is a windy day. Yes, you might be recognising the fight-or-flight response there. For some children, flying into fight-or-flight mode is an exhilarating habit and so the waves of their playtime debacles spill over and into the classroom. Despite whatever ‘best practice’ measures are put in place, the adrenalin is still coursing through their bodies as they try to get on with their maths Do Now.
In an ideal world, what kind of adult support would I like? I’m talking 1:10 ratio in zoned areas and I reckon there would be quite a few leaders in schools serving disadvantaged communities like ours who might think the same. In fact, there might be a few leaders in schools serving advantaged communities who are quietly thinking that this would massively improve the education of the whole child in their school too. My vision is for a playtime curriculum and for children to be taught and expected to practise the old fashioned songs and skipping games, for example. You might be thinking ‘well, why don’t you do that already, Hannah? Why are you not teaching all 370 odd children all of this while also putting on plasters and soothing the squabblers and blowing the whistle?’ I’m afraid I’m not as good as you, clearly! I’m just an ordinary leader trying to do her best. Seriously, what I need is for teachers, teaching assistants and a huge swathe of play/support workers to be teaching ALL the children during playtimes and lunchtimes (including how to sit and eat at a dinner table as well as how to skip) every single day and this just can’t happen because, unfortunately, adults need to occasionally have a break themselves. Dangit. Perhaps there is a way? I’ve often thought that instead of using pupil premium to provide after school sports clubs so they can learn to kick harder and run faster from each other, maybe use pupil premium to support regular, old-fashioned play and then children can kick less and hold hands instead.
Who’s with me?
*Some seem to know how to create disputes out of nowhere!