How to be everywhere at once... sort of

So... Christmas was a month ago.  Anyone ready for Summer yet?  I was tempted to write this week's blog post all about technology in education, having recently visited BETT 2020 but then I scrolled through Twitter and noticed a thread about that old chestnut: things that happen in the playground and continue in the classroom.  And I not only have experience of that (don't we all?) but also a solution.  So that's what I'm doing this week. 

How to be EVERYWHERE at once...
sort of (pt 1)

 Bitmoji Image
Teach children how to monitor their own space
Teach them how to ask others to move back (politely)

It's half-past one, you've just given yourself indigestion from wolfing down an entire triple-pack meal deal sandwich in thirty seconds and you have scalded your tongue on the tea you had to consume almost immediately upon making.  It is the afternoon and your little cherubs are returning from the lunch break.

Thankfully, the gods have smiled and the weather has been just dry enough to enable them to run around and interact socially with other little cherubs and the result has been a delightful hour self-led learning and personal growth.

In they come, smiles aplenty.  Ah, the afternoon.  A time to be creative - maybe you'll even get the paints out tomorrow?  And then...

Sorry to bother you, sir, but these two have been fighting in the playground.

The wonderful and, frankly underpaid, lunchtime worker (who is now late for their intervention group because they're also one of three TAs left in the school) hands over two children who are still trying to gouge each other's eyes out.  

Cue the accusations of bullying, unfairness and how it was absolutely everyone else's fault.  Inevitably, four other children are roped in and by the time everyone should be silently reading (ha!), you have a full-blown Judge Rinder (for US visitors, read Judge Judy) situation and you find yourself wondering just how much arbitrage law pays.

One side note before I continue: I had this situation once (I mean, I've had it many times, I teach Year 6, but once specifically) where I was gifted with the following exchange:

Me: Did call him a dickhead?
Boy 1: Yes
Me: (Shocked at the honesty)Why? 
Boy 1: Because he's a dickhead.

I rather thought the case closed and the matter dealt with, given the 'victim' in question, alas, we had to go through the whole restorative justice approach and the whole afternoon was basically a wash-out.  As a point of order, I feel I should mention that I am not disparaging the Restorative Justice approach.  I actually think it's pretty good, it just takes so damn long.  And that brings me to my little nugget of experience that I want to share with you today.

Spaghetti Arms!  This is my dance space; that's yours.

I learned this technique/philosophy a decade ago and I have been using it ever since.  It is a fantastic way to really get the children to realise why they could be having problems in the playground.  It's interactive as well.

I would use some of your PSHCe time for this because it can take a while.  Especially at first.  Follow it up with a poster activity if you need to record evidence of the learning.  If they're good quality, print them off and display them around your school.  Citizenship!

Face the class and hold out your arm as if directing traffic to go left (or right, I'm not your dad), then do a bit of a slow 360 turn making a big show of the fact that the whole class is beyond your reach.  Ask the whole class if anyone feels uncomfortably close to you right now.  Depending on your class, they will either unanimously agree that everyone is fine or you will have a couple of jokers (see below for my advice on that). 

Inform the children that they are in your 'PUBLIC SPACE'.  Nobody should have a problem with people being in their public space.  If they do, seek help.  Write this on the board next to a (very bad, if you're me) drawing of a person with their arm held out.

Next, draw attention to the space between your fingertips and your elbow.   A delightful moment to teach/remind them what a cubit is.  I tended to throw in the fact that from their wrist to their elbow is equal to their foot size, and their nose is as long as the space from their index fingertip to the tip of their thumb when placed snugly side by side.  It's all apropos of nothing, but it helps to break any tension that might be building.  Plus, these drive-by tidbits are often the ones they remember.

Anyway, your cubit.  This is your 'PERSONAL SPACE'.  We don't like people in our personal space if we don't know them, don't like them, or haven't invited them.  In fact, you often hear of people 'invading' personal space.  No-one has ever used that verb in a positive way.  We don't like to be invaded.

This is the fun bit.  Ask for a volunteer.  Pick either the most cocky, annoying kid, or someone whom you know can take a bit of a joke.  This is going to get uncomfortable.  

For both of you.

Move the child so that they are standing in front you, facing you.  Hold out your arm and gently move them back so that they are in your public space.  Remind the children, or ask them, what that space is called.  We're all about AfL and overlearning.    Ask the child how they feel.  They will giggle, rub their face, check their friends and say 'fine.'

Tell them to plant their feet.  They are not allowed to move.  Reassure them that nothing bad is going to happen to them and that they are quite safe.

Then step forward so that they are in your personal space.  Demonstrate this by holding out your arm and showing that they are quite clearly between your fingertips and your elbow.  There will be a lot of giggling and noise.  Children find this fascinating and endlessly entertaining.  Do not tell them off; you want them fascinated by this.  If they are fascinated, they are learning and will want to apply it later on.  If the child moves (they probably will), reassure them and start over.  If they keep moving, use it to show the class that people don't like an invasion of personal space.

Also point out that, as much as the child was in your personal space, you were in theirs as well.  Really make it clear.  Some children don't get the inverse law.

Have the child tell the class how it felt and have the class think about a time when they were invaded and when they were the invader.  While this is happening, update the board.

Facing the class again, point out the area from your elbow to your armpit (note: I hate the word 'armpit', is there an uglier word in the Engish language?  Comments below please!).  It's useful to show all of these 'zones' from different angles.  One held out like a lower-case 't', and one held out in front like a zombie.

This is your 'INTIMATE SPACE' although I usually call it 'PRIVATE SPACE' because saying 'intimate space' in front of a bunch of 11-year-olds is just awkward.  

NOBODY likes their private space being invaded.  Ask the children whom they might let into their private space.  Responses will be almost exclusively family and close friends.  I've had children say that they are only comfortable sharing it with their mum.  No-one else.  

Remember when I said it was going to get uncomfortable?  Strap in.

Using the same child (you've developed a bond, use it), have them plant their feet again.  Even though they know what's coming, warn them.  The class will giggle uproariously.  There may even be a gasp or two.  The volunteer will cover their face, giggle, turn their body uncomfortably.  This is all normal, please don't tell them off for it.  

BEFORE YOU STEP FORWARDS face the class and tell them what you are going to do.  You are going to move the volunteer backwards without even touching them.  

Turn back to your cringing volunteer and walk into their private space.  Don't worry, they will move backwards.  I have not met a child, scratch that, a person yet who can stay still when their private space is being invaded.

Pause, quietly check that the volunteer is okay (if they're not, let them it down and choose someone else.  Most of the time, they're fine), and ask the class what happened.  They will happily tell you that the volunteer moved backwards.  Elicit the reason (private space invasion) and then delve.

I usually say that the volunteer is just being silly.  They know I'm not going to hurt them; they know nothing bad is going to happen, so they're just being silly, right?  Turn back to the volunteer and request that they plant their feet.  Continue to walk forwards.  The volunteer will back up.  Maybe not at first, they might be feeling brave, but they will move.  While you're walking, address the rest of the class and ask:

What will happen when the volunteer can't move back any more?

Then demonstrate it.  Back the volunteer against a wall.  Two things will happen:

1) YOU will feel intensely uncomfortable - they're in your private space, too, don't forget.  Share this with the class.

2) The volunteer will do anything to get away.  They will probably step to the side and weave past you.  For god's sake, let them!

A round of applause is always called for at this point.  I also allow the volunteer to step outside the room if they want to collect themselves a little bit.  Always double-check that they are okay after the lesson and remember to tell their parents about as early as possible.

What's the point?

This is a very visceral way of showing children why they get into arguments in the playground.  Well, one of the reasons, I'll get into the other reason next week (remind me).  It allows them to develop their empathy for others.  It also gives them a tool to avoid confrontation.

When the class has calmed down - again, let them have a giggle, it's an intense few minutes - ask them what can be done if someone is invading their space.  Record any sensible suggestions.  

If no-one mentioned it, tell the children that they are allowed to politely ask someone to take a step back.  Of course, not everyone listens to polite requests, so they will need a more pro-active way to do this.

Get your volunteer back up, if they are willing.  If not, grab anyone else.  Have them stand in your personal space (no more private space stuff, relax) and tell the class that there are two ways to get someone to leave your personal space.

Method 1: shout at them to get out of your face (I tend to use you're all up in my grill - ironically, of course) and (gently) push them out of your personal space.  Effective?  Yes.  Sensible?  No.  Ask what might this result in?  Go further and ask if any of the class have experienced this, from either perspective.  If so, how did it play out?

The light-bulb realisation at this point is always satisfying.  They suddenly realise either why they were so angry or what that had done to annoy somebody else.

So method 1 is a bit of a bust.

Method 2: Gently put your hand on their shoulder and move yourself back so that they are in a more conformable place for you.  You can even say sorry, you're a little too close for me, there we are.  Please, carry on, you were saying...?  

The children might ask if this is a little bit rude.  I tell them that I would rather someone politely let me know than roughly push me away.  Plus we get to talk a little bit about how you speak to someone.  This is great as very often these children get into trouble for how they've said something instead of what they actually said.  Don't get me started on that one.

Practise, practise, practise

The final step is to let them have a go at everything they have just seen.  You could argue that they can just practise it the next time they are in the playground, but I think it is important to rehearse it in a safe environment first.  Lots of encouragement; lots of praise.  Tell then that you do not expect to hear any complaints from playground staff about this class pushing and shoving others.  They now know how to deal with it sensibly.  Why not be ambassadors and, if they see children getting frustrated, teach them how to respect personal space (this works so well with upper Key Stage 2 children).

It won't resolve every issue and it won't get better overnight.  But keep reminding them (this is why those posters are so useful) and they will begin to chill out.  They will also begin to verbalise their emotions a little better, which makes dealing with incidents easier and resolving them faster.

Dealing with jokers:

My rule has always been: if you dish it out, you have to be able to take it back.  So when I got a child who said they were uncomfortable from the back row, I said that they should probably leave the room and go to see the SENCo because they had way bigger problems than could be dealt with here.  This is usually how I deal with class clowns but I manufacture very sarcastic children, so we all laugh it off and continue.  You might have a better / more sensitive way of dealing with things.  But don't underestimate the power of laughter, nor the importance of teaching children to laugh at themselves.

To be continued...

Obviously, this is only the beginning of dealing with playground issues but I feel like it's the one that has the most immediate results.  Next week I'll talk about getting to the roots of disagreements and fights quickly and effectively using MAD, SAD, GLAD and a little smattering of NLP.  Playground issues are never going to go away completely, but we can at least teach the children how to manage their emotions and then, just maybe, we'll be able to enjoy our indigestion and get the paints out.

Thanks for reading this far, if you have.  A special thank-you to everyone who shared this on Twitter, it really helps.  I mean, I don't get any revenue from this, but it's good for my self-esteem!  We've passed Blue Monday, so well done for that!  I would like to leave you with a challenge:

If you work in a school, at some point this week, I want you to visit a colleague and offer to help with their marking.  It could be as simple as suggesting they mark with you, just to be social.  It could be as impactful as taking a group or whole classful of books.  Obviously, it depends on how much work you have yourself, but if you can, do.  

If you don't work in a school, post something positive on Twitter using the hashtag: #1goodthing.  Have a great week, everybody!

Bitmoji Image

Carl Headley-Morris