There are many locations and types of early years’ programmes. Some are in newly constructed and purpose built facilities, while others are located in townhouses, apartments or old homes. Irrespective of the setting, it is the responsibility of the school staff to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the children in their care. This article, written by Nazia Kashif and TRC staff explores practical ways in which schools can adopt a comprehensive approach to safety and reduce risks and dangers. Safety in schools is directly related to the protection of children against harmful events and hazards to reduce risks or danger whether caused deliberately or by accident. To parents and educators, safety is one of the most important aspects of their child’s environment because it may affect a child mentally, physically or emotionally. In order for children to grow and develop in a positive learning environment, without any undesirable consequences to their playful actions, it is mandatory to keep their safety zone intact. When we think about safety, some of the first things that come to mind are protection, shelter and freedom; this starts from the moment a child is born. It needs to be a collaborative effort between teachers, parents and the children themselves to revisit the safety rules frequently not only in the classroom but also within the school premises. Setting up a developmentally appropriate environment, which encourages children to be more assertive about their personal safety as well as that of their peers, is the responsibility of the educators. When parents leave their children in school, they expect that their children will be safe and secure. This is the responsibility of the school. Safe classrooms While every classroom should have a warm environment, it is also true that every well-equipped classroom has materials and resources such as scissors, glue, play dough etc. that are necessary, but could prove to be dangerous or harmful for young children and should be kept out of reach. They should only be used when required and even then, they should be used under the supervision of the teacher. The teachers’ own resource material should always be kept away from children’s reach. Material that is available in a classroom for children’s use must be age-appropriate to minimise accidents. The furniture and seating arrangement in the class should have smooth edges and preferably be circular in shape. There should be just enough furniture in accordance with the strength of the class. Doing this allows safe and free movement for the children in the class. On the other hand, creating an environment with wide-open spaces in the classroom will stimulate children’s natural instinct to run and chase each other. A responsible administrator and class teacher will always arrange the physical layout of the classroom in accordance with this safety issue in mind. The school premises Beyond the confines of the classroom, physical safety in a school has to be ensured in the school premises such as in the play area, the gym, the swimming pool, the playground and the toilet. These areas should be supervised and observed vigilantly at all times. In addition to supervising children in these areas, the schools should abide by basic safety features. The administration should ensure the details, such as: keeping the flooring in the toilets dry to avoid slipping; locating fire extinguishers in readily accessible locations; making sure swings have flexible seats with tightly knotted ropes or strong chains; slides have tight platforms and railings and are free of cracks and rusted areas to avoid snagging clothes. Installing age appropriate equipment and infrastructure and keeping irrelevant material out of reach of children can also ensure safety. If the flooring of the classrooms is tiled, then rugs should be placed in different learning corners so that children can play or sit on them. The rugs will prevent children from incurring serious injuries, which would otherwise be a safety concern on tiled flooring. Ideally, a school should have a purpose built structure. This gives the management the freedom to set up the classrooms according to the varied age groups that are enrolled. It is always practical to locate the playgroup and nursery classes on the ground level, so that young children do not have to climb stairs frequently, as they are in the process of developing the skills of balance and control. Most accidents in schools happen either in the playground or when children are running up and down the staircase. This does not mean that children should be completely forbidden from negotiating the steps. They can be provided with low height slides and play structures on which they can practice climbing steps. While the role of the management is to set up age-appropriate play structures and frequently conduct safety checks to ensure that all outdoor equipment is intact and sturdy, teachers take safety a step further by supervising small children during outdoor playtime to make sure that they do not get hurt. For schools that have the junior and senior grades all under one roof, it is advisable to have a separate play area for nursery and kindergarten children. Older children are much more in control of their actions and can handle simple emergency situations. First aid kits Each school must be equipped with first aid kits to deal with emergencies. A school requires a large first aid kit that is designed to treat minor cuts, burns, insect bites and stings and sprains, and also to deal with more serious conditions such as helping stabilise victims of serious trauma, till medical attention can be provided. The school nurse should be responsible for checking the first aid kits frequently and restocking items. All the teachers should attend workshops on basic first aid to learn how to manage everyday emergencies like the cuts and bruises mentioned above and also nose bleeds. Ideally a school should have more than one first aid kit, especially if it is a large school. While deciding how many kits a school needs, the number of floors in the school, any high risk areas (labs) and any remote areas (such as distant pl
aygrounds) should be considered. There should be a first aid box within easy reach of each of these areas. All school vehicles should also have a first aid box and someone who knows how to use it appropriately. Evacuations and emergency drills Schools ought to hold frequent evacuation and lock down emergency drills for teachers, children and other school staff for both natural disasters, as well as outside safety hazards and threats. A school lock down occurs when students, teachers, and faculty are confined to their rooms due to a perceived or real threat. It is the responsibility of the school administration to train not only the teachers or the children, but everyone who works inside the school premises through briefings and by conducting each drill at least once every term on how to handle potential disasters. One evacuation and one lock down drill per term with pre-defined duties for each faculty member should be sufficient for this purpose. It is important to allot different roles and clarify who will be in charge of calling the concerned authorities outside of school, who will inform the parents, who will be responsible for re-checking all the classrooms, toilets and other areas within the building in case of an evacuation procedure. In a lock down situation, one of the faculty members, preferably from the administration, should be responsible for all the exits and entrances into the main building. Because emergency drills are simply safety procedures that are carried out on purpose, it is important to talk to children about safety rules and situations during group discussions and circle times so that children are not completely lost when drills take place. This will also be helpful in real emergency situations since children will already know how to react, making it easier and smoother for everybody to manage any disastrous emergency situation. Ensuring an emotionally safe classroom Another aspect of safety is the social-emotional effect on a child. To foster an emotionally safe classroom it is of critical value for the teacher to discuss how each child in the classroom is, as an individual and that everyone is different. An unsafe classroom environment can detract from a student’s ability to learn. In a safe environment there is respect between the child and the adult and between the children. Hence, students feel accepted and free to voice their opinions. Review the classroom rules with children at the beginning of the year and then be consistent in enforcing them. However, when talking about rules, teachers should be realistic and not rigid. If adults overwhelm children with rules for everything, there could be countless power struggles in the classroom. The adult should speak to the child individually, if he or she suspects a problem; when children are corrected arbitrarily in front of their peers, they are likely to feel a sense of insecurity. Insecurity can also arise when a child is faced with bullies. Bullying is a very common issue in schools. It is often observed that when their peers or other students from the school bully children, they start losing confidence and become emotionally disturbed. Repeated name-calling, physical assault and psychological attacks are a few examples of bullying issues that children can face in schools. While not all taunting, teasing and fighting among children can be considered bullying, the problem arises when the action is repeated purposely to intimidate the victim. Often the victim is not equal in size and strength to his opponent. In this case the children have no way of defending themselves. It is imperative that teachers make sure all children are comfortable and secure in their learning environment. Discussions with the children about peer pressure and bullying and how it has a negative effect in the classroom can help pre-empt such situations. Another way of focusing on bullying is by asking children to role-play hypothetical situations that involve bullying and also by reviewing stories that have morals, which have been written for a young audience. Because bullying has long-term negative effects on both the victim as well as the bully, it is vitally important for educators and the school management to work alongside parents of the children involved, to try and resolve the issue (Read Ilm o Amal: A Brush with Bullying’ for tips on tackling bullying in schools Working towards preventing violence While safety is an integral issue in society, school safety in particular is all the more essential because children are involved. As educators, it is important to identify what safety measures should be taken, what are the risks involved, who is at risk, when the implementation of safety rules is important and where to carry out the safety procedures. This is not just about creating a safe environment for the children in school, but also about encouraging them to observe and think about why these safety rules are important and what can be the potential consequences if they are not implemented. Ensuring safety within school premises as well as outside it is a daunting prospect, however everyone in a school can work towards it. Students, staff, and parents all play an important role in promoting school safety by following procedures and by staying vigilant and reporting any strange happenings and behaviour. Throughout the process of ensuring the school’s safety it is crucial to reassure students that while there is a possibility that the school’s security can be compromised, the likelihood of a high violence incident occurring remains relatively unlikely. The key is to strike a balance between nurturing a healthy and stable school environment with sufficient building security on the ground. Nazia Kashif is an IECE graduate (2012-13). She studied at St. Patrick’s Girls’ High School and St. Joseph’s College for Women and has been teaching at Mrs. Haque’s Nursery since 2002. Currently she is a visiting faculty member at TRC-IECE where she is teaching a course on ‘Health, Nutrition and Safety’. July 2014