508. Personal Safety

It’s difficult to teach children about what is now called “personal safety” – speaking and behaving in ways that help prevent abuse. We don’t want them to think adults are out to abuse them; we want them to be able to think of all
strangers as potential friends. At least until strangers give evidence that they should be avoided. But there’s sometimes a very thin line between cynicism and common sense; we don’t want children to suffer, and so we teach them to avoid situations in which suffering seems more likely than we want it to be.
I observed two discussions about personal safety with the same class.
One was led by the classroom teacher, Trish Farrington. The children knew and trusted her, and she knew and trusted the children. She talked about a situation she remembered from her own childhood, and children listened closely. Perhaps some of them knew what she was talking about better than did others; perhaps some had already gotten inappropriate attention from adults. Trish talked about how she’d reacted as a child – never mentioning the situation. Then she talked about how she wished she’d reacted – telling an adult she trusted what was going on.
I think it really helped that the children knew Trish – knew that Trish has a healthy, occasionally whimsical sense of humor, and had chosen not to treat this subject with that humor. She was speaking as one human being to twenty others, and it was immediately clear that she wasn’t just whistling Dixie – that she was telling children something they really needed to hear. Hearing Trish open up the way she did, some of the children followed suit, telling about situations they’d faced.
Her discussion with the children was meant to be a way of preparing them for the discussion the guidance counselor would lead later that day.
And I was also there later on, when the guidance counselor taught her lesson about personal safety. She came with a book, and with points she wanted to be sure to make. I think she had a sense of mission similar to Trish’s, and I assume that she’d had more formal training on this subject than Trish had had.
Those children who were in the habit of taking all teachers seriously gave the guidance counselor the same good attention they’d given Trish. But this counselor didn’t – couldn’t – know and trust the children the way Trish did. Nor did/could the children know and trust the counselor the way they knew and trusted Trish. And so what was meant as the main lesson – one that merited a sensitive introduction – turned out to be less effective than the introduction.
I don’t know what could have been done to make lesson two more effective. Perhaps the teacher and the counselor could have worked together more closely, and co-taught the lesson. Perhaps the counselor could have helped the teacher prepare lesson two, then only observed and given feedback. Maybe lesson one was effective enough to make lesson two unnecessary. I don’t know. But it’s something worth thinking about.

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