Kidpower Answers: What if Getting Help Is “Against the Rules”?
Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
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Not knowing when and how to break the rules can be dangerous for a child. Most children are very literal and many really want to please the adults in charge by following the rules, especially away from home. Even when kids are taught that their safety comes first, acting in the moment can be very hard to do, as this story from the mother of a second-grader in Vermont shows.
I wanted to share an experience our family had recently that really brought home to me how, even adults with the best of intentions who believe in and do their best to apply Kidpower principles, can inadvertently fall into the trap of expecting a child to “speak up” in situations where there are all sorts of barriers to doing so.
My 2nd grader attended a school assembly in the gym that was mostly both educational and fun. Unfortunately, the presenters had their music and mikes turned up so loud that it was really hard to actually hear what was being said. Plus, the presenters had 400 kids doing things like a “yelling” contest to get them excited. The end result was a volume that was way, way too loud to be healthy. My daughter gets migraine headaches and, by the end of the hour, she had a full-blown migraine. However, she wasn’t the only child or teacher who had a headache from the noise. Others did as well.
When I met my daughter after school and saw she was sick, my first reaction was “Why didn’t you speak up and say something to your teacher?” My daughter’s teacher had the same response, as did the principal of the school.
Later that day, to my chagrin, I realized that the intonation of the question was almost like it was my daughter’s fault or responsibility. As adults, we were expecting a seven-year old to speak up in a situation where it was so incredibly loud that she could not have been heard even if she did speak up!
After I thought more about it, I realized I needed to ask my child the question again, this time with the intent of actually finding out the answer to the question. I was amazed at the barriers she encountered, including:
- Kids aren’t supposed to leave assemblies so she was worried she would get in trouble.
- She wasn’t supposed to stand up to walk over to her teacher, so other kids would have yelled at her.
- She didn’t want to then crawl over to her teacher because it would be too embarrassing.
- She felt she must be the only one who was uncomfortable.
- She had to take her hands off her ears to get her teacher’s attention.
- It was so loud she felt totally overwhelmed.
The result was that, after going through this all in her mind, my daughter ended up sitting in a situation that was not healthy for her because she just couldn’t sort out which action to take. We talked about it later and I explained that the adults got it wrong in expecting she would speak up in a situation that was way too loud to do actually to do so. She’d, in fact, already thought about how silly that expectation was before I’d brought it up.
I was just so struck at how easy, and almost automatic, it was to for 3 adults, myself, my child’s teacher, and even the principal of the school who I spoke with later on, to assume a child would and should speak up when, in fact, adults had put the child in a situation and context where it was, in all practical respects, impossible to do so without breaking the rules.
I told my daughter her best plan is to find some other way of getting her teacher’s attention than just hoping she would notice there was a problem. We will be practicing how to “catch” the teacher’s eye, stand up and go over to her teacher even if other kids tell her to sit down, and how to interrupt a busy adult. We would appreciate ideas on how to practice. My husband and I also told our daughter that, if she is an impossible situation like this and other techniques don’t work, she has our permission to get up, leave, and go directly to the nurses office and that we will back her up if she gets in trouble. We emphasized that her health and safety is the most important thing and that she has a right to protect that.
Thankfully, this happened in a situation where the outcome was not as tragic as happens in bullying or abuse situations, so all in all, it was a valuable learning experience.
What I love about this story is how this little girl’s mom realized that the adults were unfairly assuming it was easy to speak up and that she needed to ask her daughter again in order to understand the problem. She then turned this bad experience into an opportunity for her daughter to grow. This child’s parents truly incorporated Kidpower’s principles of Putting Safety First, talking to the teacher and principal, making sure your kids know that you will back them up if they get in trouble for breaking the rules to protect their health and safety, and practicing how to take charge of safety in a challenging situation.
One of our instructors, who weathered many large school assemblies as a classroom teacher, agreed with this second grader’s mother that, in the intensity and complexity of a large, loud school assembly, it is asking too much for most seven-year-olds to get up against the rules in front of everyone and walk over to their teacher. Raising their hands and risking being called on by the assembly presenter is the last thing they want to do when they have an embarrassing problem. Our instructor suggests these preventative strategies:
- Recognize that every person, including every child, has some area of difficulty or sensitivity that creates extra challenges. This is not something to feel bad about, but to work with teachers and other caregivers to address.
- Parents need to let teachers know about any health or emotional issues so they can make a plan together for how to help their child be safe and successful at school.
- Before assemblies, teachers should explain to their class that it is okay to get up in front of everyone and come over to get them, if a student needs to go to the bathroom or needs some other help. If the student is not feeling well enough to go over, it is okay for a friend to get the teacher instead.
- Kids who are sensitive to noise or especially shy should be kept close to the teacher in large assemblies so the teacher can support them and they don’t have to walk over.”
In addition, practicing skills can help to empower a child to handle many difficult situations. Here’s my suggestions for this mom about how to practice:
- First, ask your daughter to imagine that you are one of her friends sitting next to her at the assembly. Have her practice asking you to go to the teacher for help. Respond by saying, “I will help you.”
- Now, pretend to be your daughter. Stand up in front of your daughter who is pretending to be a grumpy kid sitting next to “you as her” at the assembly.
- As the grumpy kid, have your daughter say, “Sit down. You’re not supposed to stand up in an assembly.”
- As your daughter, you say, “But the noise is making me sick. This is about my safety!” and keep moving as if you are going through a line of grumpy kids, repeating your statement a few times.
- Now have your daughter pretend to be the teacher. As the teacher, have her pretend to be busy grading papers, looking down away from you or getting the child on the other side of her to be quiet.
- As your daughter, interrupt and say, “Excuse me. I need help.”
- As the teacher, say crossly, “You’re not supposed to get up in an assembly.” [Most likely, a real teacher will ask sympathetically, "What's wrong?"]
- As your daughter, say, “The noise is making me sick. I am getting a migraine. This is about my safety.”
- Now switch roles. But when you are pretending to be the teacher, end with, “Thank you for telling me. You were brave to stand up and get help. You did the right thing!”
- You can also demonstrate and practice with dolls, stuffed animals, or other people. Watching others use the skills can help prepare your child to do the practice herself.
- To practice “catching the teacher’s eye”, which will serve your daughter well later with waiters in restaurants, sit a few feet away from each other. Have your daughter pretend to be the busy teacher again, while you try to be a kid getting her attention. Be playful by staring and raising your eyebrows, waving, pointing, making silly faces, etc.
- Now, switch roles. Make your daughter successful by having any strong gesture she uses work in getting your attention as the teacher.