Rules have their place, but we must sometimes let them slide

11th May 2018 at 00:00
Teachers need to know when to bid a fond adieu to boundaries, writes Jarlath O’Brien

I was fortunate to spend part of this Easter break in Paris with my children. After a morning’s cultural education (children of teachers do not have it easy), they let off steam for a while in a park among a class of French schoolchildren out for the day.

After a while my wife, herself a teacher, beckoned me over with a “watch this”. Something fascinating was unfolding. One of the teachers was clearly unhappy with her pupils and was shouting rapid-fire instructions and sanctions.

Children were called over to sit by her having done something wrong. Their offence? Running. In a playground. With a soft rubber safety surface.

The children were playing on a large climbing frame. A ladder on one end led to a rope bridge and ended with a slide down the other side. The children then got up and ran as fast as they could back to the ladder to go again. They were immaculately behaved.

They lined up well with no shoving, but the teacher was clearly upset by their running. She ordered another hard-pressed-looking teacher to supervise the lining up and he made a good show of looking like he was doing something.

Filled with exuberance, the French children found it hard not to run and it was interesting to observe how they modified their behaviour.

Sucking the fun out of playtime

Some were desperate to get back to the ladder and engaged in alternatives such as Olympian power-walking and skipping – one boy simply channelled his inner Général de Gaulle and marched past. All of them were looking nervously out of the corner of their eye towards their teacher to see if they were falling foul of her no-running rule. Some girls ran, but only boys were admonished, including the one who waited patiently by his teacher, serving his punishment for more than 20 minutes, head bowed, after he’d been forgotten about.

Then, the inevitable happened: the fun had been sucked out of it. Almost all of them decamped to the roundabout. Here, they piled on and found their fun a different way, with the hard-pressed teacher helping out by spinning the roundabout. Soon, he gave them a five-minute warning, they lined up perfectly when asked and off they went to enjoy the rest of their day.

Rules and boundaries should exist to ensure safety and prevent disruption. But, when they’re unnecessary, stifling or are there to meet the needs of the adults, children can find themselves in trouble for behaviour that no reasonable person would find problematic.

Jarlath O’Brien works in special education in London. His latest book, Better Behaviour – a Guide for Teachers, is published by SAGE


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