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Triangles are the strongest shape

Engaging parents in children’s self-protection



After-school clubs provide valuable enrichment and socialisation for children: dance, gymnastics, Scouts or Rainbows all remain popular choices for families across the UK.


Some of these (Scouts, for example) offer explicit life coaching alongside the games and activities commonly provided. This is also true of martial arts classes although the nature and quantity of this content varies hugely between arts and individual providers.


When creating the Animal Instincts programme, we have designed the online lessons to be used by any teacher of the target age-groups, regardless of the main focus of their activity. Anyone who wants to add personal safety coaching to their programme can use our lessons to educate their students and help them grow in confidence and awareness.


These lessons are most effective when the teacher shares the content and the goals with the parents. However, when parents are often too busy to read emails and too stressed to take in any more information at pick-ups, it can be tricky to communicate the value of the lessons.


Some parents just want to know their kids are safely and happily occupied during those times and they don’t worry too much about the broader impact of what you’re teaching. If you can get their attention focused on your content, though, they can develop a greater appreciation of your club’s role in their child’s education and happiness. And this can lead to a stronger and more positive bond with that family. Their respect for the benefits of your teaching will increase and your role as one of their child’s mentors is also reinforced.


Triangles are the strongest shape: and the lines between you, the student, and their adults are a powerful force. So, how do we achieve this?


1)   Multiple-method announcements


When introducing a new theme, you need to announce it in various ways to set expectations with the parents. Let’s say you want to introduce awareness training and to get parents ready to practise commentary walking with their children. Use your email or app system to explain the purpose and benefits as well as offering advice on how to introduce this habit with the kids. Post it on your social media; announce it at pick-up time; make notices and send brief handouts with bullet points.


2)   Rewards and celebrations


Ask for feedback on clever observations and deductions made by the kids and offer rewards for this: e.g. Meerkat of the week gets a sticker or a highlight on the club page. This doesn’t have to be competitive; keep the focus on the benefits of making good habits and praising the role models in your group (both the kids and the adults!). We love to celebrate success stories and good examples of children making safe decisions outside of class.


3)   Problem-solve with the kids


Use your discussion time with the children to understand their daily safety concerns or peer-relationship difficulties. Help them to navigate their dilemmas in the best possible way, and encourage them to set good boundaries and be assertive or conciliatory when needed. In this way, the students learn to trust your judgement and to feel supported in their anxieties outside of class. In this era of pressure on children and the constant threat of bullying, it is hard to overstate how important it can be to nurture this channel of communication. Children may use the safety discussion times to have a vent about individuals in their social circles … sometimes this is about letting off steam as opposed to needing an intervention. Look out for patterns and repetitions … also reactions to similar stories from other students. If your instinct is that it’s just a minor playground disagreement then it probably won’t need a follow-up. If you sense there is bullying underlying the anecdotes, then you may need to address this.


4)   Problem-solve with the adults


Once you have established a strong connection with the kids, then there will be opportunities to support them by talking to the parents about specific strategies for their child. It is very important to be sensitive in how you approach this – some parents may be alarmed that their child is opening up to someone other than them. For this reason, it helps to explain that the group was talking about xyz and their child contributed something to this discussion which you think the parent might want to know. ‘We were discussing playground spaces and Bobby mentioned there had been some older children pushing him and his friends and calling them names; it sounded like he was a bit worried about it’ – this is a statement, not a question and allows the parent some room to react. If it is something they are already aware of then they might share what they know about the history, or why they have not needed to follow it up. It might be that the child has underplayed it to them or not wanted to mention it. In any case, simply passing on what you know might help the parent if they have to address an incident with the school. Sometimes parents feel unsure about communicating their concerns to a school and to know that the child is still thinking about it might be enough for them to contact staff and ask to have the situation monitored.


This is also true of children who are unhappy with classroom procedures – perhaps they are being used as buffers for children who struggle to focus or behave in class. There is a fine line here: it is important to model an attitude of empathy and inclusion but sustain the child’s right to study unmolested. Children of this age are very physical animals and ‘good’ children can find it hard to set boundaries with restless peers if their personal space is not being respected. With quiet children who are reluctant to contribute to group chats, some questions about ‘Who sits on your table?’ ‘Who finds it easy to focus in class (and why)?’ can be very revealing.



5)   Challenge yourself as a teacher


Teaching honest self-protection brings with it the benefits of stronger relationships with students and families, as considered above. There are, however, other dimensions to this which must be considered because, as we all know, ‘With great power … there must also come great responsibility’. When you integrate self-protection teaching into your classes, it is inevitable that, if you are doing a good job, then students may disclose information to you that must be acted upon. At this point, some coaches might feel that this goes beyond their comfort zone and they might choose to ignore red flags, or even the amber ones. As someone entrusted with children, however, this is not an option. Your actions might have a hugely positive outcome for that child in a best-case scenario (like communicating with school or parent to raise concerns about bullying). In a worst-case scenario (where there may be abuse of some kind), your actions might allow that child to change a situation in which they are suffering. It is rare that a situation will arise that might need to be reported to a local safeguarding hub or to the police but it is not a zero probability and your safeguarding policy is always there to guide you as to who to consult and what records to keep. Always know who the safeguarding lead is, and what the procedures are in your organisation. In most cases, the key to good safeguarding is never trying to fix the situation but ensuring it is passed along to someone who has the power to make that judgement call. We used to call this ‘child protection’ and that seems an appropriate label in this context, too.


As you are part of the Animal Instincts community, we are always here to offer advice and support. We can signpost you to local safeguarding agencies or advise on how to approach sensitive issues with parents and schools. We passionately believe in empowering children to be safer, happier and more confident; thank you for being with us on this mission!