(As written for Evergreen Safety Council, Seattle WA)
Communications: Any safety plan is only as good as its communications plan. This should include having your children call or text you when leaving school and upon arriving at their destination. They should also let you know if their after school plans have changed. Be sure that yours and a reliable backup’s contacts number are programmed into their speed dialer. Remind your children to trust their instincts and not to hesitate to call for help if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation even if this means dialing 911.
Awareness: Be more creative when reminding your children about the importance of awareness. Perhaps a short list of sound bites that conjure up more engaging visual associations will result in actionable instruction. How about “Remember to Cover Your Six” (the blind spot behind them) or “Keep your head on the swivel” (as fighter pilots do looking for the enemy) or “Keep your radar up!” A relaxed state of awareness of our surroundings is the cornerstone of personal safety and children should be reminded not to drop their guard just because they are in familiar surroundings.
Posture and Gait: People who walk with confident stride and posture and who maintain a good heads up awareness of their surroundings are seen as less desirable targets. In contrast, those shuffling along” heads down” with rounded shoulders and not scanning their surroundings, are seen as easy prey. This group is usually distracted by a phone or iPod or often daydreaming. This is not unlike in the animal kingdom where the gazelle that fails to look around while drinking at the river gets ambushed by the lion. Practice attentive body language with your children at home and make it a fun exercise.
Predictability: Our children come and go at the same time and most often walk the same routes to and from school the bus stop and other common destinations. This predictability makes them easier to locate and follow. Drive several safe routes with your child to help them map out their options. Ask them at breakfast which routes they have planned to use that day which will help get them in the habit of employing this important safety strategy.
“Safe Havens” : Identify and review with your children the locations they know they could retreat to if they feel uncomfortable. Neighbors on your street who you know are home during the day along the walk home from the bus stop should be identified. Simply walking to a busy intersection nearby or entering a busy store of coffee shop if there is someone in their midst that makes them uncomfortable should be encouraged. From here they can call you for help and instructions.
“Fringe” Areas: Simply stated, this is any area where you could find yourself isolated. This could be a covered parking garage or a quiet soccer field behind the school that no one can see from the road. A busy school gymnasium that has just emptied out after a Friday night basketball game has now too become a fringe area. If you must return to retrieve something left behind, do so with a friend. Remind you child to avoid isolated areas and NOT TO TAKE SHORTCUTS such as down service alleys behind grocery stores and office buildings! The long way around on busy streets is always worth the extra effort!
The Buddy System: Encourage your children to walk in groups whenever possible. They should also buddy up when going to the restroom at the mall. This is even more important if your child will walk along a quiet road or transition through a fringe area to or from school etc. Never go jogging alone on a park trail. This is where the buddy system is the golden rule that should never be broken. Another tip is to walk facing traffic making it difficult for a vehicle to pull alongside. Maintaining distance from the curb is also a good strategy.
“Shadowing” When riding the bus home instruct your child to keep an eye out of back window as it gets closer to their stop. If they notice the same vehicle behind the bus for an unusually long period of time or seem to remember seeing that vehicle on a prior day they need to consider if the bus is being “shadowed”. Empower your child to bring any suspicious vehicle to the bus driver’s attention and to stay on the bus until an alternate arrangement has been made. This is an example of where having a good communication strategy is important.
Intuition: If the mind is the best weapon, then our intuition is our ever present guardian that should NEVER be ignored. Empower your child with the understanding that even if their intuition turns out to be “wrong” from time to time, that there is “no harm in a false alarm” and to continue to honor that “gut feeling”