Kids Perception Of Risk

Risk Management Photo

I've touched on the topic of kids’ differing perceptions of risk before. However, it's not a one off issue that can be easily dealt with. It's an ongoing concern that requires constant attention, as the adolescent brain doesn't perceive risk in the same way an adult brain does.

To highlight this point, on my recent visit to the US, I was struck by this problem at a bus stop. I was in Park City, which is in the mountains in Utah and to say it was cold would be an understatement. It was around -20 deg C. The late afternoon air bit viciously every time you drew a breath. I was rugged up in two layers of thermals plus another four layers on top of that.

I'd just been shopping for some supplies for dinner. Walking along the pavement, I noticed two teenage girls huddled together at the bus stop. I could see they were shivering and not wearing much at all. They each appeared to be wearing some leggings (tights or something like that) and a light top. With their teeth chattering, they were debating if they should keep waiting for the bus or go inside and risk missing it.

Listening in for a few moments. It became apparent that they'd ducked out of the house to quickly go to the shops and didn't think they’d need a jacket (or pants). At this point I started thinking about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but I quickly dragged my mind back from this. I rustled in my pocket and thankfully it was still there. I had a pair of hand warmers which I'd taken with me up the mountain. Once it hits below about -5, I like to keep my hands warm.

Pulling them out, I offered them to the girls. They thanked me and grabbed the hand warmers. Clutching them in their hands, they then hugged them close to their pale faces. Another five minutes went by. I chatted with the girls to try and keep their mind off the cold. They sounded increasingly despondent as the bus was running late.

“Why don't you duck inside over the road?” I said, pointing to a restaurant opposite. “I’ll signal when I see the bus.” The girls looked at me, looked at each other, then the restaurant. It was an easy decision. They dashed across the road and into the warmth of the building.

Another 10mins of waiting in the freezing cold and the bus finally arrived. I waved to the girls, who ran over and jumped onto the heated bus. Huddled together at the back, still shivering, that was the last I saw of them.

Whilst I'm sure they were ok in the end and I did ask if they were ok to get home, it does highlight a serious problem with teens’ attitudes towards risk. I see it time and time again with activities I run, be it skiing, mountain biking, canoeing, hiking, whatever the case may be. I’ll see a student without a helmet, without a jacket, no PFD and when you challenge them on it, you get the excuse, ‘but it's only just…’ and therein lies the problem. The idea that (in the girls’ case) it's only just down the street, (so I won't need a jacket), unfortunately follows through to everything else that teenagers do. They have this complete lack of awareness to risk. This is different from risk taking behaviour where they're seeking our risky activities. This is just a total lack of forethought. Everything in the adolescent brain is purely focussed on reward, or the outcome. It's not worried too much by the details in between.

Whilst all of this poses a massive challenge for a teacher from a risk management point of view, it also provides some great learning opportunities too. I don't mind when kids do things like this (within reason), because it teaches them a valuable lesson. For example, one ski program I worked on, we spent a lot of time briefing and preparing the kids for the first day. However, no amount of clear instruction will ever be enough for some people. They need to experience everything first hand.

With snowboarders, one of the most frequent injuries that occurs, is the broken wrist. To counter this, we instruct all our snowboarders to wear wrist guards. Most do, however, one boy in 10th Grade, it being the first time he'd ever snowboarded, decided not to wear them. It was the first run of the first day of a 10 week program. He slipped, fell forward, put his hand out, landed on his wrist and broke it. I asked him, when we got to the medical centre, ‘Where were your wrist guards?’
‘Umm… I had them on me!’ he said defensively. ‘They were just in my pocket!’
I looked at him and I'm pretty sure he knew what I was thinking, ‘so what valuable lesson do we learn from this?’ I said rhetorically.

Even though, as teachers, we go to great lengths to manage all sorts of risks, we can never underestimate kids inability to perceive risk in the same way adults do. Even though the ‘only just’ excuse frustrates me to no end, it provides a great learning opportunity through debrief and reflection.

As a result, we need to use these opportunities where kids disregard risk and ignore their own safety, not as disciplinary issues, but as learning experiences. It's not about getting someone in trouble to prove that you're right. It's about giving them the opportunity to reflect on what they did, or didn't do and what happened as a result, in such a way that they can learn from the mistake and not repeat it in another more critical or dangerous context.

What's A Current?

Narrawallee Beach

Narrawallee Beach

Whilst much of what I’ve written about so far is about risk management and working with teenagers in the outdoors, it gets way more complex when you add in the adult factor, especially when the adult factor has less awareness about the dangers of the outdoors than their own children.

This story goes back quite a few years. It started with a fishing trip and finished with a trip to hospital. This was also the last time I went fishing, not because of what happened, but I just don’t like fishing. It was the summer holidays and I was staying with my parents at their house near the beach, south of Sydney. It was a warm sunny day and a friend of mine called to see if I wanted to go fishing with him. As I had nothing else pressing on my agenda of sleep-ins and body boarding, I thought, why not?!

We headed down to Narrawallee Inlet, which is a beautiful estuary at the northern end of Narrawallee Beach. It’s a great spot for fishing, as you can stand next to the deeper channel on the rocks and safely fish without a boat. We positioned ourselves on the rock shelf on the corner of the channel as it turns, narrows and heads out to sea and cast our rods ready for the exciting wait until a fish decided to take a bite.

A Much Calmer Day At The Inlet - Rock Shelf To The Right, Buckley's Beach To The Left

A Much Calmer Day At The Inlet - Rock Shelf To The Right, Buckley's Beach To The Left

We’d been there for some time and didn’t really catch much, other than a leather jacket, which we threw back. It was late morning and we were both getting pretty hungry and so were about to head home for lunch, when we noticed something in the water. To explain how the inlet works, there’s a big body of water, a deep channel and a beach on the opposite side of the channel. Many people like to swim in the large body of water and float with the current in the inner channel, before it gets to the corner of the beach, speeds up and shoots out to sea. It’s a lot of fun to do on the inner channel inside the inlet… if you’re familiar with it!

Back to the fishing! We noticed four people, some distance away floating along in the current in the inner channel. As they drifted closer, we could see they were three young girls and one older man, who appeared not to be doing anything to get themselves out of the channel as they approached the corner where we were standing. They seemed to move faster and faster! Matt and I glanced at each other, knowing what each were thinking. ‘Oh Crap!’ They weren’t going to stop! The kids hit the corner and were swept effortlessly by the current into the main channel. Simultaneously, Matt and I dropped our fishing rods and started running along the rock shelf. I managed to get in line with one of the girls, whose little sister was a few metres in front. Luckily, she was washed up onto the beach. She stood up, was crying out for her sister and started running for the water again, about to jump back in. I held my hand up. ‘Stay there! Don’t go back in the water!’ I shouted firmly and kept running. The rock shelf curved away from me, and I now had no other option, than leap into the channel. I jumped in and went straight onto my back with my feet up in front of me, ready to fend off rocks. The strong current carried me along quickly. I aimed for the other girl and waited for the right moment. We were almost at the mouth of the inlet, when the young girl hit a small sandbar which had formed. This slowed her down just enough. I rolled over onto my front and swam as fast as I could directly for her. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my body as I tore through the water. I reached out and managed to grab her by the shoulder. My feet hit the sandbar. I dug in and pulled her to shore. Out of breath and with my heart pounding through my chest, I turned to the other girl and gasped, ‘Are you ok?’

Glancing back I could see Matt dragging the man from the water, having already gotten the third girl out. I sighed with relief, knowing we’d been moments away from being swept out to sea.

With everyone safely back on land, but on two sides of the inlet, I walked the six and four year old sisters to a point where we could safely cross the water. To get the girls safely back to the other side, we had to walk some distance. I learned they were out with a family friend for the day. The rescued man was the father of the family friend who was also 6. Meeting up with Matt and the father there, I just stared at the guy and asked him what happened. He laughed and said, ‘The girls didn’t know what a current was. Ha! Ha! I guess they do now!’

I felt rage boiling up inside of me. This was my first experience of meeting a really stupid parent, like seriously stupid. One that shouldn’t be trusted with kids. I was about to blast him with a broadside usually reserved for misbehaving teens, when I looked down to see blood pooling in the water around Matt’s feet.

Turning my attention away from father of the year, I grabbed my towel wrapped it around Matt’s foot and applied pressure. There was blood everywhere and it was quickly seeping through the towel. ‘We need to get you to the hospital!’ I said. As it turned out, all this time, I’d been wearing my sneakers, but Matt had been wearing reef sandals. The rockshelf we’d run along had been covered in oysters and Matt’s feet had been sliced to pieces. Bundling him in the car, we dashed to Milton hospital and were seen quite quickly. After his feet were cleaned up, I could see the deep oyster filled slashes on his feet. The doctor dressed them and Matt’s one question was ‘Will I be ok to surf tomorrow?’

That was the last time I went fishing! Maybe next time, I’ll just go to the shop and grab some fish and chips!

Narrawallee Beach - Outdoor Education

Weird Hospital Visits

Medical Treatment Photo

Nobody really likes taking kids into hospital. Most of the time it ends up being the teacher who’s got time off, or the last person out of the room! Let’s be honest it’s a crap job that nobody wants. Firstly you have to take at least two kids with you, so you’ve got one injured and one bored. Secondly the wait… there’s no such thing as a fast track in emergency unless you’re not breathing although arguably by this point you're probably beyond the services available in the emergency ward. Thirdly have you ever been able to get a decent coffee in a hospital?

The trip to hospital all starts when an injury is more serious than your staff can manage. I've had all sorts of visits with students, from fractures, to cuts, to unknown issues each visit if often a unique experience...

Medical Treatment Photo

My longest wait was 8 hours and this gave me the opportunity to talk about all sorts of things with the student. It's amazing what you find out about life the universe and just about everything when chatting!

However, my weirdest experience was when I took one of the kids in with multiple cuts after he took a dive in a bed of oysters. I won't go into the gory details, but he was a mess to say the least. We sat and waited for some time after seeing the triage nurse, who rifled through the stack of papers which were suppose to be a medical 'summary'. When the nurse finally brought us in to the examination room, she took one look at him and proceeded to fill a tub with warm water and a dash of disinfectant. She then said to me 'here you go, take this into the waiting room and clean him up'. I looked at her for a moment wondering if she was serious... Yes she was!

I looked back at her and said 'can I at least have a pair of gloves'. She half indignantly grabbed me a pair of glove and off we went. I sat there apologising profusely to the couple sitting next to us as I cleaned out the painfully deep wounds and collected a pile of tiny oyster shells as I did. I've heard of cut backs but seriously do I get a discount on my Medicare levy for do it yourself work in hospital?

Anyway, we were there about another hour and a half and the boy ended up with stitches in his hand and bandages everywhere.

When You're On First Name Basis With The Staff Here...

When You're On First Name Basis With The Staff Here...

To be honest I still try and avoid the hospital trip (mainly because of the bad coffee), but at the end of the day when you're responsible for the kids welfare and safety, prompt action and quick decision making to get them to hospital can mean the difference between an injury becoming an extremely bad injury. So really it's always better to err on the side of caution and take them in to be sure, rather than risk it just to avoid a long wait. At the end of the day, you can always get a coffee on the way home!

Policing The Lunch Box

Policing The Lunchbox - Risk Management

I recently read an article about a teacher writing a letter home to a parent telling them not to bring chocolate cake to school. In terms of earth shattering issues, this is rather low on the scale of importance in the world today, however, still worth a mention.
 
As a teacher, you see all sorts of weird and wonderful things that kids bring to school for lunch. You smell the amazing aroma of exotic spices and foods from all over the world in soups, pastas, noodles, wraps, burritos and even sandwiches. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
 
My question to the parents is, why didn't you send enough for me too? Some of the lunches I see are amazing and I just wish someone would pack that for me. In comparison, the classic cheese and salami sandwich doesn't seem to cut it anymore.
 
Whilst I'm a very strong believer that parents should stay out of trying to tell teachers how to teach, with one important exception to the rule, schools should stay out of kids’ lunch boxes.
 
For some reason, many schools have decided that telling parents what they can and can't give their kids for lunch will solve countless ‘dietary’, ‘allergy’ and ‘lifestyle’ problems. Much of this has been born out of two different concerns. The first one is the increasingly prevalent nut allergies, the second, childhood obesity.
 
For the first concern, I completely agree with very black and white rules. Any school's stance on maintaining a nut free campus is a great idea. The number of kids today who have a potentially fatal allergy to nuts is alarming and keeping the campus nut free is a smart way of reducing this risk and protecting the community from what can be a confronting and horrendous ordeal.
 
If someone has an anaphylactic reaction, untreated, their airways close up and they can be dead within minutes. Even if it's treated with an epi-pen, they must get to hospital as fast as possible and there's still no guarantee of recovery.  
 
Now anything which can kill someone in minutes needs to be taken seriously and parents should respect this decision on banning nuts. You're not going to put a brown snake in your kid’s bag which could bite someone and have the exact same result of a fast and painful death, so don't give your kids nuts to take to school.
 
On the other hand, in some schools, this concern has gone way too far and slowly but surely other foods have been added to a pointless list of contraband, driven by a misguided notion that if you ban lollies, chocolates and cakes, you will miraculously solve the societal problem of childhood obesity. It just doesn't work that way. Unlike an anaphylactic reaction, being fat won't kill you in 5-10 mins and the reality is most kids will burn off their cake fuelled calories, as they run around the playground.
 
At the end of the day, unless the school wants to provide lunch for everyone themselves, then they need to trust parents to make informed choices about what they're feeding their own children. If the concern is really about healthy eating, then the solution isn’t telling parents what they can and can't give their kids for lunch, because as soon as you tell people they can't have something or do something, it just makes them want to do it more.
 
If teachers have time to write letters home about the evils of chocolate cake or otherwise to tell parents not to let their kids have this food or that food for lunch, then they seriously have too much time on their hands and need something better to do. There's a reasonable and rational argument for nut free schools, but ultimately, schools need to balance this sort of real risk with a bit of common sense, so they don't start overreaching and trying to exercise control to the point of stupidity. 

Preparing For Anaphylaxis On Excursions

Anaphylaxis - Camp Food Preparation

Managing medical concerns at school and on excursions is one of my biggest worries as a teacher! Anaphylaxis is at the top of that list, since a reaction can be almost instant from the allergen and has a cascading effect. This means the longer you leave it, the more difficult it is to recover. However, despite this serious concern, it just means effective strategies need to be in place to ensure preventative measures are the number 1 priority.

In outdoor education, we usually run our programs a considerable distance from emergency medical care. As a result, this adds an additional layer of risk to any trip away. However, rather than worry about this and feel as though it’s too risky to take kids away, my focus has always been on effective preparation and management. This ensures that the chances for an anaphylactic reaction becomes so low, it’s not an issue.

Camp Supplies

Camp Supplies

If a student’s medical profile is flagged with an anaphylactic allergy, I’ll phone home and talk to mum and dad. What I need to know when I call is what are the specific triggers? Can they have foods which might contain traces of the allergen? When was the last reaction and what happened? Even though this information might be in the medicals, I prefer the first hand information from parents, so I can effectively brief my staff. I also want to know how well their son or daughter manages their allergy. Are they aware of what can happen? Are they aware of what foods they can and can’t have? This information is vital in helping provide teachers with the best management strategies in the field.

As an example, on one program, I had 247 students out in the field for a week long camp. 11 of the students had allergies which could result in an anaphylactic reaction. Based upon the information from the parents, and the fact some activities were hours away from emergency care, I carefully placed students with the highest needs in the closest proximity to emergency healthcare facilities. In one of the extreme cases, given the number of allergens that the student was affected by, I asked his mum to provide and pack the week’s food in an esky for her son and I provided a clean stove which was specifically for his personal use.

At the end of the day, it about clear channels of communication between parents, teachers and the child. Even though all staff are trained in first aid and anaphylaxis treatment, effective preparation and prevention is far more important. For every activity we do, we go armed with a list of dietary requirements and only shop according to each individual excursion. We don’t plan meals months in advance to save time. It’s about providing the best meal options for each individual group. This way, we’re prepared and able to ensure we provide a safe environment for every child and a wonderful memorable experience away from school.