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Rethinking Student Supervision in a Changing Threat Environment

With the ever-changing threat environment and commonplace of liability torts, are your school’s student supervision practices up to par?

Rethinking Student Supervision in a Changing Threat Environment

Playground supervisors will benefit from training on verbal de-escalation, positive reinforcement practices and the school’s conflict resolution program.

For the majority of educators, student supervision is a lot like breathing; we rarely even consider the process. As observed in numerous schools in our home state of Idaho, supervision plans and practices have casually remained unchanged through generations of students, teachers and administrators. However, two evolving factors indicate a re-examination of your current program.

The first is the changing threat environment. Educators have long accepted the role of In Loco Parentis, which mandates providing a safe and secure environment for kids. In recent years, focus on incidents of bullying, harassment and intimidation have added to the historic potential for injury in shops, labs, stages and playgrounds. Certainly not as common but considerably more menacing are the threats of non-custodial abductions and school shootings, events that emphasize the critical element of intruder detection during supervision.

The second factor is a significant increase in liability tort claims against schools and school personnel. Parents expect greater levels of protection for their children, protection they expect schools to provide. But research indicates that more than 70 percent of the student injury cases reviewed listed inadequate or ineffective student supervision as a causal factor.

The statewide trend in more than 300 Idaho schools indicates a commonly occurring vulnerability: many staff display ineffective supervision practices. Additionally, areas on campuses are either lightly supervised or lack supervision altogether. Many of the supervision failings we observe are rooted in the general lack of understanding of the processes and requirements for effective student supervision.

The Difference Between General and Specific Supervision

Dr. Edward F. Dragan, a nationally noted expert on student supervision, wrote in his 2013 article “School Safety Expert on Student Injury Liability and Negligence” that a failure to supervise students may be construed as a failure in “duty to care.” In his article, Dragan describes “general supervision” vs. “specific supervision” and explains when each approach would be most appropriate. Understanding the essential elements of both types of supervision is critical for further discussions on this topic.

General supervision is the standard applied when groups of students are moving about a school building or campus. Children transitioning from one activity to another in school do not require specific supervision if there are no obvious hazards present. An effective general student supervision program results in safer student movement, a limited number of unaddressed student behaviors and a more secure supervised area.

Specific supervision is the higher standard of care for individual students or groups when either of the following conditions is in play. The first condition exists when students are exposed to a known or obvious hazard as part of normal school activities and classes. Examples of the type of hazards requiring specific supervision would be students crossing a busy street, students on playground equipment, students in labs, weight rooms, gyms, locker rooms, shops and any other high-risk instructional area.

The second condition that would require specific supervision is when an individual student’s behaviors indicate a need for it. A common example would be when the teacher or supervisor has knowledge or been warned about the predisposition of a child to behave in a manner that is either self-injurious or dangerous to others. This often applies to students with IEPs or 504 education plans in place.

Unfortunately, today’s rigorous academic environment unintentionally exacerbates the challenges of effective supervision. Understandably, an administrator’s primary focus is on hiring, training, and maintaining a high quality teaching staff for the task of establishing the highest level of academic success. Accordingly, the bulk of financial resources and efforts are directed toward supporting instruction.

Not surprisingly then, fewer dollars are available for non-instructional functions, leading to support staff hired at minimum wage, given little training and scheduled for minimal work hours — conditions that often lead to high transiency. Many school systems, faced with these challenges, roll the dice, counting on both the presence of “generally good kids” and a historic lack of problems. Like car insurance, student supervision is only needed when there is an incident, and once you have an incident, it’s too late.

Campuses Must Reinforce the Role of General Supervision

The first step to implementing an effective student supervision program is reinforcing the role of general supervision. If not explicitly stated in your employee handbook or job descriptions, consider adding language that clearly states the expectations for general student supervision by school staff.

Kids are inquisitive and unpredictable; they will go where you do not want them to go, and they will do what you do not want them to do. More eyes purposefully watching students will improve the effectiveness of your general supervision program.

An area, situation or student with a known or foreseeable hazard requires specific supervision. Areas and conditions that require specific supervision necessitate thoughtful planning, training and scheduling to construct an effective supervision program. The first step is a thorough examination of your school campus, including the student population, with an eye fixed on identifying potential hazards. Next, consider when and how students may be in proximity to the areas and situations you have identified.

Consider These 3 Specific Supervision Factors

With specific student supervision, there are three factors to consider. The first is simply presence. While this may seem obvious, it is one of the most overlooked elements in specific supervision. If students are to be allowed in an area, plan for supervision. If resources do not allow for supervision of an area, limit student access. Again, considering the nature of student behavior, verbal warning and signage may not be sufficient, particularly for interior spaces. The consistent use of securable doors and lockable gates are a better solution to limiting student access.

The second element is one of sufficiency. Are there enough staff in a supervisory role? This element addresses the identified hazard, size and observability of the space, and the number and needs of the students under supervision.

Idaho does not have a mandated supervisor-to-student ratio. Lacking this, it falls to the best professional judgment of the building administrator. Administrators should consider two litmus test questions. 1) Can you reasonably defend your supervision plan to the parent of an injured student? And 2) Can you reasonably defend your supervision plan in court?

Determine If Your School Supervisors Are Effective

The last element we will address here is efficacy or the effectiveness of the person(s) acting as student supervisor. Supervisor efficacy is the pivotal factor in high quality programs. No matter the venue, asking a few simple questions will indicate the efficacy of a school’s supervisors.

Is the supervisor visible and easily identifiable? Unique, easily identifiable attire can help to identify the student supervisor. Particularly in outdoor areas, an orange traffic vest can help students and administrators identify the supervisor(s). On an elementary playground, a small person might not be identifiable in a group of fifth- or sixth-grade students, particularly on a cold day with everyone wearing coats and hats. The orange vest eliminates this difficulty.

Does the supervisor have the ability to communicate effectively when necessary? Effective communication normally includes an intercom system available and functional in all interior spaces, and radios for all staff supervising outdoor or remote spaces. A point to consider is that cell phones, while almost universally present, might not be the most effective method of emergency communication. The manual dexterity required for cell phone use may be lost in a high-stress incident, while the potential for busy signals and unanswered calls also limits the effectiveness of cell phones.

Does the supervisor have training appropriate to the students, area and potential hazards? While playground supervisors generally know basic behavioral rules, have they also been trained on the proper use of specific playground equipment? Have supervisors been informed on effective techniques regarding circulation patrols and visual scanning? Are your communication procedures clearly articulated and communicated?

Although they are often left out of professional training days, playground supervisors will benefit from training on verbal de-escalation, positive reinforcement practices and the school’s conflict resolution program. Basic first-aid training should also be part of the training regimen, if not by all staff, certainly by key individuals. Although playgrounds are used as the example, all specific supervision positions have identifiable training requirements.

A word of caution as you develop your plan: video surveillance cameras cannot replace effective student supervision. At best, a camera will give you a record of the incident. The goal of an effective student supervision program is to prevent the incident from happening.

Supervision Planning Requires Vigilance

Effective supervision does not happen by accident. With this in mind, create a written supervision plan assigning staff members with communications capabilities and appropriate skills to specific locations for defined times when students will be present. Supervision planning is rarely a one-and-done endeavor. Be prepared to make adjustments as conditions, students and staff change.

The process will help to protect yourself, your staff and your school district from litigation. Most importantly, it will help to protect the students in your care from injury.


Guy Bliesner has more than 30 years of experience as a high school teacher, coach and district safety administrator. He currently serves as the southeast regional school security analyst for the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security.

Brian Armes has 27 years of experience as an elementary school teacher and administrator. He currently serves as the manager for the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security

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