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Expert school bus safety tips to remind your kids | #schoolsaftey

In Pittsburgh, 10-year-old Julia is a school bus safety guard for her local district. This means she is responsible for helping to enforce bus safety for her peers while the driver focuses on driving safely. “My biggest concern as a bus patrol is kids getting into a physical fight while the bus driver is moving. Then, it would be up to the bus patrol to figure out what is wrong with the kid. Kids are really hard to understand when they are angry,” Julia says. She adds this is not always the easiest job. “Unfortunately, the kids do not really listen to me sometimes.” 

Julia says some things, like assigned seats and clear expectations, help younger kids know how to behave. Beyond that, it can be really tough. For most kids, the school bus is the least supervised portion of the school day. With the lone adult in charge of commandeering the vehicle, many districts rely on student guards like Julia to keep the peace. 

School bus safety is not only the responsibility of drivers and kids like Julia, though. Parents can reinforce safe practices by setting expectations for their children before the school year starts and reinforcing those rules often throughout the year.

How safe are school buses?

School buses can feel chaotic. There are no seatbelts, and dozens of children are crammed in at once. Despite that, school buses are generally fairly safe, says pediatrician Dr. Anita Patel. “Luckily, injuries sustained by children on school buses are quite rare — but they are possible.”

According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), school buses are one of the safest vehicles on the road. Less than 1% of all deadly traffic accidents involve school buses. The NHTSA also reports that from 2012 to 2021, only 61 passengers were killed on school buses. While kids are quite safe on the bus, the CDC reports that children are a high-risk group for pedestrian accidents — one in five children killed in vehicle crashes in 2020 were pedestrians rather than passengers.

“Children are at increased risk of sustaining injury when they are entering or exiting the bus, so parents should be on high alert during this time.”

— Dr. Anita Patel, pediatrician

Patel says that the most dangerous time on a bus is not always during the ride, though. One of her most traumatic cases as a doctor was caring for a child that was hit by the same bus they had just disembarked from. “Children are at increased risk of sustaining injury when they are entering or exiting the bus, so parents should be on high alert during this time,” she says.

Parents should feel comfortable asking their pediatrician to discuss school bus safety at checkups, adds Patel. They can discuss tips for crossing the road, entering and exiting the bus and the importance of sitting down throughout the ride. Having safety guidelines reinforced by a non-parent helps kids take them seriously. “Even as a doctor myself, if I tell my daughter that her pediatrician said she has to do something, like take medicine, she is much more likely to do it with minimal protest than if I tell her to do it,” she says.

What do transportation experts have to say about school bus safety?

When you send your kids onto a school bus, you’re entrusting them to your local bus company and bus driver. Jamie McClish has grown up in the bus business — her family owns WL Roenigk Inc., a school transportation company in Sarver, Pennsylvania. Now working in payroll for the company, she’s been learning about bus safety for kids since before she could climb onto a bus herself. “We had a play bus versus a playhouse like everyone else had,” she laughs.

“The biggest safety tip for parents is to know that you can play a part in helping to keep your children safe by encouraging them to stay seated at all times. Parents must help reinforce the importance of this.”

— Nikki Pride, mom and school bus driver

In Lebanon, Illinois, Nikki Pride drives a bus five days a week for her local school district. As a mom of twins herself, she is always cognizant of school bus safety. “The biggest safety tip for parents is to know that you can play a part in helping to keep your children safe by encouraging them to stay seated at all times. Parents must help reinforce the importance of this.”

School bus safety tips for kids

McClish and Pride have developed some school bus safety tips for parents to discuss with their kids:

1. Encourage your child to stay seated and facing forward at all times

Most larger school buses do not have seatbelts, and it’s hard to enforce belts on the ones that do, says Pride. “School buses are so big it seems to encourage kids to move around.” In the case of a sudden stop or collision, children who are standing or facing backwards are much more likely to be hurt.

2. Use caution when entering and exiting the bus

As Dr. Patel notes, this is one of the times children are most likely to be injured. McClish says kids should hold the railing when entering and exiting the bus, and should cross far enough in front of the bus so that the driver can see them. While cars are supposed to stop for school buses, children still need to learn to look both ways in case a car does not follow the rules.

3. Be aware of your child’s accessories

Both McClish and Pride encourage parents to be aware of keychains, ties and decorations that may hang from coats and backpacks. These items can get caught in the handrails or even the bus door. “My bus has handlebars where lanyards or backpack straps have gotten caught,” says Pride. McClish says her grandmother used to cut anything that dangled off of their clothing so it wouldn’t get caught in the door. “I can’t say it happens a lot, but the possibility is definitely there,” she adds.

4. Make sure your children know their personal information

While most bus drivers know and love their little passengers, there are often days with substitute drivers or routes that change due to construction. Occasionally, a child will miss their stop or even fall asleep on the bus. “The first few days can be a little crazier than the rest of the year,” adds McClish. “You would be surprised at the number of kids who say they live ‘in a house’ when asked where they live.” Make sure kids know important details like their street name and house or apartment number.

Talk to your kids about school bus anxiety, too

Learning to ride a bus is a big step for most kids. Beyond reviewing the basics like sitting still and watching for traffic, a school bus can feel like a social minefield for children. Laura Vogel, Director of Mental Health Services for the Momentous Institute, says that role playing and rehearsing bus behavior is a great way to keep children safe. Here’s what she recommends.

Provide outlets for sensory play

“Children are better able to remember rules when they are calm and regulated. For some children, a bus ride can present a variety of challenges including overwhelming sensory input or challenging social interactions,” she says. Providing fidget toys or rehearsing breathing exercises are two small tips that can make a big difference, she adds.

Practice safe bus behavior at home

By practicing safe bus behavior in your own vehicle or on public transportation with your child, you’re building the skills they need to behave safely when you aren’t around. “Things like buckling seat belts, using soft voices and getting on and off the bus safely are a few reminders,” Vogel says. For younger children, playing with a toy school bus and small figures may be effective, while older children often prefer to act out roles themselves.

Prepare for challenging social interactions

School buses are, unfortunately, a prime location for bullying and negative social interactions since adults are not in the fray with children. Vogel says when parents act out different scenarios, their child gets on the bus with a few skills in their toolbox to handle real-life versions.

“Some examples of this include allowing your child to practice what they might do if they do not know anyone on the bus, like role-playing how to ask if they can sit with another child or giving them positive self-statements if a child rejects this request,” Vogel says. This means helping your child realize a “no” might not be personal — the other kid might be having a bad day or just be very shy. 

Vogel encourages parents to keep conversations brief and frequent rather than having long drawn-out discussions about the school bus. “During these conversations, parents can encourage their children to express any concerns or fears they may have about riding the bus,” she says. “It’s important to validate these feelings and assure them you’re taking steps together to ensure their safety.”

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