Dealing with the 'Exploding Kid'
At the core of our work is the idea that stress is the determining feature of behaviour. In previous essays we have explained that when our homeostatic equilibrium, our sense of calm and security is threatened we become stressed and then we act to deal with that stress; we choose our actions from the memories of what worked before. However, there are situations that are so threatening the stress overwhelms the usual process and we lose control of our behaviour.
The following diagram illustrates the changes in which we use our brain to deal with increasing levels of stress.
This complex diagram outlines the process of the brain ‘gating down’ the rational thought process as stress levels rise. When we are calm we can access the neo and sub cortex and we can make considered decisions, this is the part of the brain we want in our classrooms. But, as we become more aroused our decisions are more ‘emotional’ and their rationality deteriorates until we just respond in a reflexive manner.
There is a gender difference that develops as the stress levels rise, although this difference is not exclusive; males externalise their distress and while females internalise their disturbance. It would be easy to explain this difference citing the cultural environment in which children have traditionally been raised and I believe this is a contributing factor. However, an alternate explanation has been offered. In the early stages of human evolution, the time when humanoids organised into groups to increase their chances of survival and reproduction a primary threat to safety was a deadly clash with another tribe.
The result of such clashes was the killing of the adult males and the capture of females and children, this practise was still present in the war in Kosovo in 1998-99; at this time Serbia forces executed many Albanian men while seizing the woman and children. In these circumstances the best chance of survival for men is to fight or flee, outward actions while for woman and children it is to comply. Another characteristic that supports this reasoning is that, if you examine the suspension rates of children, an indicator of acting-out dysfunctional behaviour the rates that boys are suspended jumps dramatically when they pass into puberty, that is they adopt adult male behaviours.
To return to the theme of this essay, when you are confronting a child that is out of control you have to understand they are incapable of engaging in any rational thought so, it is pointless talking to them. However, they are very able to hurt themselves or others so you have to intervene.
Most importantly you have to have a pre-arranged plan of what to do when this situation inevitably arises. This plan’s foremost purpose is to protect the welfare and safety of all involved. This is why structure is so important – there is no doubt that you will be unable to remain calm in such a threatening situation that is, you will lose a significant capacity for rational thought yourself and so, having a structured set of steps you have to follow, that have been prepared in calm conditions will make sure you take the right steps.
The use of boundaries will help handle the crisis. Understand you will be threatened and make sure you keep your boundaries intact, this will help you stay in charge of the situations (see Boundary Considerations - 22nd October 2018 and Respecting Other’s Boundaries – 26th November 2018). You can effectively harness the power of boundaries by moving close enough to the child in question so you get their attention but not close enough to threaten them.
Now you have their attention don’t attempt to reason with them, there is no point but, in a firm, low voice, give them a short, clear instruction. When you have done this disengage from them don’t give them the opportunity to engage you. The thing is in most cases the child will accept a direction that gives them a way out of their predicament. At some level your authority will still have some influence.
This approach will not work in all cases, some children who have had a traumatic childhood will not be able to take advantage of your proposal. When facing an ongoing crisis, it is the teacher’s responsibility to:
- Protect themselves – if something happens to them and they are unable to continue to function they are of no use.
- Protect all other students and staff - it is often a good move to take all others out of the classroom or near vicinity for their safety and to remove the perceived threat the student might experience by their presence.
- Protect the child as much as you can from being harmed, either physically or psychologically.
- Protect the property.
In extreme cases the police may need to be called.
When the crisis is over you will experience an amount of pent-up emotions. It is natural to harbour aggressive, negative feelings towards the offending student and the unfairness of being placed in such a challenging situation. You may experience resentment, anger and fear because you have been psychologically and perhaps physically assaulted. This will pass; to facilitate your return to your equilibrium the following will help:
- Be aware of your feelings
- Don’t take it personally. The child has complex problems - it’s not about you
- Debrief – Discuss the event with an appropriate colleague
- Write a report stating who, when, where, what happened, injuries, follow-up ASAP. This can be quite cathartic! Date and sign it
- Revisit your crisis plan with a support person and make any necessary adjustments
- Look after yourself at home too - exercise, relaxation, music etc.
Dealing with children is not easy and it takes a special teacher who can turn-up day after day to work in such a volatile environment. It is important that you understand how to do this. Following News Letters will expand your knowledge in dealing with these explosive students.