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Monday, February 08 2021

Structure in a Crisis

It won’t take long in any teacher’s career before they have a student or a class that behaves in such a dysfunctional way it can be called a crisis.  For the unprepared, this is a time that will really test your character and, in some instances the resulting trauma can leave you and many of the students with long term psychological or even physical damage.


A crisis rarely, if ever is a single-time event there is a beginning, climax and an end.  The illustration below charts the progress of such an emergency.


It starts with a trigger, something that sets the event into motion.  It is not always easy to see what is the cause but on investigation there will be something.  The next phase is the escalation where things ‘heat-up’ until we reach a crisis that can be a single event or as illustrated come in waves.  Eventually things will calm down but everyone involved is left in need of repair.  So, what to do about this?  I was recently alerted to a procedure called the Haddon Matrix that deals with crisis management which provides a useful scaffold that can be applied. 


William Haddon was a graduate of the Harvard School of Public Health and in 1960 was the lead author of the book ‘Accident Research: Methods and Approaches and later became Supervisor of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  In 1970 was faced with the problem of reducing the number of traffic accidents in his state. He approached this multifaceted problem by organising all the statistics in a matrix that sequenced the data based on personal attributes, vector or agent attributes and environmental attributes; before, during and after an injury or death.   By utilizing this framework, one can then think about evaluating the relative importance of different factors and design interventions.


The Matrix has been originally organised along two dimensions, the first based on the sequence of an incident, pre-event, event and post event based against the factors that are likely to initiate an incident, things that will influence the event and finally what conditions shape the final outcome of the event.  When applied to the analysis of a classroom crisis the following elements must be considered:

  1. Pre-Event

What is it?

This is hard to really know.  Each of us come to any situation already in a state of expectations, this is natural.  However, for some students they can arrive with an already heightened level of emotions.  I would have confidence in that the real explosive events the students are highly charged and perceive a threat to their wellbeing.   This may or may not be observable but possible signs are the student may be emotional on arrival at school or after recess/lunch break. They can be restless or argumentative. Their body language indicates heightened levels of stress, tense muscles, tight fists etc.

What to do?

Early reassurance or distraction may prevent any escalation

  • Acknowledge their feelings and ask what’s wrong “I can see you’re angry, what’s up?”
  • Listen and let them get it off their chest
  • Discuss solutions where possible
  • Be supportive, calm and friendly
  • Respect their personal space
  • Encourage them saying you know they’ll do the right thing even though they’re upset.  “You were angry but I can see you’re working hard at calming yourself …. Good for you!”
  • Remind them of expected school rules
  • Direct them to an activity to engage their thoughts or discharge energy build-up.  For example get them to complete some school work you know they enjoy, carrying things for you, send them on a message to another teacher
  • Don’t react in the early stages to minor challenges such as dirty looks or a mumbled comment under the breath.


  1. Escalation

What is it?

They are preparing for the fight/flight/flee response and you can see evidence for this in their body language which reflects escalating stress:

  • Face – eyes narrow or wide, tight mouth, menacing look, red or paling skin, jaw or head thrust forward
  • Breathing becomes more rapid, shallower or deeper
  • Their behaviour changes, they become:
    • Body language becomes threatening – fists clenched, tapping feet or fingers, chest and shoulders puffing up, hands on hips
    • Louder, challenging, threatening, swearing, argumentative
    • Defiant, disobedient, use insulting comments (these can usually be about weight, age, parentage or sexuality of another student or the teacher)

What to do?

At this point avoid antagonising them:

  • Don’t stand too close or touch them
  • Model non-hostile body language, hands off hips, fists unclenched, no finger wagging
  • Remind them of previous success they have had in gaining self-control; acknowledge their strong emotions but show confidence
  • Consider physical activity e.g. a supervised run


  1. Crisis

What is it?

At this stage the child is incapable of rational thinking.  You will observe the following:

  • They may spit, push, kick, choke, head-butt, bite, pull hair, pinch, punch etc.
  • They may flee from room or grounds
  • They may use objects as weapons to smash, break or throw
  • The child has lost self-control and may harm self or others

What to do?

At this time there is not a lot you can do except keep everyone as safe as possible. 

  • In a firm, low voice, use their name and give a short clear instruction and repeat it several times if needed (broken record).  Keep tone and volume of voice consistent
  • At times you may need to stand back and let a tantrum run its course.  It may be necessary to remove other students/audience
  • Don’t attempt to intervene in a playground fight without back-up.  Say STOP and send for help
  • After outburst get child to time-out ASAP
  • Be aware of your own reactions, take some slow deep breaths.


  1. Recovery

What is it?

At this time everyone is calming down, returning to some states of equilibrium. This involves:

  • The student’s body chemistry is returning to normal
  • With the battle over the muscles become progressively more relaxed
  • Ritual behaviours become less frequent
  • It is important to note that the student is not yet at baseline and is vulnerable to re-escalation
  • Child should be in a quiet place with no audience

What to do?

Allow calming down time for the child and for yourself. It is a time when you can show concern and support.  You will be understandably upset but avoid anything that could be seen as being hostile don’t lecture, reprimand or even rescue the child.


  1. Post Crisis

What is it?

The level of exertion required during the crisis phase now exacts its toll.  The student may:

  • Go through a stage of emotional withdrawal, crying, exhaustion, fatigue, depression, muscles relax and they may slump forward
  • Be thirsty, hungry or need to urinate
  • Feel remorse/regret and worry about consequences

What to do?

This is the time to engage with the child using the following techniques:

  • Use open ended questions with a long wait time and LISTEN.  You don’t need to fill the silences
  • Discuss with the child what they could do differently next time.  Let the ideas come from the child … don’t give them the answers
  • Have the child be specific about what they will do next time, telling you how that will look and sound.  This helps them move towards change and growth and avoids “parrot responses”
  • Be sure you don’t reward the student for the outburst.  This is tempting by giving too much TLC, special activity, food afterwards but for some this is seen as positive feedback for the behaviour which is not appropriate!
  • Now is the time to talk about what happened but not why.  Stick with what you saw and heard and focus on how the child calmed down … what was helpful?


The advice given applies to the crisis as it unfolds but the point of Haddon’s Matrix is to plan for the possibility for that same or similar crisis to occur again.  In the first instance you should look after yourself:

  • Write a report stating who, when, where, what happened, injuries, follow-up ASAP.  This can be quite cathartic!  Date and sign it
  • Don’t take it personally.  The child has complex problems … it’s not about you
  • Look after yourself at home too … exercise, relaxation, music etc.
  • Revisit your crisis plan with a support person and make any necessary adjustments.


Then review what happened using a matrix to facilitate a plan for future events.  It is always good to devise your own way of making such accounts.  I would use something like the following:




What Happened

How I Responded

What to do Next Time





















Post Crisis






Posted by: AT 07:41 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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