Dealing With A Crisis
Throughout these essays the focus has been on providing an environment that allows the students to focus on their schoolwork in a calm and secure manner. However, I am certain that any teacher who works in difficult communities will be confronted by the uncontrollable child who at times will behave in a way that is temporarily ‘out of control’. These are periods where the focus is on managing the immediate crisis. Without preparation when such an explosion happens what you do will depend on what you have planned to do before-hand. At the time of the crisis everyone, including your own’s stress levels will be so elevated it is difficult to make considered actions.
The following provides a scaffold to create a framework that will support your actions while experiencing such a crisis.
Of course, being forewarned is a benefit and the first thing to do is to identify any potential student who is likely to explode uncontrollably. Apart from preschool, and in some cases kindergarten all kids come to a new school year with a record. Teachers are entitled to be warned about those very difficult kids and if possible, have some prior knowledge about any potential problems with their behaviour. However, if you are not forewarned you will soon observe an explosion and after two or three such events you should start to collate that information for yourself. What you need to record is:
- Previous episodes of persistent outbursts of severe behaviours. When these occur ask yourself:
- Where these flare-ups are likely to happen: in the classroom, in a particular subject, moving between periods; knowing this will allow you to address that environment.
- When do they happen: after a change of routine, when left alone, when they are with another particular student, in a crowd or when isolated.
- Other factors:
- The frequency these outbursts occur
- The antecedent conditions of the environment, are they agitated when they arrive at school, maybe they have had a ‘custodial’ visit from a separated parent
- Warning behaviours, do you see them becoming agitated
From this data you can build a picture of the conditions that you need to design and alter the classroom setting in a way that makes the uncontrollable, manageable.
Despite your best efforts there will be times when you are confronted with such an outburst and these events follow a particular pattern as shown below.
The information you acquire from following the steps above help you identify just what is the trigger for this outburst. The warning signs may be the emotional state of the student, they may be extra argumentative or just a bit more restless than usual. You can often see this heightened level of stress in their body language their muscles are tight, fists clenched, etc. Knowing possible triggers for a student may enable you to remove them or reduce their occurrence.
You will observe the early phase of escalation in their body language, their eyes narrow, mouth tightens and jaw thrust forward. You may observe a change in their breathing patterns.
Their behaviour becomes more overtly threatening:
- They become more defiant, disobedient, making insulting comments.
- Their voice becomes louder, challenging, threatening, swearing, arguing
- Body language becomes even more threatening – fists clenched, tapping feet or fingers, chest and shoulders puffing up, hands on hips
This is a time to start to intervene, to try to stop this crisis by following the steps below:
- 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 or send them for a message, just get them out of the immediate environment.
At this stage the child is incapable of rational thinking. You will observe the following behaviours:
- 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 their self-and/or others
The best action you can take at this time is to control your own behaviour. Deal with them in a way that shows that you are not going to get involved in the crisis. Address the child as follows:
- Use a firm, low voice, refer to them by name and give a short clear instruction and repeat it several times if needed. 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.
After the crisis everyone needs to return to a calm state, to a condition known as homeostatic equilibrium where:
- The student’s body chemistry is returning to normal
- The muscles become progressively more relaxed
- Ritual inappropriate behaviours become less frequent
It is important to note that the student is not yet at baseline and is vulnerable to re-escalation. The child should be moved to a quiet place where there is no audience, allowing them to calm down. This gives you and the rest of the class that same opportunity.
At this time, you should show concern for the student and support them. It is tempting to unload on them to get rid of your heightened stress but refrain from lecturing, becoming hostile etc. and just as important is to resist the temptation to rescue them.
Throughout all our communications one of the consistent principles for dealing with difficult kids is that we have a 100% rejection of the inappropriate behaviour and a 100% acceptance of the child! This is the time to demonstrate that principle.
When the child has recovered enough you have to deal with them. Remember that their outburst has taken its toll on their physical condition. They may go through a stage of emotional withdrawal, crying, exhaustion, fatigue, depression, muscles relax and they may slump forward. They may be thirsty, hungry, or even need to urinate, their body has been under extreme levels of stress.
Psychologically they may feel regret or remorse over what they have done but for kids with severe dysfunctional behaviour which would attract the diagnosis of conduct disorder they are more likely to be concerned about the consequences you must impose.
You will need to discuss the event with the child. When doing so:
- 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 e.g. By giving too much TLC, special activity, food afterwards
- 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?
This is that important time when you look after yourself. The following steps will help you do this:
- Write a report stating who, when, where, what happened, injuries, follow-up ASAP. This can be quite cathartic! When finished date and sign it and file it, this is the data for future planning!
- Don’t take it personally; remember these children have complex problems resulting from what has been done to them and these are not your fault. The cause of the outburst and how they behave during that crisis has nothing to do with you but how you deal with the event is the skill you can learn.
- Revisit your crisis plan with a support person and make any necessary adjustments.
- Teaching in difficult schools results in being exposed to such outbursts much more frequently. This will take its toll unless you deal with the pent-up stress that will naturally build-up in your body. Talking it over with someone who understands the environment in which you work allows you to relieve this stress. A supportive colleague is ideal.
- You may talk it over with your ‘at home’ partner but this is not as effective. Home should be your haven a place to relax and see that your personal needs are met. Exercise is always important but it may be particularly beneficial after a day when you have dealt with such a crisis.
Working with damaged students is the most challenging work teachers face and the least acknowledged by educational authorities. However, the value of this work cannot be underestimated. These kids will never learn when they are in a state of conflict and that is a loss is not confined to that child. The other students who are victims or spectators to such outbursts will also be incapable of learning in any effective way and of course the teacher will be distracted from their planned lesson. This is a time when you must acknowledge the value of the great work you do.