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Monday, September 21 2020

Personal Action in Times of Crisis

In the previous Newsletters we have discussed the characteristics of a behaviour crisis in the school and how to deal with them.  This latest essay focuses on the personal actions that will help the classroom teacher deal with this situation.  As acknowledged, these incidents do take a toll on all concerned, the student, the teacher and their classmates but being prepared helps you stay in the present and not make reactive decisions you may later regret.  This applies after the peak of the crisis has passed and the child, at least is capable of appreciating the situation.


In the first instance, you need to present your case in an assertive but not aggressive manner.  The following will help:

    • Continue to act as if their behaviour has no effect on you
    • Maintain a steady, positive gaze, present a confident posture
    • Speak clearly
    • Maintain appropriate eye contact
    • Stand up straight.
    • Remain silent after you have delivered the message


Let them know exactly what was going on, be specific about the behaviour and be careful not to personalise your ‘criticism’.  It is always the behaviour we disapprove of never the child so be careful not to let any personal anger influence this process.


This is the time when you can rely on the structured, predictable environment we have always emphasised.  When you have this in place being able to deliver the known consequence for the behaviour, allows the process to become impersonal and the student learns that they can have some control over what happens to them.  This won’t happen quickly but the more you create the structure and the more you consistently apply the consequences, it will empower the student and because you are predictable the student will maintain a healthy relationship with you – they begin to trust you.  Never apologise for not getting emotionally involved.  This doesn’t mean you become like a robot but your body language should convey your continued respect for the child – they are separate from their behaviour. 


When you have delivered your message remain silent to allow them to digest it and make-a-decision about how they will react.  Be careful about this, some children are very good at using silences as a weapon forcing the teacher to make decisions for them.  This is a particular tactic for kids who have been so disempowered they don’t know they are allowed to decide.  This is when you can explain to them it is their decision or if you think they are just avoiding their responsibility tell them you are going on with your ‘work’ and will get back to them when they are ready.  When they are ready give them your undivided attention, in fact, always give them your undivided attention.  You could say something like “I know you’re really angry now; you need time to settle down” but if you do go on with another activity do so without antagonising them.   This is the ‘art’ of behaviour management.


When they are ready to engage with you in an appropriate manner and if they are capable, get them to explain the purpose of their behaviour.  This is mostly beyond the capacity of very young kids and in this instance, you can teach them about the purpose of behaviour (all behaviour has a purpose).  But, if you can, listen to them carefully, accepting genuine attempts at honesty.  Some practitioner’s advice is to empathise with the student.  I understand the motivation but find the concept of empathy concerning – it is impossible to really understand what it’s like ‘to walk in these abused/neglected kid’s shoes’, you can’t and if you have a similar history this would be even more dangerous.  I prefer having compassion rather than empathy, it is more honest.  However, it is an extremely complex subject to articulate but it is a message that comes through with your non- verbal skills.  These kids are extremely vigilant and will see through any false efforts to engage with them.


However, we all know that it is more likely to be a time when they will want to deflect the responsibility on to someone else.  The next Newsletter will go into more detail how this follow-up process could go wrong.


The use of this information is a great example of our model for effective classroom management, that is the need for structure, expectations and relationships.  These are implicit in all our work and have been discussed more specifically in newsletters:

  • Creating Structure 12th August 2019
  • Special Relationship 10th September 2020
  • Expectations 17th February 2020


Finally remember you never, or rarely deal with a crisis in isolation almost always there are spectators, your other students or colleagues who are watching what you do.  This is when the maxim ‘what you do is so loud no one can hear what you are saying’ applies.  How you deal with the presenting situation will have such an impact on, not only the relationship you have with the offending student it will with all the other students.  When they see you following the structure, staying in control of your own emotions you maintain your integrity and become a positive model for other.  Your reputation is the currency that embeds you within the school and students will come to your class with a positive expectation about how they will be treated and through this you have won half the battle.

Posted by: AT 10:16 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Thursday, September 17 2020

Draft New Student Behaviour Strategy

Submission – Feedback on:

  • A new Student Behaviour Strategy

Lifting educational outcomes through early intervention and targeted support.

The following is a submission regarding the proposed new strategy to deal with student behaviour in public schools.


This current proposal is one of successive attempts to deal with severely disruptive student behaviour in schools.  Historically all have failed and, despite the best intentions nothing in this new proposal indicates that this undertaking will be any different.  The impediment to success has always been the failure to deal with children at the severe end of the behaviour spectrum.  Within all previous and projected behaviour strategies there is an implied but mistaken belief that these children have the ability to self-regulate their behaviour.  Until it is accepted that these children are as physically and psychologically disabled as those born with or acquired an impairment from an injury, they will not receive the attention they deserve.


 These children suffer from a range of mental health and social issues that are beyond the capacity of a teacher to manage.  A significant number have diagnosed illness including autism but the vast majority of those who ‘act out’ in class will attract the finding of conduct disorder or oppositional defiance; which is the consequence of early childhood abuse and/or neglect.  The impact of these physical insults on the structural development of their brain is well documented with significant reductions in neurologic size in crucial areas.  These include the cerebellum, amygdala, hippocampus and frontal lobes.  This interferes with their ability to modulate their moods and make calm decisions. 


The following features should be considered:

  • It is estimated that between 1% and 11% of the population will suffer PTSD resulting from childhood trauma and in some areas, the proportion can be up to 26%. 
  • Students suffering other mental illnesses have behaviours that contribute significantly to this problem.
  • The distribution of the students who present the associated behaviours is irregular but closely related to socioeconomic conditions in the community.
  • Interventions based on cognitive approaches are marginally successful.  A more appropriate approach is the provision of highly structured environments with an elevated level of personal support (healthy relationships).
  •  Consequences do not need to be severe but they do need to be consistent and persistent to allow the students to regain a sense of personal control.
  • Successful interventions to assist students who exhibit these severe behaviours are never short term. Change is difficult and time consuming but it can be achieved.

The community, represented by the department should understand that these behaviours are a result of abuse and/or neglect that has been inflicted on them when they were defenceless.  There is a moral and ethical imperative to really address this problem.


At the heart of this policy is the desire to provide equity for all students in the schools.  It has been identified by leading educator Professor John Hattie that the absence of students with severe behaviours and the climate of the classroom are the second and third leading cause of improved learning outcomes; the first the student’s ability to self-evaluate.  This means that the presence of these students put all other students at a disadvantage and this must also be considered a failure to provide equity.  That is, students in a class where one or more of these students attend are at a disadvantage to those who are in classes without such students.  


Research conducted on the impact distractions can have on intellectual performance ranges from 13 – 14 IQ points based on the Raven’s Scale.  This research considered economic scarcity nonetheless the distraction caused by the presence of threatening classmates would in all probability increase this loss.  The impact of such an intellectual performance deficit would take a student with a superior IQ to perform at an average level and those with an average level to achieve at a borderline deficit level.  This finding explains Hattie’s conclusions.

The statement “Under the new policy framework, teachers and school staff will be required to consider the impact of a student’s disability and uphold the student’s right to access and participate in education on the same basis as other students” covers the equity considerations of the disabled child.  However, and this is an area the department could find themselves vulnerable to litigation, any child who is in a classroom where there is a child with severe behaviours is, based on Hattie’s work and common understanding not able to get the same educational opportunity as students who are in classrooms without behaviour problems.  Equity is for every student.

This does not mean the focus is off these disruptive students, as stated above they have a real disability and should be provided with the same support as is provided for all disabilities.  A student who has a profound physical disability is provided with all the support they need.  This allocation of support should be commensurate for students with severe behaviours.

The emphasis on the use of suspension as a method to manage severe behaviour is also predictable and destined to only exacerbate the problem for schools unless there are some real changes to the training and resources available to implement an alternate negative consequence for severe behaviours.


 Schools do not suspend as a first and only resort.  In a previous submission made, on behalf of the Secondary Principals Association it was concluded that it takes on average 3.2 hours to complete the suspension cycle.  It was also determined that actual suspensions only made 14% of all behaviour management work carried out by a senior executive in a secondary school.  Based on suspension details from one district, the then Western District would require 124.7 hours per week just to deal with student welfare issues.  This equates to more than three executives doing a 40-hour week just addressing this problem.  With the acknowledged substantial increase in the workload in recent years it is clear no school can provide adequate support for behaviour issues and suspension is the only alternative.   


Any attempt to reduce the availability of what is effectively the only consequence schools can deliver for physical and psychologically dangerous behaviours will be met with resentment by schools and teaching staff who are already working in an environment consistently described as fulfilling unmanageable demands.


There is no doubt that this process is undertaken will ethical and compassionate intentions and it is in the last two targets real change to the management of student behaviour could be achieved.


2. ‘Building capacity across the workforce through embedded and continuing professional


There needs to be a thorough review of training for behaviour management of teachers.  The current reliance on ‘professional programs’ such as those based on the positive behaviour movement who, by their own admission does not deal with these severe behaviours is destined to fail.  Also, the emergence of ‘trauma-informed’ approaches that are appearing in the literature are also inadequate.  This is a welcome development however; any examination of these programs reveals not much that can be applied by the classroom teacher but is more relevant to improving therapeutic interventions by mental health professionals.  Any ‘intervention’ must be one that a teacher can employ and if unable the disabled child should be given specialist support that allows them to function and their class mates continue their learning un-interrupted.

Schools including their teachers need training in how to manipulate the learning environment to minimise conditions that trigger out of control behaviour by these vulnerable students.  This requires an understanding of providing structure and expectations in a setting built on professional, supportive student-teacher- school relationships.  This is appropriate work for teachers; any intervention above this level moves into the domain of health professionals and teaching staff have no business in this area.

 3. ‘Commissioning behaviour services to deliver improved outcomes’

From the statements made for proposed future directions it would seem that there is a push to outsource solutions to the problem of severe behaviour management.  There are two issues about this approach:

  1. There is a history of investigations into this problem both in NSW, throughout the country and across the world.  Another expert enquiry would do little more than delay the inevitability of having to do something about this problem. 
  2. The idea schools can use the services of other government agencies has been advocated since the early 1990’s when terms like ‘seamless integration’ were used.  This approach has never worked not the least because all public services do not have the flexibility to facilitate such an integration. 


The use of ‘private providers’ is fraught with danger; invariably marketed behaviour management programs have a ‘one size fits all’ approach and to expect the same service to be successful across the vast diversity that is NSW schools is senseless.  based on the lack of success in other privatised organisations this approach is not an option if real change is to be made. 


The school, and by extension the department owns the problem and is obliged to provide the solution.  The real remedy is to prioritise the problem at the school level by providing the training, resources and support that is demanded by their disability.  These could/should include:

      • Advanced training in classroom management and the design of appropriate learning environments
      • Specialist staff to provide ‘in school time out’ on a case-by case basis
      • Access to mental health providers
      • Acknowledgement of the special skill set within the quality teacher’s standards
      • Special settings for students whose behaviour is extreme and where staff receive advanced training and professional mental health support to deal with these students

There is no doubt that the problems created by students with severe behaviours is amongst the greatest impediments to learning outcomes and there is no disputing that public schools have a disproportionate number of these students and they are not equally distributed across socio-economic regions.  Therefore, it is accepted that public schools have to deal with the problem caused by these students and that is the loss of learning both their own and their classmates not to mention the psychological and sometimes physical abuse of other students and staff members. 

Dealing with this problem is not only a health and safety issue it is a profound ethical issue that the members of this enquiry must face.  It should not a problem that is ‘glossed over’ again.

John R Frew


Frew Consultants Group




Posted by: AT 12:29 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, September 14 2020

The Crisis Response

In the last Newsletter we discussed the ‘exploding kid’ and how to deal with the outbreak.  In this Newsletter we examine the evolution of a crisis and steps to take to deal with each step.  The illustration below attempts to map the progression however, the time line can vary quite a bit.  In some instances, a few children will take a while to get to the crisis level yet other kids, or other situations may see the escalation from calmness to a situation of being ‘out of control’ almost be instantaneous.


As can be seen, the entry into the crisis is fairly linear as is the road to recovery however, the crisis is not always even but can be a series of ups and downs.  Each is unique but each represents a student ‘out of control’.  The teacher has to deal with all the conditions of this cycle.


It is important, especially when working in a highly volatile classroom to have a ‘management plan’ in place before an event takes place.  This essay will help you formulate that plan.


Even though it is not always obvious to the teacher there will be something that ‘triggers’ the cycle and increases the stress levels in the child.  As we know this moves the child’s cognitive process into a defensive mode and they revert to what they are comfortable with.  The process of concrete thinking relates to previous experiences that the current situation reminds them of, for example,  it may be that the protagonist reminds them of someone who has abused them in some way.


The student may become emotional, they can be restless or argumentative. Their body language indicates heightened levels of stress, tense muscles, tight fists etc.


By knowing possible triggers for a student may enable you to remove them or reduce their occurrence


It is possible to stop the escalation into crisis mode, this can be done by: 

  • Early reassurance or distraction to prevent escalation
  • Acknowledge the child’s 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 e.g. school work, carrying things for you

Don’t personally react in the early stages to minor challenges:

  • 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

If this fails you move into the crisis phase where the child is ‘out of control’.  As can be seen in the illustration this is not necessarily a straight path to a climax, although it may be but can oscillate within the bounds of lack of control.  The child may:

  • Spit, push, kick, choke, head-butt, bite, pull hair, pinch, punch etc.
  • Flee from room or grounds
  • Use objects as weapons to smash, break or throw
  •  Harm self, and/or others


Although it is a time where the teacher has little control over the child’s behaviour they have to ensure their own behaviour does not exacerbate the situation.  They should intervene:

  • Using 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
  • Realize there are times they 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.

Eventually the crisis will pass.


The last stage is recovery when the child, and teacher move back to homeostatic equilibrium when:

  • 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


Allow calming down time for the child and for yourself and show concern and support.  Understand that the child will be experiencing:  

  • A level of exertion required during the crisis phase now exacts its toll
  • 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 need to urinate
  • Child may feel remorse/regret and worry about consequences


Although tempting, do not show any hostility towards the child, don’t lecture or reprimand.  It is just as important not to ‘forgive’ the behaviour but maintain what should be a constant in any teacher/student relationship you retain your respect for that child.  After all, they are doing the best they can.


There is a time to debrief the incident with the child, only when they have recovered and there has been a significant time gap so they can examine the whole cycle focussing on empowering the child to de-escalate before they get out of control.  You can do this by:

  • 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 by giving too much attention like providing a special activity or rewards, that would only reinforce the behaviour.
  • 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?
  • Help them make-a-plan!


Finally look after yourself.  This can be done by:

  • Writing a report stating who, when, where, what happened, injuries, follow-up.  This can be quite cathartic!  Date and sign it.
  • Revisiting your crisis plan with a support person and make any necessary adjustments.
  • No taking the event personally.  These children have complex problems and you are not a therapist.
  • Look after yourself at home as well, you can exercise, do relaxation exercises, listen to music or whatever you find enjoyable.
Posted by: AT 11:24 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, September 07 2020

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:

  1. Protect themselves – if something happens to them and they are unable to continue to function they are of no use.
  2. 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.
  3. Protect the child as much as you can from being harmed, either physically or psychologically.
  4. 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.

Posted by: AT 12:07 am   |  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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