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.