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A troubled 17-year-old student was brought to the school counselor’s office one day. The student had a history of violence and was on the verge of exploding and threatening everyone around him, including the counselor. As they spoke, the student reached in his pocket and took out a small nail file that he was carrying. Although, at first glance, the file appeared rather benign, the potential for harm was all too real as the student waved it in the air, clutching it tightly and then slamming his fist into a desk. He was visibly upset, and it was obvious that he could transform the file into a weapon that he could use on someone or something if necessary. As the first author did his self-scanning, he realized that the student was truly dangerous at this moment, on the verge of losing control, and capable of using the file as a weapon on him should he be provoked. Being in touch with his own deeper reaction to the situation, the first author quickly reviewed and decided on his goals. It was important that his aims be accurately decided before he did or said anything. Not concerning himself at this moment with the weapon, he decided to help the student feel less trapped and enraged by trying to change the environment. He suggested they take a walk away from the building, the other students, and staff. This provided safety for others, removed the student from things that he might potentially destroy in his anger, and placed the counselor in a situation whereby he was not trapped in a closed space with the angry student. It also brought the student outside the building and moving, which had the potential, if handled correctly, to symbolically move him away from his anger. The first author continued to scan and watch the student’s reactions as they walked and as the student began to relax with the file. They spoke softly together as they walked. Finally, with a huge sigh of relief, the student repocketed the nail file. The goal to remove him from the environment and quietly talk about his fury was important in handling the situation. If, on the other hand, the immediate goal had been to focus on the potential weapon and disarm the student, the situation would have quickly escalated with the probability of someone being hurt.
Trust as a Key
One of the most important first steps that was illustrated in the example described above is to initiate an intervention intended to break through the student’s strong feelings of anger and create an alliance. This alliance is most effective when created through a personal bond, an avenue that links you, the school counselor, teacher, or administrator, with the student on a more meaningful level. This is contrary to some contemporary thought, whereby the first line of response to violence or aggression in a school is to use force. Force has taken the shape of police in the schools, guards on site, or actual hired groups or gangs to provide a show of force within the school. We suggest that the use of force might generate greater distancing and difficulties with the school between students and staff. Instead, we advocate that professionals must learn how to forge a purposeful connection with the violent student. This requires breaking through the emotional clutter that is predominant for the violent student at that time. To penetrate the emotional turmoil of the violent student, skills are required. One cannot simply say, “Why don’t you stop all this anger. Just calm down and let’s talk.” This will not work with the truly angry student. Rather, one must find a window through the student’s emotional chaos. Reaching him or her means that we are addressing the deeper problem, rather than just doing patchwork and postponing the violence for another day. Even when we realize that we must aim for an alliance rather than a forceful imposition of power that may trigger greater danger and harm, questions remain. “How do I reach a violent student to establish trust?” “How am I able to break through all that behavior, defensiveness, anger, and sadness to find the person underneath and establish an alliance?” “What do I do?” These are important queries. To be able to establish trust, we need to be able to answer these questions. Although we have made some suggestions for how to go about this, complete answers can only come on the job.
When on the job, we must rely on our own instincts and observations of colleagues to understand how to do this. We have learned in school about rapport and communication with students and colleagues. Confrontation with a violent student is not anywhere in the textbooks and usually is not in the repertoire of our teachers and trainers. Yet we must acquire this skill quickly because we are regularly faced with students who are potentially aggressive if not overtly violent. Therefore, what must we do differently to reach the intense feelings of violent students to establish trust? We suggest three basic guiding principles:
1. Watch thyself. When a student is angry and volatile, we react. Our palms get sweaty, our jaws may tighten, we feel a knot in our stomachs, and our tone of voice may change. It is far more difficult to establish a sense of trust with the out-of-control student when we are taut and emotionally and physically constricted. When faced with a violent student, one of your first reactions should be to watch yourself. If you learn to control your physiological and emotional reactions, you stand a far better chance of coming across to the student and creating more trust. This is a skill that takes time and must be practiced.
2. Grounded speaking. Once you have taken stock of your body and your feelings, use your voice and words as an outward gesture toward the angry student. Everything that you say at this point must be grounded. You do not want to raise your voice and try to verbally overpower the student, who is most likely already feeling powerless. To accomplish your goal of creating an alliance with the student, who is isolated at this moment, you want a steady and direct tone, choosing words that will break through the emotional turmoil to establish a bond. This way of communicating is very important in fostering trust, and we call it “grounded speaking.” The first author recalls seeing a seasoned school staff member who was sitting in a chair being confronted with a violent student waving a knife in his face. The principal spoke with the aggressive student in a slow, direct manner. He was fully grounded as he spoke. Again, if he had lost that grounding, it is highly likely that he and other staff and students would have been severely hurt.
3. Move slowly. The third guiding principle is about movement. We are now watching ourselves and using grounded speaking, and the final element that will assist in bonding is movement. We must change our pace of movement so that the student will slow down enough to think about aligning with us. The student is on a fast pace, in emotional turmoil, and needs the environment around him or her to slow down. We become the focal point in the surrounding environment as we are able to penetrate the strong feelings of the student, and therefore, we must not only speak distinctly but also move slowly. The principal who was faced with the student with the knife sat in his chair without movement. He remained outwardly calm, checking his intense fear and bodily reactions so that he remained in an unwavering posture. To remain sitting also placed the principal in a lower position physically, which could be perceived by the student as less threatening. Should he have moved, there is no doubt that he and others may have been stabbed and seriously injured.
- Bemak PhD and Susan Keys PhD; Violent and Aggressive Youth: Intervention and Prevention Strategies for Changing Times; Corwin Press: California; 2000
Reflection Exercise #10
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