How to Safely Manage a Student in Crisis
A trauma-sensitive, proactive plan for safely managing disruptive behavior includes knowing when to call for support and how to help a student de-escalate.
“I’m not a therapist—what can I do?”
“He was online once, once, in a year and half—where was he the rest of the time? I have no idea. Now we’re back, and he’s supposed to just pick back up—are you kidding me?”
“We get no training, no support; how are we supposed to handle a kid flipping a desk?”
“It’s too much—I’m crying all the time, and I’m terrified.”
That’s real talk, from real teachers, with real life coming at them fast. There’s not a single one of us who hasn’t been there. With school and personal life in turmoil over the past two years, teachers have found they’re increasingly responsible for a tremendous amount of student needs outside of the traditional job description, while managing their own wellness and compassion fatigue.
Many feel frustrated, confused, angry, and downright scared of the idea of being the de facto front-line mental health provider, alongside the formidable task of reaching 25–30 students, all with different needs, many of whom now bear the visible, and not-so-visible, scars of the pandemic.
Managing Your Response
A child’s behavior in crisis can take many forms: They will fight, take flight, or freeze; it’s called the amygdala hijack, a medium-sized term for big feelings and reactions. No amount of immediate rationalizing will flip an off-switch, and managing your own response is a process of learning and patience. While all of the situations you experience with a student may not be a true crisis, for that student, in that moment, it will feel like the most important thing in the world.
Every student presents differently when they’re triggered, so your moves will be different each time, but what you say and do needs to be responsive, not reactive; arguing with students or attempting to leverage your role only escalates situations and ultimately compromises relationships between teacher and student.
In that room, at that moment, you have the student in need, as well as your other students and yourself to keep safe, so that’s the first priority.
How to R.E.S.P.O.N.D.
I use the acronym RESPOND to remember the first letter of each of the following seven points.
1. Read the room for safety. Can you take the first steps to de-escalate and support the student, or do you need to have another support member (school counselor, school psychologist, behavior interventionist, grade-level administrator) called to be with the student while they’re given an alternate location or you move the class out to another location?
2. Engage the student and validate the emotion as you observe it. Frame a response equal to the visible needs. For example:
- “I can see you want some space right now,” or
- “I can see you’re mad about _________,” or
- “I can tell you are really angry right now and that is OK; you are showing me you are upset, and it’s OK to feel that way, but it is not OK to throw a pencil at someone,” or
- “You’re angry, I get it—you can make the choice to be angry, but not the choice to be unsafe. I can give you some space while I get you someone to talk to because we want to find a way to help you.”
3. Support the student, and restate what you hear them say when they do verbalize a need (e.g., “Thanks for telling me that; I heard you say you want your laptop, and you will throw a chair if you don’t get it”). Be an active listener, and don’t forget that they get talked at all day, and sometimes active silence is the best tool for a high-stakes moment.
4. Provide an opportunity for them to use a flash pass (flashing this pass to the teacher can allow the student to silently leave class and go to their alternate safe space), take a break in a calming corner, go for a walk, do an alternate activity (listening to music, coloring/drawing, reading a book, using a sensory item to channel their big feelings, in an alternate location with staff eyes on them).
5. Open the door, and keep it open. A counselor or administrator may come in to support or take the lead in the intervention and de-escalation work, but you should always play an active part in the solution and processing of the event. When the student has de-escalated from whatever they were going through, make sure you are there to help take that step with them. The child must always know you play a role, not only in their academic success but also in their healing.
6. Name the behavior, as well as the expectations around it, within the framework of honoring where they are and what is or is not able to happen in the space. For example:
- “Yes, you want to hit me right now, and that is why I am over here, away from you. I am giving you space, and I am going to set a timer for 5 minutes. You can feel angry, you can be mad at me for moving your seat, but we cannot threaten people. That won’t get your seat changed.”
- “I will set the timer, give you space, and then, if you are ready and can talk with me, you can tell me why you think you need a different seat. Does that sound OK with you? I want you to know you have a choice here, but we also both have to be safe. Can you tell me you understand, thumb-up-thumb-down, or shake your head yes if this makes sense?”
7. De-escalate as you are able, based on the student’s needs and the circumstances presented before you. Unless you, as the teacher, feel that the level of emotional need is something you can manage without significant triage or disruption, this is where you call in your backup—a para-educator for support while you step out with the child to spend time outside the room in order to ultimately push back in (the return alongside the student to the learning environment to reconnect with their teacher and class in order to start over)—or request support from your school counselor, school psychologist, administrator, or mentor if the student has one.
Build a Trauma-Sensitive Space
Your classroom or office can become a trauma-sensitive space for any student, at any age, in need. Consider the following ideas with student, and even parent, voice in the design:
- Create an organized, welcoming physical space separate from the rest of the environment (calming corner, safe space, Zen-den); the classroom itself can incorporate messaging around behavioral expectations and managing feelings, as well as and social and emotional tools for coping and emotional regulation.
- Think about natural, dimmable, lighting in that space that reinforces mindful breathing and a sense of calm (shades of greens and blues), as well as different types of seating (beanbag chairs, rocker chairs, wobble stools, soft carpet squares, etc).
- Informally monitor and document the use of this space in order to inform adjustments and upgrades to the practice.
Practice Makes Permanent
Whatever the decisions you make, recognize your limitations, ask for help from staff involved in this work, and accept that it takes sustainable, consistent efforts in this type of responsiveness, over a long amount of time, to create patterns that will change, and save lives.
You came to this work to serve; you were called to impact lives for the better, and while the social and emotional needs of our students have escalated to an unprecedented scale, we understand that we are the face at the door, at the desk, in the room, their connection and safe space. We won’t always get it right, and we won’t always have all the answers, but our love, our support, our time, are an answer, and so we begin each day available to our students, ready to serve, ready to respond.