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Anger Management parenting

How a SCARF can de-escalate conflict

Are you supporting a child that becomes physically aggressive or violent? Here are five areas to consider to reduce the frequency of these distressing incidents.

Dr. David Rock created a catchy acronym to bear in mind when faced with potentially aggressive and violent scenarios. It is intended for use as early as possible when faced with a situation that could potentially become violent. These situations always emerge from a trigger and escalate to a crisis point where violence and aggressive behaviour may occur. Using Dr. Rock’s SCARF model will give you five practical areas to guide your actions to de-escalate the situation and protect yourself and those around you from harm.

The SCARF Model

The SCARF acronym stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. These five areas require little to no expertise to understand which makes it a practical model to adopt across a whole team dealing with a child prone to violence.

Status

Protecting and promoting a child’s status will reduce the chances of escalated behaviour. When faced with conflict, neither party wants to lose face. If there is an audience, this is doubly true. As the first port of call, try and isolate the situation so there is less chance of the child feeling their status is being diminished. Find a quiet place to calm and de-escalate away from prying eyes. Never put them down in public or in private. As an adult, be aware of your feelings about status. Be conscious of trying to assert your authority in front of others to prove you have control of the situation or prove your status. Status in conflict works both ways and it can pay dividends to adopt a perceived “one-down” position to achieve your primary goal: de-escalation. Don’t be afraid to back down and reduce your demands.

Certainty

When a child’s behaviour is escalating towards violence, their fight or flight system starts to take over and they are on the lookout for threats. Establishing as much certainty in the situation as possible to aid the de-escalation process. Be clear and consistent in the approach you take. Slow down your movements. If this is a regular situation, consider a pre-agreed script amongst all key staff so the child is familiar with what is happening. Create a de-escalation script so adults have a process to calmly follow instead of making up each step as they go along. A script can be as simple as using their name, acknowledging their feelings and offering some pre-agreed positive options as to what they can do next. A script also avoids all the different adults taking different approaches and erratic changes of tactics that increase uncertainty.

Autonomy

A simple way to explain this is imposition leads to opposition. Over-instructing a child who is already upset will aggravate them further. Reduce the amount of direction and language being used and offer them some ownership over what they do next. Provide a small number of options that they can choose from. You may invite them to decide whether they would like to go out for an accompanied walk, take a break in the calm corner at the back of the class or select a different activity to engage with. The activities will depend on the age and context.

Relatedness

Displaying compassion and empathy for a child is a basic way to escalate. If they are becoming distressed, getting down to their level and conveying that you are there to help will aid de-escalation. Children feel safer around people they relate to and establishing rapport and positive relationships with them will pay dividends during conflict when they truly believe you want what’s best for them. 

Fairness

We are aware of the infuriating effects of perceived injustice. When you feel that someone has prejudged you, it can trigger extreme negative feelings. This is how riots start. Acknowledge the word feel. As de-escalation is the goal, the child must believe you are being just. Think of the child who always accuses you in a rage that you always pick on them. Even if it isn’t true, the belief still escalates their behaviour to a tantrum. Make an effort to display your fairness. Ask them their point of view. Repeat it back to them to establish you understand and are listening to them. Avoid making unfounded accusations or sweeping statements. Be fair.

Are you supporting a child prone to violence or physical aggression? Are you aware of how your actions measure up in these five areas? Take time to reflect on how you intervene in the triggering and escalation phase of the situation and ask yourself how you could change your approach to reduce the likelihood of hitting that crisis point. Preventing violence is superior to trying to stop it. The SCARF model provides a great framework to support you doing this.

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By Barry Whelan

A teacher with a huge interest in improving behaviour, communication and inclusion.

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