Kaplan and Wheeler created a helpful graph to detail the five stages involved in an episode of violence, assault or physical aggression. Become aware of the five stages to inform how you act in each phase, what to expect to happen and how you might reduce the frequency of it occurring again. Each section of the cycle requires distinct action from the adults involved and this post aims to equip you in part to deal with whatever may come your way.
Stage One: The Trigger Phase
As a rule, there is always a trigger (For 7 Common Triggers: click here). It can be anything. It can occur over a split second like a particular noise, word or action. It could alternatively be a slow-burning trigger such as over-instruction, lack of attention or an internal issue like lack of sleep. If violence is frequent behaviour in your context, it will serve you well to be open and curious to identify the trigger. Keep a log of incidents where you detail what was happening leading up the outburst. Search for clues, patterns and commonalities in the situations and seek out the trigger. Intervening as early as possible through removing or resolving the trigger can prevent reaching the later phases of the cycle.
Stage Two: The Escalation Phase
If an intervention doesn’t occur after the trigger has taken place, the child’s behaviour may start to escalate. Escalation may be prevalent through physical signs such as clenched fists, slight shaking or shallow breathing. It may present through how the child speaks or acts out. As behaviour is escalating, adults should start to intervene. Interventions depend on resources and context. The SCARF model gives us five areas to consider when de-escalating conflict. Outside of these areas, remember to appear calm, use positive language, allow them personal space, offer to help them and seek to divert and distract their attention.
Stage Three: Crisis Phase
Unfortunately, if the child has reached stage three, they have entered a state of fight-or-flight where they are acting irrationally. The limbic system has taken over from the frontal lobe. Reasoning and logic are of little use at this point. Stage Three is about crisis management. Ask yourself three questions: Can I reduce the audience? What do I want them to do? Is someone in immediate harm?
Avoid actions and statements that will escalate violence further. Do not stare or use excessive instruction, give them two metres of personal space and aim to guide them to a quieter environment away from prying eyes. You may have to remove the other children from the area as opposed to moving the child at crisis point.
Choose your words carefully and keep instruction to a minimum. Deliver short directive statements calmly with only the essential information. For example, calmly stating to put down the scissors.
Secondly, provide directive choices. Calmly ask them to go next door and take a break or have a seat. Non-confrontational tone and calm are a priority. Calm is contagious. If you are being ignored, you can add in a time-limit. Inform them if they do not choose in the next ten seconds, you will escort them next door to (insert suitable teacher/adult) who will let them take a break and calm down.
If there is imminent danger to other children in the room or yourself and all other interventions have been exhausted, physical intervention is needed. The ins and outs of this are beyond the scope of this article. One tip that has stood me well is the concept of fixing. If a child has grabbed or bitten any skin, hair or something which can be damaged, you can support their hand or head gently in place. Your gut reaction can be to pull them apart. Do not. This reaction could hurt someone more than necessary. Fixing the two things together will prevent further damage. The child will most likely release what they are clamping onto when you hold them in place.
Stage Four: Recovery Phase
Although called the recovery phase, there is still potential for further violence in stage four. This potential is why there are spikes on the graph in this section. De-escalation can occur quickly. Calming down, however, takes a prolonged period. If a child has hit a crisis point, it can take ninety minutes to return to baseline behaviour. Reducing the demands of the child is recommended at this point. The curriculum can wait. If there is a calm space for the child to go, this would be wonderful to aid a safe recovery phase where further violence is prevented. The calming process may be most effective by utilising predictability, engaging in special interests, being around people that make them feel safe or calming music, sensory objects and comfortable space.
As they reached a crisis point where the irrational part of their brain took over, I would advocate for no punishment as they did not have full control over their actions. Even though you feel that the child has fully calmed down, remain alert to the chances of further violence – especially with those first ninety minutes.
Stage Five: Post-Crisis Depression
The final stage of the cycle is the post-crisis depression where feelings of guilt and shame kick in. Only 1% of people do not experience these emotions. The opportunity to talk to the child about the incident should only occur once they have navigated their way through this final phase.
As a team supporting a child through these five phases, there should be a debrief after any major incident. This debrief involves listening to the adult or adults who handled the situation and allowing them to talk. Keep this confidential and use it as a means to process the incident.
A supporting belief to hold is that the child did not have full control over their actions. They entered a state of fight-or-flight that leads to irrational words and actions. Remain positive with and forgive the child and offer them a clean slate to work off for the following day. Design and implement a crisis management plan if this is a frequent situation.
Finally, remember to forgive yourself. It is natural to experience your own negative emotions after dealing with a traumatic event. Prioritise your own self-care. You cannot pour from an empty cup and the need to recharge your own batteries is of paramount importance.
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