How to Talk a Student Down From Violence

December 18, 2015
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Like too many students in most urban schools, many kids in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) district deal with poverty, violence, drugs, gangs, hunger, abuse, neglect, and a laundry list of other causes of trauma. Likewise, staff at MPS often face enormous challenges: insults, threats, assaults — plus shrinking budgets, swelling class sizes, and a host of other issues that unfortunately are not uncommon in schools throughout the US.

But one educator, MPS safety assistant Maria Navone, has made it her mission to help her students and coworkers handle the factors that affect behavior, learning, and success. In a CPI podcast, she discussed how she used her Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® skills to bring a 10-year-old boy in a Special Ed classroom from threatening to kill everyone in the room to calmly sitting next to her and telling her what he needs to calm down, learn, and be happy. Here are the steps she took to talk the boy down from crisis.

Understand why the kid is acting out.

Getting to the root of what causes an aggressive behavior is the key to preventing that behavior from escalating or reoccurring.

When Maria got a call from two Special Ed teachers who needed help with a boy who communicated his rage by punching people in the face, she learned that when the boy was seven, he witnessed someone being shot pointblank in the face. He had been sexually molested by his mother’s boyfriends, and had been given two sexually transmitted diseases. The 10-year-old rarely saw his mother, and he took pride in the fact that he had bought his own clothes with money he earned by selling drugs.

Now, when Maria met with him, his pants were too short, his toes were poking out of his shoes, and his sleeves, meant to be full length, reached just below his elbows. He had wrapped himself up in an area rug and was rolling around on the classroom floor, swearing and screaming, “You better get out of my face! I’m gonna kill you! I’m gonna get a gun and I’m gonna kill everybody in here!”

Maria sat down near the boy calmly and patiently. She based her reaction to him on her awareness that trauma affects behavior. Kids act out to mask their pain.

She did nothing to suggest that she was shocked by the boy’s behavior, so slowly he started to poke his head out of his “burrito,” looking at Maria like “Who is this lady who I can’t get a rise out of? Why can’t I push her buttons?”

Meet kids where they are.

Heightened situations like this don’t happen according to a timeframe, so Maria adapts her interventions to the student and to the circumstances. Now, frustrated at not getting a rise out of her, the boy unrolled himself and started trying to leave the classroom so he could go after other kids. Maria simply placed herself in front of the door and said, “Hey buddy, I just need to talk to you. If you can give me some of your time, I’d really appreciate it.” 

Talk to them the way you would want someone to talk to you.

It took time for Maria to convince the boy that she wasn’t going to hurt him or take him anywhere — she just wanted to talk to him.

During that time, she used a calm tone of voice and nonthreatening body language to establish trust with the boy and make him feel more comfortable than threatened.

“I talk to them the way I’d want someone to talk to me when I’m upset,” she says. “Not ‘Hey you — you can’t be here — I’m gonna call the police,’” because that just freaks kids out more. Or it means nothing to them because they deal with the police daily.

“All every kid on the planet Earth wants is just someone to care about them.”

Through her calm attitude and approach, Maria was able to get the boy to stop trying to attack people. Then together with a colleague, she escorted him to a quieter room across the hall.

Let them vent.

The boy was still angry, even foaming at the mouth, and screaming, “I’m gonna kill this person; I’m gonna kill that person. I’m sick of this — I hate you and I hate everybody,” and Maria let him vent. She let him get it all out verbally and exhaust himself until he had no energy left to do anything but really start to calm down. “As soon as you’re done,” she told the boy, “let me know, because I want to talk to you.”

Why did she let the boy keep screaming and swearing and threatening people?

“I’d rather you verbally act out and release all that ugliness,” Maria says, “than me have to put my hands on you.”

Allowing someone to verbally vent is a preventative technique that often really helps — and it did with this boy. While his body was tight and his fists were clenched, he didn’t actually hurt anyone physically, and eventually he got to the point where he was sitting next to Maria at the table and talking his problems out. 

Strengthen your relationship.

Maria calms kids by connecting with them. Common questions she asks are “What do you like to do? What are your hobbies? What are you good at?”

With this boy, Maria had heard from his teachers that he liked to draw. So she said to him, “I heard you’re a really good artist. One of the things I love is artwork from my students. Will you draw something for me?”

The boy said to her, “You like art? What do you want? I can draw anything.” 

Deal with the issues.

Once Maria had the boy’s trust, he started talking about why he was so angry. He said that when he had been selling drugs, everyone wanted to be with him, do things for him, and take him places. Now that he wasn’t selling weed anymore, no one cared about him. He hadn’t heard from his mom, and she’d done nothing for him anyway.

Tell them it’s OK to be angry and it’s OK to cry.

Letting kids know that things are OK is vital, Maria says. “It’s OK and you’re safe and nobody’s going to laugh at you and nobody’s going to make fun of you,” she told the boy, and he cried — a productive, therapeutic, and essential part of releasing tension after the crisis and regaining self-control.

Help them figure out what they want.

Getting kids to recognize and talk about what they want is part of helping them communicate more productively. It also helps them replace problem behaviors with more positive behaviors.

The boy told Maria that what he wanted was to run a lawn-mowing service.

“If I can make my own money,” he said, “I won’t have to do bad things, and then maybe people will care about me again.”

Then Maria asked him what he wanted most in the world. “I want a foster mom and father who will take time and ride bicycles with me,” he said.

Listen to the full interview with Maria: 

Know that most kids don’t WANT to act out.

“Kids act according to habit to adjust to their environment,” Maria says.

Because she gave the boy time, care, and concern, he went from threatening to kill her to telling her, “Actually, Mrs. Navone, I only speak that way when I have to. I know how to talk, and I know how to behave myself.”

“Where he comes from, he has to put on this façade,” Maria says. “He has to be this tough guy. But he knows better.” 

Communication REALLY works.

When working with other educators on how to intervene with acting-out students, Maria emphasizes that the art of communication really works — even with the most difficult student at the most difficult times.

Here’s what she tells other teachers and administrators in the CPI trainings she conducts:

Be mindful of how you say what you say.

“It’s not necessarily what you say, but how you say it. If you’re very upset and angry and just full of piss and vinegar, do you want someone coming at you and barking commands . . . and getting in your face and saying, ‘I’m the adult and you’re the child’? That’s just going to set them off even more.”

Establish rapport.

“If you don’t have interpersonal skills, you can’t be a skilled intervener. You have to be approachable, kind, compassionate — you have to be able to step aside, build a bridge, get over yourself, first and foremost, because [a kid’s] malfunction has absolutely nothing to do with you.”

Don’t take it personally.

“Once [staff] realize that these malfunctioning behaviors that they’re dealing with, for the most part, have nothing to do with them personally, they’re more able to step back and take a breath and say, ‘OK, what can I do to help you?’ But if they’re constantly in that fight-or-flight mode, if they’re constantly not being able to rationally detach from the situation, if they’re constantly taking acting-out behaviors personally, I tell them all the time, ‘You’re gonna burn out quicker than a cheap candle from the dollar store.’” 

Keep your cool.

“Never let them see you sweat, because the moment they see you sweat, they know you’re done — it’s over — put a fork in ya . . . So being able to step aside and breathe and not take this acting-out personally helps you think more clearly about how you want to approach that situation. What your intervention is going to be.”

It’s never easy.

Of course nothing is simple. Every situation is complex, and intervening is easier said than done. There’s no quick fix for the slew of wide-ranging, multifaceted problems in our social systems and our children’s lives. Solving problems is an ongoing process that’s dependent on numerous factors. There’s no way to turn everything around permanently this instant.

But one way to start now is to think about Maria’s point: A child’s behavior is often caused by factors that are beyond your control. And while you can’t often control what happens to kids at home, you can control how you handle the results of what they’re dealing with.

Keep everyone safe.

Maria’s situation with the 10-year-old boy is one that if handled differently, could have resulted in serious injury. The boy could have hurt himself or others. Or, without the right interventions, staff could have inadvertently hurt themselves, the boy, or a different student. But with Maria’s approach, everyone stayed physically safe, and actually came away feeling more emotionally safe than they had before the incident.

So is there hope for kids who live with hunger, violence, trauma, and behavior issues?

There is if we all know how to interact with them like Maria Navone.

Originally published in The Synapse.

Update 6/2/16
Thank you to everyone who has commented on this post and asked about both preventing situations from occurring at all, and handling them in the moment if they do start to escalate. Here are several resources I hope will help you address your challenges and realities—including more insight from Maria.

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